*Disclaimer - this article contains some disturbing content.
Maanda Ngoitiko, the founder and executive director of the Pastoral Women’s Council (PWC) in Loliondo, Tanzania, is a Maasai woman. In her culture, she says that being born a girl means being treated like the property that you will never own. She says it means that you will become a bride to be used as a pawn to support your father’s local relationships. She says it means a life of being viewed as a child far into adulthood.
In the school that PWC built, Maanda’s colorful, plentiful Maasai beads clinked as she settled in. The weight of them would become more and more meaningful as she guided me through her story.
Maanda was born in Olorsiwa, a subvillage in the Loliondo District. There, she walked approximately eight kilometers to primary school every day with her best friend. When she was in Standard 6 (the equivalent of sixth grade in the U.S.), her best friend went through female genital mutilation and was told that her father had chosen a husband for her. When she refused to marry him, the men in her family took her to a public space, removed her clothes, and beat her. Maanda watched as her friend’s father held up her clothes as a warning that other girls should not resist marriage in the same shameful way.
“I was very lonely in my heart when she dropped out of school,” said Maanda. “I could not help her. I felt really desperate.”
Soon, it was Maanda’s turn to resist marriage. Her father found her a husband when she was still 12 years old. She refused to marry him as well as the second man her father found for her. After she finished primary school, she cared for cows with her father and uncles for three years.
Her actions were “discussed widely” in the district, and Maanda’s disobedience and disrespect to her family quickly became a subject of local news briefings held at political meetings. A Member of Parliament heard about Maanda and offered to send her to school. Though her father ignored the offer, her uncle told her that she should run away to the bush, and he would arrange for the Member of Parliament to find her.
“I waited for a long time in the bush. Then, I saw a light from a car coming towards me. A light to take me away.”
Maanda was admitted into the Training Center for Development in Arusha. On her first day, Maanda met Alais Morindat, another current partner of Global Partners and leader of Arkaria Village, who gave her tutorials in English and math for two years. One of her teachers linked her to the Irish Embassy, and she received a scholarship to study in Dublin where she earned her bachelor’s degree in development studies.
After returning to Loliondo and reuniting with her family, Maanda started meeting with other women in Loliondo Division by creating “a forum for women to discuss their own issues,” which eventually became PWC. The women met without any funding for four years with the goal of improving women’s solidarity and increasing interest in girls’ education. Many in the community opposed them from the beginning, claiming that women should not meet alone without men.
“[Maasai women] are double marginalized,” said Maanda. “We are marginalized by the larger society for being Maasai, and we are marginalized by the Maasai for being women.”
When asked why she came back to a culture that often treats women with disregard and sometimes violence, Maanda wasn’t sure where to start. “There are some Maasai girls, even those saved by PWC, that as soon as they get their way, they run away forever. They see this culture as a serious threat to their freedom.” But, she went on:
“I wanted to come back because I wanted to see a generational change. I wanted to see more Maasai girls enjoy their freedom. I wanted a new generation of Maasai women who are being treated with dignity and respect. I wanted to change the perception of men.”
She also said that the Maasai have many wonderful aspects of their culture. “If you are very poor in a Maasai community, you will never die of hunger when your neighbor has food – there is a culture of sharing what you have. The Maasai have also been the guardians of the environment for centuries, but they are not recognized by the government and are subjected to land alienation. I wanted to teach this community to be a bridge between the Maasai and the government. Without land, there is no Maasai.”
PWC has now established 260 active women’s groups across three districts and engages thousands of women. Though it’s work is still opposed by some, PWC is growing and is embraced by more and more members of the community, both male and female. Through PWC and other organizations, a locally driven women’s rights movement is underway in Maasai communities across Tanzania.
One of the goals of PWC is to rescue girls who are escaping forced marriage and other forms of violence. Last year, PWC rescued 17 girls, many through police intervention, and all of them lived at Maanda’s home.
I met one of the girls who was rescued by PWC in 2014. She was in school and went home to visit her parents. When she arrived home, they locked her in a room and told her that her future husband would soon come to get her. A woman who did not realize she was there unlocked the room to retrieve something. When she saw the girl, she called Maanda, and the police came to take the girl away.
“She cried the whole night,” recalls Maanda. “This is just one case, but we have a lot of cases like that.”
This girl is now continuing her studies through a scholarship from Global Partners. With funding from Global Partners and mentorship from women in PWC, she will finish her studies and hopefully reunite with her family to help them understand her unconventional path.
In March 2016, Global Partners supported PWC in purchasing a large house near the PWC office that will serve as a rescue center for Maasai girls. Maanda anticipates that at least 100 girls will be supported through this center each year while they transition into dormitories at secondary schools. The gated home has a 24-hour security guard and matron. With bunk beds, blankets, pillows, computers, and solar electricity, the girls will be welcomed into a space where they can work through their emotional trauma with girls who had similar experiences and alongside women who embody the strength and perseverance they will need to pursue their individual and collective ambitions.
Through local initiatives and international partnerships like this, Maanda and women like her are helping to shape the future of human rights among the Maasai. As I stood in what I will call the “rescue home,” I could feel the possibility. I could almost hear the tears and laughter of the girls that would fill it in the coming months. I ached to tell them that help was on the way.
“Oh, we really have to keep moving,” said Maanda as she looked at the time – we were late to a Maasai fundraiser for women’s businesses and girls’ scholarships.
Yes, Maanda, yes we do.