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.