School Partnerships Bridge Cultural Divide and Create Lifelong Connections

Agnes Irwin Student, Catherine de Lacoste-Azizi, shares her experience from the school’s recent Service Learning trip to SEGA

Stiff and disoriented from a twelve-hour bus ride, we stood in front of the SEGA Girls School on our first day, glancing around at the sun drenched campus and trying to absorb the throng of new faces. We weren’t as sure of ourselves as they seemed to be.  We watched, sheepish and awed, as they formed rehearsed rows and burst into song, feet moving in unison, steady harmonies swirling through the air and over the brightly colored buildings. “…Welcome to our school, the SEGA girls-y school.”  The melody was easy to pick up, and I found myself grinning and humming along, grateful to the girls for being the ones to break the ice. Still, there was an awkward first night as we struggled to become accustomed to each other’s accents, getting a little bit lost in the dark on the winding cobbled path back to our dorm, and wondering what the next few days would hold.

And then, we fell in love with abandonment. It was a whirlwind. A suspension in time. Five days that flew by while at the same time feeling like an eternity. The days were long, but rich, warm, and full of life and meaning. We bonded over boy talk and Alicia Keys songs, spending long hours learning about each other’s lives. It was the fastest I’ve ever witnessed two groups of people connect so absolutely. There was something intangible, magical, about the relationships we shared, how we related to each other across a seeming chasm of dissimilarity.  This was the haven SEGA established for us. We, as well as the SEGA girls, had been removed from our typical environments—us from the Mainline, Pennsylvania, where we attend Agnes Irwin, them from lives of poverty in villages across Tanzania—and introduced into a shared space of pure learning and collaboration. Our differences were buried elsewhere. In the moments we shared, we were on the same plane, sharing the same experiences.

It was difficult to grasp that our friends were at-risk or to picture their lives away from school, because within the walls of SEGA, they were radiant and seemingly carefree.  The home visits that we had the privilege of participating in were, for this reason, one of the most formative and touching parts of our SEGA experience. I went to Michelle’s house.  She was excited to show us her home and family, springing ahead of us over the bumps in the dirt roads with all of her characteristic light and spunk. I stooped to fit under a doorway and entered, blinking, into a dim, windowless, 5×7 room. When my eyes adjusted to the light, I saw a mat on the ground, crates stacked in a corner, and a family of four, all sitting in close quarters. Michelle’s mother, breastfeeding a small child, looked up at us and smiled faintly, wary of her daughter’s new American friends. Michelle turned to her and spoke quickly in Swahili, gesturing to us. Then she turned and smiles, her teeth bright in the dark room. “Mama says sit, sit, be welcome.”

It was here that we learned of Michelle’s difficult childhood, of her father’s death and her time spent in an orphanage. It was sobering to acknowledge this reality, just as it’s sobering to acknowledge that some of the SEGA girls are already mothers, not by choice, or that some are victims of female genital mutilation. But while it was terrifying to realize the danger that they face just by living where they do, it brought another layer of vibrancy to our relationships, another sense of meaning to each of our interactions. We clung to the unfamiliarity of each other’s lives, captivated by it.

On the same trip, Stephanie told us about the troubles intrinsic to womanhood in Tanzania, about the lack of free will, the sense that one must obey her husband’s every order. She told us about a book she recently read, I Am Malala, and said that she knew about the plight of the women in Arab nations.  It was an electric moment, in which I was dramatically aware of the common thread winding through 50% of the population, the united front of feminism. Being with her, in this moment, having this conversation validated all of the work I’ve ever done for women’s rights back at home. I processed on a new level the importance of fighting for women’s’ health, internationally as well as domestically. For Stephanie. For Michelle.  I tried to convey, with every word, every embrace, the value of these girls’ lives to them. That they matter. That they’re in control, even in the face of aggressive husbands and a lack of mobility. That they can fight for themselves.

Then, we left.  We held each other closely, tears streaking our cheeks, wondering if we would ever meet again. The Agnes Irwin girls returned to the Mainline and tried to communicate to our friends and family the life-changing experience that we shared. We’ve never doubted that we’ll pursue a college education, then make money doing what we love. We’ve never doubted our own autonomy within relationships or our choice to wait for, or forego altogether, marriage and kids.  It hurts to think about the discrepancies between our lives and those of our sisters at SEGA. But at the same time, it’s comforting to know that brilliant, hands-on solutions such as SEGA are in place.  A school that addresses a nation’s problems at its source, restructuring the system one girl at a time. SEGA changes its students’ lives, rescuing them from lives of distress and helping them recognize their own potential. All-girls schools hold the unique power to empower and transform their students, and bringing two such schools together across an ocean creates something profoundly meaningful.

– Catherine de Lacoste-Azizi