Something has Shifted (Part 2)
If you missed Part 1 last week click here...
When I first visited Sirembe in 2007 the Principal was the late Peter Owour. Mr. Owour almost immediately shared with me that he was troubled by the lack of girls in school and the high dropout rate. In his years at Sirembe he did his best to grow the school both in the number of students and in academic performance. He was successful on both fronts. He built new buildings and made the school much better for everyone. He also went to great lengths to encourage the girls that were there. Mr. Owour and I had countless conversations about educating girls and he did all that he could, given his resources and the attitudes of the community, to improve the situation for them.
However, a major shift happened in January 2014 that serendipitously coincided with changing attitudes surrounding girl’s education. A new Principal took over the school. Mr. Henry Airo, a man whose wife was studying for her PhD at the time, is very passionate about educating girls. To be clear, not everyone was ready for this particular change. I actually overheard an Education Minister telling Mr. Airo on his very first day on the job that they were thinking that Sirembe Secondary School should start “phasing girls out” and just become an all boys school because girls were “difficult”. I was infuriated and began to discuss it with two women members of the school Board, Margret and Susan. They were as appalled as I was and my partner Mrs. Opot felt the same way.
Our outrage persisted until a few days later when Mr. Airo invited Mrs. Opot and I to his office. That day he told us about his plans not only to keep girls there, but to actually start allowing the girls to board at the school too! He said he had every intention of giving girls the exact same opportunities as boys. I was blown away and right then and there we gave him the remaining money he needed for the girls bunk beds.
He cleaned out a classroom and set it up for the girls to stay in. He started with just the Form 4 girls (Seniors) boarding due to a lack of space. As a result of the girls being able to board at school just like the boys, the grades of the girls in that class averaged higher than the boys for the first time in the school’s history. That was quite an accomplishment and the confidence and enthusiasm of the girls in that graduating class of 2014 was passed down to all of the girls coming after them.
Fast forward to January 2016 when I stood in front of almost 300 shining and beautiful faces. We had just informed Mr. Airo about our #Educate20girls campaign and that some wonderful donors in the US had paid to assist 20 girls in need with their fees for 2016. We hadn’t chosen which girls yet, but I encouraged all of them to do as well as they could. I let them know that the better they did, the easier it would be for me to find support for even more girls the following year and that if they continue to work hard and focus on their dreams that they would go far. I also told them how proud I was of them. Their faces were just beaming and it was such a beautiful thing to witness. Many of them were really confident and even assertive. They knew it was their right to be there and they intended to make the most of their opportunity. That was a very different group than the girl students I encountered just 9 years before. It was pretty amazing.
After I left I almost immediately began reflecting on how far that school had come. Just nine years ago the Sirembe Secondary School population was less than 300 boys and girls (10% of that were girls) and in 2016 there were over 700 students attending the school and 326 of them were girls! That is almost half, which is incredible! That combined with the academic performance of the school increasing every year is just so inspiring! Both Mr. Airo and Mr. Owour are to be commended. It has been an honor to work with them both. We will continue to support education through Sirembe Secondary School as long as we are able.
The combination of the worldwide support of educating girls, two enthusiastic principals willing to go to the mat for them, the first boarding class of girls doing better than the boys, and the growing confidence of our girls, all conspired to cause the community of Sirembe to begin changing its attitude toward girl’s education. In recent years I have heard many people changing their tune. It’s no longer uncommon (i.e. rare) to hear many people in Sirembe saying, “ Of course you should educate girls.” Now that is progress!
In 2017 we hope to assist a minimum of 30 girls and include 10 boys this year too. While boys traditionally get more support from their families, there are still many families that cannot afford to send their boys to school. We all rise together and we also need educated young men. Our goal is to raise $10,000 and our campaign starts tomorrow and will run through December 31st. Please join us in providing education to some amazing young people that if given the opportunity, can change their community, their country, and possibly the world!