Red Dresses

Kato met us again this morning to show us a different dala dala stop. I think we should be fine on our own from now on, in terms of navigating where we need to go. We know the routes to SAUT, Mikono Yetu, and now Education for Better Living, and we also kind of know enough Swahili to make sure we’re on the right dala dala.

Once we were (somewhat) safely sitting in the cramped dala dala, we departed from town and headed to the Education for Better Living centre. It’s a small ride out of town, but probably the closest location out of all of our workplaces. Education for Better Living (EBLI) is a school for young mothers, so that they can complete a basic education and learn computer skills, practical skills to help them in the workforce, and leadership skills. School sessions run every weekday for two hours; there are sessions at 8:00 am, 10:00 am, and 12:00 pm. Bernard Makachia, the director of EBLI, also has plans for a nursery for the children of these young mothers while they are in class.

Today was a graduation day.

While 57 other young women are enrolled at EBLI, 41 mothers graduated from the EBLI program today. Each one had a different dress made in the same red checked fabric, but each one had designed her dress to be unique.

We watched the graduation proceedings. Iris and I took some pictures, although Iris is always better at diligently taking pictures (for some reason I always feel weird and not ‘in the moment’ when I’m picture-taking). We observed as the lovely young women (all who looked pretty young) accepted certificates, sang, danced, put on a play, performed spoken word and speeches, laughed, and celebrated their accomplishment that was made possible by EBLI. Looking at these vibrant young mothers, I saw pride, friendship, hope, and love for the staff at EBLI. Their teachers. People that believed in them even when no one else did.

The play they put on was in Swahili, but I understood the gist of it by watching their actions and with a bit of help from Samira’s rough translating. It depicted two girls who had become pregnant and were kicked out of school. It ended with these two characters, babies in their arms, standing in front of a young woman acting as Bernard. The characters were told that they could go to school again.

I was filled with so much joy while watching these women. Some had their children with them, some didn’t. Some were more involved in the graduation presentations, some stayed more in the sidelines. All were young mothers. All had been given a chance to learn valuable skills. All have been invested in by the staff at EBLI.

Sitting on the sidelines, I felt out of place. Most of it wasn’t in my language so I had a hard time following along. This just added to my general frustration towards my lack of proficiency in Swahili. I want to know the language and relate to everyone around me on that level, but my brain doesn’t work fast enough.

I also wondered why I was there a few times throughout the day. We were invited, and were honoured to be there. We felt welcomed and were told to sit at the front, facing the audience. We were introduced at the beginning as part of the staff. I loved being there. But I couldn’t help but wonder what I thought I was doing there.

I kept awkwardly trying to move around so that I wasn’t in the background of pictures. I didn’t want a random white girl messing up someone’s graduation picture, their token of an amazing accomplishment and milestone. I was never really sure where to sit, and felt weird taking pictures of girls I didn’t know and couldn’t understand. I don’t think anyone minded us being there. I don’t think anyone minded us taking pictures. But I still felt out of place and unsure.

Nonetheless, the graduation was so wonderful to see. I’m so thankful to have gotten the chance to be there.

We left early, shortly after lunch was served. Iris wasn’t feeling great, and whenever any of us interns starts to feel a little sick we tend to just assume it’s malaria (always an overreaction, but still a very real concern). We explained to Bernard and Rose, a staff member, that we were leaving early. Bernard checked Iris’s pulse and concluded that it was not malaria (disclaimer: this is not an actual way of telling if someone has malaria or not). We tried to make our way to the gate to leave, but Iris was asked to take a couple more pictures for Bernard before heading out. When she got back to where we were standing with her bag, something shifted.

One of the graduating mothers approached us and asked if she could take a picture with us. She addressed this question to Samira, but I understood her request by her actions and gestures towards the camera in her friend’s hand. Her name was Anna Grace, she told us after Samira asked. I’m awkward and am not overly fond of pictures of myself, but it was neat to get a picture with her. And interesting that she wanted a picture with us.

She started a trend. We couldn’t make a step towards the gate without one of the young mothers wanting a few pictures with us. We tried to speak limited Swahili to them, and would look helplessly at Samira when they would say things to us that we didn’t understand. But we took pictures with them, smiled at them, and told them how beautiful they looked (in broken Swahili). I tried to act as warmly as I could towards them, to make up for my lack of proficiency in their language and my painful awkwardness throughout their graduation.

I had no idea we had made an impact on any of them. I had chosen to assume that they probably didn’t want us there, and just tolerated us foreigners because Bernard wanted them to.

Bernard told us when we first visited EBLI that our presence alone this summer would give the young mothers hope. That seeing us, they would be motivated to one day accomplish great things too. I remember smiling nervously when he said that, and thinking that even if that happened, it wouldn’t be enough. It wouldn’t justify our presence there.

I don’t want people to look at me as a symbol of something they could be. I’m not that special, and I’m also from a very different context. Before leaving for Mwanza, the WHE interns were required to read a blog post written a few years ago by Pippa Biddle. This Tumblr blogger shared her feelings towards voluntourism and its short-fallings in a concise but punchy blog post. While she raised a lot of interesting and valid points, the part that stuck out to me most was this excerpt:

I am not a teacher, a doctor, a carpenter, a scientist, an engineer, or any other professional that could provide concrete support and long-term solutions to communities in developing countries. I am a 5′ 4″ white girl who can carry bags of moderately heavy stuff, horse around with kids, attempt to teach a class, tell the story of how I found myself (with accompanying powerpoint) to a few thousand people and not much else.

Some might say that that’s enough. That as long as I go to X country with an open mind and a good heart I’ll leave at least one child so uplifted and emboldened by my short stay that they will, for years, think of me every morning.

I don’t want a little girl in Ghana, or Sri Lanka, or Indonesia to think of me when she wakes up each morning. I don’t want her to thank me for her education or medical care or new clothes. Even if I am providing the funds to get the ball rolling, I want her to think about her teacher, community leader, or mother. I want her to have a hero who she can relate to – who looks like her, is part of her culture, speaks her language, and who she might bump into on the way to school one morning. (quoted from:

I want to interact with these young mothers, and take part in the joy that they feel. I want to be a part of this infectious joy and pride. I was so honoured to be there. But I’m also not sure how I feel about being there. I don’t want these young women to look at me and think that one day they can be like me. I want them to look at themselves and what they’ve accomplished despite their circumstances or mistakes. I want them to look at the strong women that teach or administrate at EBLI and make these opportunities possible. I want them to look at their mothers, community leaders, and friends, and see in them what they want to become.

I was honoured. I was delighted to interact with the young mothers on their graduation day. I was so happy that they wanted to interact with me. I am so excited to get the chance to continue to interact with some of them this summer. Nuri and I will be going to EBLI twice a week starting next week, to split time between EBLI and Mikono Yetu and make sure that neither of us are travelling alone at any time. I’m very happy it worked out that way, because I loved being at EBLI today. I loved the young mothers.

But I’m not sure what my place is there. I might find my place, and I will hopefully make some real connections and establish some relationships. I truly hope I do. But I’m only here for three months, and then I’m gone.

I’m starting to really understand how much that sucks. Both in terms of navigating ethics, and in navigating friendships.

One thought on “Red Dresses

  1. Amara

    I think that graduation sounds so much more profound than the commencement we have here. Simply waiting for the person you know to be called, hoping everyone else gets done as quickly as possible so you can leave. This seems beautiful.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s