On my most recent trip to visit our partner programs, we stopped first in Tanzania, where I met Eli. She was graduating from her leadership training program on the day of our arrival, and in a sense, took us under her wing while we were in Arusha. We visited her home early on and spent almost the entire day with her. Eli asked if we'd like to see where she fetches water when the tap at home won't work, and we followed her, in our skirts and sandals, for a hike that would inform my thinking for the rest of my travels in East Africa.
I blogged about that hike here if you'd like more back story, but suffice it to say that Eli's walk for water is intense: straight down the side of a mountain, through forest and fire ant nests, to get to the river at the bottom. In a lot of ways, it's your typical non-profit-inspo story, and I ended that aforementioned blog post on a positive note to reflect that. But as I was sitting at the bottom of the river, directing camera shots and watching Eli fill her bucket, I paused for a moment to watch the cool water running by me. It was crystal clear, dappled in sunlight due to the thick foliage lining the mountain on either side, and eventually ran around a picturesque bend of moss-covered boulders.
But that river, clear and cool and beautiful as it was, is filled with invisible dangers -- typhoid for one. And so even when she conquers the challenge of carrying water up a mountain in a bucket on her head, Eli still has the business of boiling it to deal with.
In a lot of ways, this hike was a parallel to so much of the work we do in development and education.
It's never quite so easy as turning on the tap, is it? Because if the tap doesn't work, then you have to head down to the river, the trek to which is dangerous. In order to drink that water, you have to boil it, and all the while you must use as little as possible to avoid having to spend all your time in the fetching of more water. Similarly, we like to say that girls' education is the solution to global poverty -- but of course, it isn't. It's the starting point, and the building block, but nothing is ever quite so easy as to be the ultimate solution (remember when microfinance was 'the ultimate solution' too?). If teachers don't get the necessary training, if school sanitation is nonexistent or barely there, if students don't have a support system, then the education part can only go so far. Eli needs to boil her water before she can drink it, and simply getting a girl into a classroom won't be enough to change the course of her life. It's not an overly marketable idea, but it is true. Very few solutions come with a tidy bow on top.
Now, Eli is looking to go to college in the U.S. It's sticky, because her education didn't truly prepare her well enough to get flying colors on the TOEFL, and it costs nearly $800 just to get all the necessary prep and tests completed. She's the First can't cover those costs, as it's too far outside our mission, and that kind of money is hard to come by when you're living with your single mom and surviving off of matooke profits. But this is Eli's dream, and it's a dream she deserves to realize. I'm working with AfricAid and a group of Eli's friends and supporters from around the world to get her through those first steps to complete her registration and testing, but we all know that's only the beginning. Ultimately, that river scene gets played out for so many girls across the worlds, in reality or in metaphor, over and over again.
If or when Eli does get into college in the U.S. -- and I do believe she can -- it will be because of so much more than a simple scholarship to secondary school. It started there, when her fire for learning was set aglow, but so many other factors have poured in along the way, to challenge and to support her. And when she does achieve that dream, when any girl graduates school to achieve her dream, she'll tell you that it was so much more than any single factor that brought her there.