UNGEI #YouthTalks meets Anena Mary

This story first appeared on the UNGEI Blog

Our first #YouthTalks was with Anthony Ssembaya, an inspiring Ugandan national who, among his experiences as a survivor of war, an international student and an activist for social change through the education of girls—told us about Anena Mary, the girl he adopted when she was 8 years old, when he was but a child himself. We have since spoken to Anena Mary to hear her side of the story. She talks to us here about how she turns frightening memories into courage, how education has transformed her life, and how she hopes her example inspires transformation in other girls’ lives too.

Anthony was so happy to tell us about the progress you’ve made since starting school. You’re 20 now, and still studying.
Some people think it’s strange for me to still be in school at my age. I believe the world is changing, though, and traditional ideas are changing. I’m doing the right thing by studying. I’m learning mathematics, economics, geography and computer sciences. I want to work in accounting or business. I’m not bothered by marriage.

Is this unusual for a 20-year-old girl in Uganda?
There are limited opportunities for girls here. Our talents are not evolved early enough, girls don’t know what they want; they are undeveloped because this is not a priority in our country. In the developed world girls are more educated, more experienced, they are exposed early to the ideas of being self-driven and sure of their future. Here, at 20 years of age, we are dependent on our parents, we have no house, we have no freedom.

Can you retrace for us how things have changed for you since having an education?
I was 8 years old when my mother got to know Anthony. There was war in my country—soldiers kidnapping boys and girls to make them wives or soldiers. We had to hide in the bush at night to avoid getting caught. If we slept in our house they would come in and either kill us or take us away. Homes were insecure; it was a very hard condition. When Anthony became my foster parent I was able to join a camp where it was safe. I got an education and this changed my life. I went from being an illiterate person to being literate.

Was this a challenging transition?
Oh yes. My performance was not good enough at the beginning so at first they didn’t let me into school. I didn’t know English, I had no trade, I was ignorant. I had to beg them to let me in. Eventually they trusted me and I joined, and I struggled hard to catch up. With time I managed and they realised I had abilities to perform. Now I’m in my last year of high school and I managed to get into college for next year!

That’s so exciting! You’ve worked so hard. Can you tell us what your days at school are like?
I wake up 4:40am every day and by 5am I’m in class. At 7am I go for breakfast. Lessons begin at 8am. At 10:30am there’s a break, then more lessons, then lunch, then lessons till 4:40pm. I shower, clean my room and prepare lessons after that, and then I go back to school from 7pm till 10pm every day except Sunday. On Saturday I go jogging and clean the classroom and the dormitories. My school is one of the best schools in the country. We have to work very hard or we get expelled.

Are there other girls like you at school?
Most girls at my school are well off. They know I’m not well off. Our food and language are different so it’s obvious. I’m friendly so people are okay with me. It’s rare to be a girl like me at a good and serious school like mine. I find myself blessed. Most of the girls I left behind in my village have no opportunity. Most of them dropped out of school, have been married off by forceful marriage, have children.

You said you aren’t bothered about marriage and children but is it a pressure to go against that tradition in your community?
Many people believe that girls are made to do housework. Many people are hyper-conservative and not ready to change. Here it’s about education for boys who will leave home but girls are not to be educated and not to leave home. These are old beliefs and many people don’t want to adapt to change.

Is your family supportive of you being a girl who is pioneering a new way of being a girl in your community?
My mother is very proud and very grateful to Anthony. We are five children, I am the eldest and my family’s trust is all in me. I feel responsible to perform at my best and do my best with the education I get to improve our circumstances. Everyone is looking to me; I have to do it. This is hard but it gives me courage.

Do you have advice to share with other girls?
Sometimes I still have memories of running to search for a place to sleep, worrying if I will live through the night. That time in my life was really scary. I could not shout or scream or the soldiers would find me. I’ve got experience, which makes me braver and wiser. If I ever need to summon my courage I imagine sleeping in the bush with snakes and insects, and I get stronger. Northern Uganda still suffers because of the memories of war and I’m sure many other girls feel the way I do. When you’re brought up to not think or believe you can go to school as a girl, you don’t believe it. I believe girls should believe in themselves and they should know what they want, and go for it no matter what people think. Focus, be determined, think before you act, don’t give up. I’m a simple girl. I like things that don’t stress my mind but when I get to do something, I do my best. I never give up. I have this thing in me and I’m sure many other girls have it too. My motto is: if there’s a better chance, you take it.

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UNGEI #YouthTalks meets Anthony Ssembatya

This story first appeared on the UNGEI Blog

Anthony Ssembatya, a Ugandan national with strong links to Rwanda, lives with a striking memory: seeing Tutsi women and girls carrying babies on their backs and kitchen cargo on their heads, running for their lives to save their families during the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. Witnessing the strength of these women and girls, and the roles they played in rescuing and reconstructing their communities during war, really marked him. Anthony grew up the only boy among these strong female influences, which has given him a special interest in girls’ education, a personal passion that sets him apart from many of his peers.

