Mount Kilimanjaro looms over the landscape in northeastern Tanzania: the largest free-standing mountain in the world, rising up like a volcano out of the flat, dry plains. Its snows are half the size of what I remember from 40 years ago, and it’s not my imagination: I am told the water from mountain streams runs in trickles these days.
Roaming Maasai tribesman are silhouetted against the horizon, flowing purple robes fluttering in the wind as they carry long staffs and drive forward the few scrawny cattle still alive despite the never-ending drought. Women trudge quietly along the road carrying great bundles on their heads, as the Maasai men and cattle weave in and out. Outside the city, few people have vehicles, so the Grail’s white van usually has the road to itself, red dirt roads as hard as concrete with potholes.
The week in Tanzania was a side-trip for me. The group of ten of us who had met in Uganda to plan the IGA had disbursed. One of the ten was Margarita Shirima from Tanzania, so I could conveniently accompany her from Entebbe to Kilimanjaro. It was an opportunity especially to see St. Teresa of Avila school.
The silence of the mountain pervades the air all through the Kilimanjaro district and lends a quiet intensity to the secondary school. I had imagined a much smaller place than the substantial compound that I found. Here there were highly professional faculty members and hundreds of teenagers concentrating on their studies with a focus I had never witnessed in an American school – amid skyrocketing mid-summer temperatures and no air conditioning. Future leaders of their country must excel.
• Biology, chemistry and physics every year, in addition to English, Kiswahili, history, geography, commerce and math.
• Standards high – the best in the Kilimanjaro district so far – but that means that students have to leave if they fail to maintain a 70% average.
• Four Maasai teens (14- and 15-years-old), wearing uniforms like everyone else, explaining that if they were not at St Teresa’s, they would surely be married by now.
Having heard about the need for dormitory space, I was not surprised to see perfectly made bunk beds packed into what would otherwise be classrooms, lined by straight rows of flip-flops and an array of brightly colored plastic buckets for carrying water. Outside, as I half expected, was the outline of a foundation and piles of concrete blocks, for a “hostel” soon to rise.
But the multipurpose building that I thought was still a dream – efforts to raise money still clearly in progress – there I found workmen ready to put the roof on a building designed to hold a thousand. A thousand people in a building the size of a church! No money yet for windows or floors, but if the roof were on, at least the building could be used. Down the hill, Maria Goretti Semvua pointed out, was where faculty housing would go eventually.
Among the Grail women of Tanzania, there is an amazing confidence and determination, despite the lack of money, the scarcity of water or the absence of external funding. The extent of development at St. Teresa was only one piece of evidence. The dispensary at Mwanga I had always pictured as a room-sized clinic. Instead, I found a whole hospital. Maternity, malaria, HIV-AIDS: those are the real areas of medical need. An empty building next door, recently purchased by Cecilia, the Tanzania Grail doctor, stood ready to become a maternity ward. We joked about “only 26 million” needed to implement the plan. The amount sounded enormous until translated from Tanzanian shillings to dollars ($20,000).
Meanwhile back at Kisekibaha, the 8-acre national center of the Grail in Tanzania, the whole community revolves around the training of (nine this year) young women as committed Grail members: prayer and drumming early in the morning, then tasks (sweeping the walks, carrying buckets of water for the tiny plants in the nursery, grinding maize for porridge, picking fruit, feeding the pigs and goats and milking the cows) all before classes start.
The spirit of camaraderie among the young women is apparent, as is their respect and affection for every Grail “Dada” who lives in the community with them. Hortensia, Justina and Mary organize courses; Honorata heads off for work with the Maasai elders, Rosada organizes meetings with community leaders about pre-school, Margarita (national leader) camps out in the office before the day’s heat makes work there unbearable.
Imelda is still at Rau, delighting in the antics of tiny children enrolled in the interfaith pre-school; and so is Edeltruda, helping young women learn a trade so they can support themselves. The bookstore in Moshi, staffed by a whole set of competent Grail women, is packed with customers as soon as they open the doors.
Simply by their stance in the world, the Grail women of Tanzania spoke powerfully to me of generosity of spirit, creativity and determination in the face of great odds. I was grateful to share their life, even for so short a time, and I am proud to be their sister.