The following is the text of a speech I gave at our school/parish this past December for a group of women gathered to celebrate the beginning of Advent.
This summer I went to Tanzania. I wrote a grant last year to an organization, called the Fund for Teachers...and i promised that i would come home and tell the story...
Thinking about what I wanted to say to you all...this varied and beautiful community of women. I thought...we are always telling stories...on the phone to our daughters and our moms and our girl friends...on our face book pages. We keep the family stories alive, funny ones, sad ones...tales of courage. We scrapbook. We join book clubs and read other people’s stories and we talk with each other about how they touch us. and, if you’re like me, you tell mrs ciarnello, [our school secretary/administrative asst.] a lot of your stories. Many of us look to the lessons of the gospel stories...all the time trying to make sense of our lives, be true to our people and our values, and do a good job at this life we’ve been given.
I know there are so many great stories sitting here in this room, cause i hear quite a lot of stories in the art room myself...but tonight, it’s my turn to tell my story, and i’m grateful to be able to that.
I really never wanted to go to Africa and even now, i kind of can’t believe I went there. when i got the grant I told my husband...good news, bad news, good: I got the grant! bad news...i have to go to Tanzania. I was scared, but there was no turning back. It was like this adventure had chosen me, and now i sometimes wonder is that what it means to be called?
... a little back story
I grew up in the ridge in the 50’s and 60’s and went to 8 years at nativity school. My mom was a worker bee like a lot of you. She helped start the mercy league with Louise Herring, [our principal’s mom], ran the PTA and volunteered at the soup kitchen. She modeled service and made it clear that those stories you heard on Sunday should have a direct connection to the way you lived your life.
I went to college at UD in the early 70’s. It was the rebirth of feminism. My girlfriends and I read excerpts from sisterhood is powerful to each other during dinner, started the women’s center on campus and brought Shirley Chisholm , the first black woman to run for president, to town to speak.
My senior year, i met an orgaization called the Grail through a college professor, Janet Kalven. The Grail is an international women’s organization with its roots in the Catholic faith. Through the years, it’s mission has evolved to be more centered around religious search and social justice ...grounded in the collective wisdom and power of women. As a 22 year old I met women from South Africa who were working with Stephen Biko, women who were organizing farm workers with Cesar Chavez and others who were following the teaching of Dorothy Day and working with the poor in the Bronx. I was amazed and inspired and joined the Grail in 1973. But those big adventures were not for me...when i was honest with myself, i wanted to live in my home town, with my sweet husband, near my family and raise my 3 kids . And, it was my amazing karma to end up teaching art at my very own grade school for almost 20 years...
Then, 3 years ago, an empty nester, with a little more time on my hands, my friend Becky, who I met at grailville in 1973, sent me a video about how to save the world with a 12 year old girl:
On the way to work that day, i kept thinking about that video.I thought, heck, i teach 12 year old girls! I found a United Nations Organization call Girl Up that hopes to build solidarity between girls in developed and developing countries and asked Mr Herring during lunch duty one day if we could start a chapter here at our school for our jr high girls...he, of course, said yes...so...
we have been meeting one day a week after school for about 3 years and, because i’m the art teacher, we make cool art stuff! we sell the stuff we make and we use the funds we raise to support girls education in developing countries. Along the way we learn more about what life is like for those girls and build our own leadership skills and give each other a little support, (who doesn’t need a little supoort in jr high?) and, of course it’s important cause our girls are going to be future leaders of the world’s most powerful nations. Last year we raised over $3,000 and gave that money to Saint Teresa’s School in Mwanga, Tz, a high school built run by the Tanzanian Grail...remember the grail?
and so, the stories of the gospel i learned growing up in the Nativity community, my mother’s call to walk the walk, my feminist and social justice ideals i learned from the grail and my 20 years of teaching at Nativity all came together.
now, the Tanzania part of the story...
this summer my husband, Denny and spent 3 1/2 weeks living with my Grail sisters in northern Tanzania. we did in fact visit Saint Teresa’s school and met some of the girls who will become the future leaders of their country and the smart women who are educating them. Saint Teresa’s is a boarding school, as are most high schools in Tanzania. Most roads aren’t paved and getting to and from school on a daily basis is impossible. Water is an issue in Tz. There is a 20 year drought, so water is scarce. But even if there was plentiful water, there is no infrastructure to bring water to your school. So, if you are ging to build a school. you must first find water, dig a well and then figure out a way to bring the water from the well to the land that you have...this is life in Tanzania. Even so, Saint Teresa’s is thriving! With lots of help from the grail in other countries, they are building a new science lab and new dormatories. There are 450 young women living and going to school at Saint Teresa’s in just 5 years since the grail broke ground. It’s exciting and amazing.
