Clearing The Path: On Girls, Education and Gratitude

BookI spent a good part of my Saturday engrossed in “A Girl Called Problem”, a novel written by Katie Quirk. The novel was one of many that caught my eye when I checked out the library on a private school tour last month. Pleased to see literature detailing the lives and experiences of people of color represented, I made a note of every title that interested me in order to read them at a later date. “A Girl Called Problem” was first on the list.





MwalimuThe protagonist of the novel, Shida, is an adolescent girl of the Sukuma ethnic group living in rural Northern Tanzania in 1967.This year was a crucial one in Tanzania’s post-independence history as the ruling party, TANU, began to implement the Arusha Declaration written by President Julius K. Nyerere. Throughout the book the reader gains limited insight on how these changes affected the Tanzanian people initially.

One particular aspect of the book which struck a personal chord with me was the fight to change deeply entrenched attitudes surrounding the education of girls.  A vocal segment in Shida’s village is opposed to the new practice of teaching girls, going as far to insist the village will be cursed for doing so. This intersects with the narrative that Bibi Z-my child’s paternal Grandma- shared with me when I visited Dar es Salaam nine years ago.

A bright and inquisitive girl, Bibi Z enjoyed the pursuit of knowledge from an early age. But as puberty drew close it seemed that her school days would come to an end. It would now cost to attend class. To pay school fees for a son was normal and raised no eyebrows. But covering the cost for a girl to go further in her studies was considered foolish and a waste of time.  Like the girls in Shida’s fictional village of Njia Panda, the only knowledge Bibi Z was expected to focus on was cooking, cleaning and farming. But Bibi Z wanted more, and persistently lobbied her father to find a way to continue her education. Though his judgment was questioned Bibi Z’s father acquiesced to her plea.

Bibi Z’s father ended up selling a prized cow to pay for his daughter’s schooling. “They called my father an idiot for selling that cow, Bibi Z recounted to me decades later, a knowing smile spread across her round face. There was no hint of bitterness or anger in her voice, as her story ended well. The result of her father’s decision to go with a new outlook is a gift that continues on in the lives of his descendants. Bibi Z excelled in her studies, eventually earning her Masters’ at an HBCU. With little fanfare Bibi Z took on the cause of empowering the young women of her village, helping further their education by taking care of their post-secondary education costs.

Both Shida’s story in “A Girl Called Problem” and Bibi Z’s real life experiences give me hope that we will continue to make progress in ensuring girls have equal access to education. Bibi Z now has three granddaughters, all of whom are expected to obtain a 4.0 GPA and for whom not getting a Bachelors is a calamity Bibi will not entertain. When my daughter returned from Tanzania in January she informed that she was on the receiving end of stern lectures from her Bibi and aunties (blood and otherwise) on the necessity of a formal education. “If you do not finish college you will be the first of our family in two generations not to do so”, her Bibi told her,” I tell you that so you are aware that higher education is now a tradition we presume you will carry on.” My ex-husband went even further, setting a Masters as the minimum she must attain for him to give his blessing to a marriage and pay for the wedding!

Though the stakes are high I am fully confident that my little one will reach and surpass both the goals we have set for her and those she has made for herself.  Right now we are preparing for the next phase of her education-gaining entry into a private school which fits her and will provide the rigorous academic environment required for her future.  However as we go through the process the tales of Shida, Bibi Z and millions of girls across the globe stay with me. As the ordeal of Pakistani activist Malala Yousazai demonstrates, the right of girls to receive an education is still a matter of controversy in certain regions. It is this realization which reminds me of the need to meditate on my position in this world.

The idea that a girl receiving just a primary education would lead to hostile discussions and/or violent reprisals is difficult for me to even fathom. My difficulty in relating to and comprehending such a phenomena is a symptom that I’ve taken my rights for granted.  It is the sacrifices of others that have made the path being charted for my daughter a possibility, and I must remain both aware and grateful for that.

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A native Seattleite and East Coast transplant, I have been interested in politics, religion, and race from the day I saw “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” on the bookshelf belonging to my BFF’s mom back in 1991. While my zealotry has thankfully diminished with maturity, I remain the deep thinking, passionate, and humble woman I have always been.

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