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Tanzania: Maasai women change their lives through adult education (by Ahmed Bacar, for Farm Radio Weekly in Tanzania)

Wearing her finest bead jewellery in her ears, on her arms and about her neck, Raheli Philipo Kilaye is excited to share what she has learned at adult school. With a big smile, she puts her right index finger to her thumb and begins to count in English: “One, two, three.” She continues by unfolding her fingers: “Four, five, six, seven …” until she reaches 20.

Raheli Philipo Kilaye is a Maasai woman. She lives in Longido, a village in northern Tanzania near the Kenyan border. For many years, collecting and selling firewood was this 37-year-old woman’s only source of income. Every third day, she walked 12 hours to collect two bundles of firewood from the bush, which she would carry to town on her back to sell in the market. If she sold the firewood, she earned 3000 Tanzanian shillings, about two dollars. But this arduous and unrewarding work is now just a bad memory.

A year ago Mrs. Kilaye enrolled in a school for adult learners in Longido, where she is studying English, Swahili and mathematics. Her husband gave his consent. She explains her decision: “The only thing that convinced me to go to school was that I felt bad for myself because I was working too hard. I told myself that if I was educated, I could find a job which was less difficult.”

Today Mrs. Kilaye speaks Swahili, the official language in Tanzania. She has also become a tourist guide, thanks to her knowledge of English. She chats with visitors to help them learn about the Maasai lifestyle in Longido. Mrs. Kilaye says that from one tourist visit, she can earn six times more than she earned collecting firewood. She says: “With this money, I started to build my own house, [and] I pay for food for my children.”

At school, Mrs. Kilaye learned how to do arithmetic and received advice on how to run a small business. She and other women in her community make Maasai jewellery to sell to tourists. Mrs. Kilaye also sells vegetables at the market in Longido. Thus, she has a variety of sources of income.

Mrs. Kilaye is managing to combine school and household activities. In the morning she fetches water, then she feeds the goats. After that, she prepares the meal of the day for the family. In the afternoon, she attends school. Classes are held on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.

Daniel Tumokino is Mrs. Kilaye’s teacher, and noticed that she learns very quickly. He says: “Raheli has more potential than other learners. She likes to ask questions, and is hard-working in class.”

The Maasai adult school opened in September 2011. Twenty Maasai registered for classes, of which only three are men. The school is an initiative of a local NGO called Testigo Africa, which has worked for several years with the Maasai community in Longido.

Emanuel Saakai is Testigo Africa’s Country Manager in Tanzania. He explains why the school was started: “Our priority is to help change the situation of Maasai women in Longido. We thought that education was essential to succeed in helping these women.” The local Baptist church donated classroom space, and Australian volunteers support the teacher’s salary. Enrollment is free.

Now that Mrs. Kilaye speaks Swahili and reads and writes English, she is proud of herself. She says she is much happier. Mrs. Kilaye urges other Maasai women to learn. She says that this is the only way they can hope for a better life.