NEW YORK– I started Share in Africa, a non-profit that works to help girls in Tanzania reach their potential through education over 10 years ago when I was 15 — a time before Instagram became a verb, and when the “Old Taylor Swift” was still alive and well.
Share in Africa started as an after-school reading program. My family and I had heard of the “book famine” in the country through emailing with a local man in Bukoba, Tanzania. We landed in Bukoba ourselves in 2008 with pounds of books, ready to construct libraries, fill them, and develop a program where girls could read after school and improve their English. I remember proudly presenting this program to the girls’ parents, certain they would say yes. It was a shock when they shook their heads and said “No.”
I couldn’t fathom a reason why they didn’t want their daughters in this program. The principal of the school took me aside and translated. “They need their daughters at home,” she said, “to collect firewood, and take care of the children. If they stay after school, the family will suffer.”
It was a wake-up call for me. Education existed in Bukoba, and while books were rare they existed too. I had grown up in the United States watching commercials on TV about how education is needed in developing countries. Schools have to be built! English has to be taught!
Over the next few years of traveling to and working in Tanzania, I learned about the roadblocks to education that weren’t shown on TV.
Girls who menstruate often have to stay home from school during that time, because of the lack of access to bathrooms there. Families that can only afford to send one child to school will always choose to send their son over their daughter. Girls that have long walks to school have the danger of being assaulted. I heard one heartbreaking story about a girl in boarding school who beat her male classmates in an exam, and as revenge for that, they lied to her and told her that her father had died.
Share in Africa reformed our mission, and focussed our efforts on the most effective way we could help. We partnered with Hekima — an all girl’s secondary boarding school run by a group of honest, compassionate, and exceedingly smart nuns. They cared for their students and kept them to a strict schedule. The girls woke up early to study, took care of the grounds, and learned subjects ranging from English and home economics to chemistry. As a senior in university, I sat in on a chemistry class and had to try to keep up.
Share in Africa started a scholarship program that allowed the brightest girls in Bukoba primary schools to go to Hekima Secondary School, and receive the education of a lifetime. I put my TV commercial mindset aside and took the council of the nuns on what work was needed. When the Boko Haram kidnappings happened in Nigeria, we took security measures and built a fence around the school. When an earthquake devastated Bukoba, we got to work rebuilding the dormitories and classrooms.
My idea of what is needed for education has changed drastically in the last 10 years. I have seen so many non-profits pop up that encourage teaching English, and sending book donations, but thankfully I have also seen non-profits and charity work that focus on the roadblocks girls face when trying to get an education.
Sustainable Heath Enterprises (SHE) is working to create sanitary pads made from banana tree fibers. Nicholas Kristof’s wonderful book “Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide”, which has much focus on girls’ education, was turned into a movie with a wonderful worldwide reception. I am empowered and excited for the future of female education – which is something I might not have said 10 years ago.
In the future, I hope to see some of the harder issues tackled. Talking about menstruation is uncomfortable, but necessary. Recognizing the dangers of a long walk to school is something we don’t want to think about, but we must. All of these factors are related to education, and I look forward to a future where every girl can receive the education she wants without roadblocks.
Shannon McNamara is a 26-year-old founder of Share in Africa. She lives in New York City and works for Flatiron Health. In her free time she enjoys performing improv comedy, writing and cooking.
All photos courtesy Ms. McNamara and Share in Africa