Anthony had another life-changing moment in 2004 after spending three years in Gulu, Uganda, at the helm of the L.RA, Joseph Kony-led civil war. Here, he met a mother who was struggling on her own with several children who were handicapped by war. Anthony adopted Anena Mary, her 8 year old child, to ease her burden, and to offer Anena Mary the possibility of education. Anthony’s three sisters were all educated and are starting successful careers. He himself has a Masters in Conflict Management and is currently completing a PhD in Global Peace and Security in Berlin, alongside an internship with UN Women HQ NY. He has also set up a charity, Kirabo-Doors of Hope Children’s Center, in Mbiko-Njeru, Uganda, to foster the education of girls. We spoke to him on a lunch break while he was visiting New York City, to find out more about what has made him a feminist and a girl education activist.

It’s unusual but so refreshing to meet a guy who is putting his fight behind a girl cause. How did this happen for you?
I saw from a very young age how the responsibility for survival, shelter and food rests solely on women. Men don’t carry children and kitchens on their backs while fleeing war. Historically, in the political situations of the world – WWI, WWII, the Cold War – the ones who have been central to conflict have been men, not women. If women have had a voice, it has been the voice of crying, forgiveness and redemption, but not the voice of participation. Women should take part in economic activity, political dialogue and education. Kids are empowered by going to school. The system in my country didn’t give the same opportunity to girls to be educated. Why can I access any studies I would like and not my sisters – when they deserve it?

It’s great that you understood this and took action when you were young. You already have a long list of humanitarian work underway. What has motivated you to be a giver?
I grew up in a slum area full of truck drivers, and prostitutes with HIV and AIDS in Mbiko-Njeru, Central Uganda. But it was my experience as an undergraduate student in Northern Uganda that changed my perspective on life forever. At night I saw girls walking with mattresses to shelters that weren’t even safe. They were running away from rebels, men who were killing women and girls, or using them as wives and infecting them with AIDS. I can’t imagine someone’s body being used without approval, it is abuse of the highest order. I can’t tolerate it. When I adopted Anena Mary I was thinking that education and peace are synonymous and there’s always room for the younger generation to change things. I started the charity in a suburb close to Jinja, and got children, mostly girls, from different tribal backgrounds to come. Many were without homes, born to prostitute mothers, drugged or drunken parents. I set up a school for them. African conflicts have historically had two factors: ethno-political factors and religious-political factors. I wanted to try to see if children from different tribal heritages could co-exist peacefully, and if they did have conflict, if they could resolve it without arms. Girl children are the next leaders of the world so they should learn to live peacefully among themselves. Peace and security come from education.

If you were a typical boy still living in that slum what would you say? What would your perception of girls be?
I would ask you to give me something to eat, ask you for money, ask you to take me to Canada. I would tell you that I want to drive a big car so I could go to the capital city and party, and make quick money. I would say the girls are very beautiful, and that they need to stay home to make meals for us and play with us, and that they need to get a husband and have as many children as possible. I would say no, it’s not necessary for them to be educated, because they can have children.

This is not how you are, though. What made you different in your ability to see another view of girls? When you have been victims of unfairness you learn to fight for yourselves. My parents took all of us to school, my sisters too. They are living all over the world now, they’re self-made and very successful. They have equal opportunity because they went to school and performed so no one would compromise or question their ability.

Do you know many other boys who share this point of view?
My friends think I’m crazy, they think I won’t marry a woman. Things have evolved a lot but it’s still unfortunately atypical to find someone as active as I am.

We need more boys like you who share this vision of educating girls, because the more we all believe in this, the more the script will change for girls. I wonder if one of the things that’s helped you be a young activist is your compassion. Most people shut their hearts down during painful episodes in life – but you kept yours open. How did you do this?
I have more compassion for girls and women because, especially during my three years doing undergraduate studies, I came face to face with war. I saw how the majority of the victims of war were women and girls. Since doing global studies on peace, I’ve seen too that the majority of stateless people and refugees are also girls and women. I often think, what if my mother and my sisters never had an education? What if they never had nationality because of unfair nationality laws? What if they never had quality education? As the man in the family, I would have to stand by them and look after them financially, emotionally and as far as their wellbeing – they would kick start families and this would run to me, too. This is what keeps you in a cycle of poverty. That’s the African story.

So you’re driven by a mix of compassion and ambition; that’s interesting. What advice do you have for kids in the developing world about changing this cycle?
Challenge your own story. Write your own script. Play more music and sports, these are important tools that unite people and help them do so much more than their governments can do for them.  If you’re boys, have interactive discussions with girls, get to know girls better beyond first impressions, become their friends. I did sports with my sisters and we had the common value of education – now they’re doctors and lawyers. Support girls – because girls make things happen!

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