In Tanzania, as I’ve said there is not much infrastructure and not much safety net except the kindness of others. Bathing in a bucket, eating the same foods at every meal, living with unpredictable electricity and terrible roads were a stretch. I learned about the implications of climate change for the poor. Drought means deforestation when people cook with wood and seeds are not automatically watered to grow more trees. Maize never tassaled this year, meaning fewer food stores. I met a grandmother, a neighbor at the Grail center, who is raising her disabled grandson, both parents dead from AIDS.
But Tanzania is also a place of great beauty, especially in the spirit of her people who are faith filled and kind. In a land of little technology, people have time to talk with each other, elders are honored and respected; liturgy is joyous .
Within it’s borders lies the Oldvai gorge where the Leakeys found the oldest evidence of human beings and the great Serengeti, from the Masai word meaning land of endless space. In this eden herds of widebeast and gazelle, zebras and water buffalo roam in profusion. It was beautiful.
Like all stories, this story has some twists, and, it turns out, there might have been a different reason i ended up in Kisikibaha, an hour from Mwanga in northern Tanzania. because...here’s a big story i learned about once i got there...
my friend and grail sister , Honorata, (who by the way is 71 years old), has been working with the Masai for the past 10 years...
In case you don’t know who the Masai are...they are a nomadic people. Cow herding is central to their lives. They have closely guarded their culture from the incursions of western influence and life in the 21st century and live pretty much the way they have for hundreds, thousands?, of years...all good, in some way, perhaps, like meeting the Native Americans of 200 years ago...the only things is, they practice, femal genital mutilation... even tho it is illegal in Tanzania. My friend and Grail sister, Honorata, started meeting with some of the Masai women about 10 years ago, trying to explain that there is no physical reason for fgm, in fact it is very dangerous...and that it is a tradition, not an essential part of Masai culture. The Masai women told her, that if their daughters didn’t get fgm, no Masai man would marry them...that the only way for them to avoid fgm was to get an education so they could live outside Masai culture and stay safe until they were old enough to make their own decisions. Then, they asked Honorata if she would raise their daughters...and she said yes...
So, now the Grail is raising 15 little Masai girls on a small compund right next to the Grail center at Kisekibaha. They are there with the permission of their parents in hopes that they can get an education and stay safe until they are grown and can make their own decisions. Denny and I have started a fund to support them, called the Sofia Fund, named after the youngest of the girls.
When I first heard about female genital mutilation, I could hardly believe it. I was horrified, angry and overwhelmed. I felt powerless to do much about it and went on with my life. I started the Girl Up group with my junior high girls and rationalized that I was doing what I could in my own simple way. When I wrote the Fund for Teachers fellowship to visit the Grail's Saint Teresa School in Tanzania, I didn't know that my journey would take me straight to the heart of this terrible violence.
Seeing the work that Honorata is doing among and with the Masai community made me so proud to be a Grail sister. I heard Mary Daly, the feminist theologian, speak at Grailville in 1974. She said women have to be willing "to jump off the cliff and have the faith that the ground will rise up under them"Though she may have been referring to something entirely different, this phrase always resonated with me as a challenge to follow your heart, be brave and respond in a radical way to the Spirit working in your life. Surely the choice of the Tanzanian Grail to take on raising the Masai girls is all that and more.
So now the Universe has presented me with something I CAN do about FGM. I have met these bright and beautiful little Masai girls and even some of their families. I have visited their homes in the bush and seen where the mutilation takes place. I know the people who are keeping them safe and getting them an education. They are my friends. They are part of my Grail family. I trust them . I promised them I would come home and tell their story and get them some help in this great good work.
Here’s a short slide show with some of my pictures...
So, if you have been horrified and enraged by the very existence of FGM like I was, there is something you can do too. We need your help.
We need some generous supporters who are willing to trust their hearts and us, and donate something, something they can afford each month so that Felisiana, who is their teacher and mother 24/7, can feed and clothe the girls near Kisikibaha.
I can't save all the little girls who face the horrors of FGM, but I can help these 15. The ones I know. I can help you know them too. And you can help keep them safe. Please consider it.
We’ve set up a site, where you can doante online, as little or as much as you’d like...