Mary Gitagno was visiting Minnesota after giving a lecture at Harvard University on her work as an activist of her community in celebrating Women’s History Month in March when Mshale caught up with her. One is instantly struck by her homeliness and humility. Her mission is simple: to empower both men and women in her community so that they can have a choice in their destiny.
Born into a large family, it was not until her tenth birthday that Gitagno saw the inside of a classroom. She remembers begging her father to invest in her education. He was worried that she would fail. Her response, “But father, I will not fail.”
And she has never looked back. Gitagno went on to graduate from high school and enroll into a teachers college beginning what has become her lifelong career—a teacher to her community. Her challenges are enormous to say the least, but Gitagno has continued to work tirelessly to not only allow for economic independence for people, but she also continues in developing social and gender equity.
The Barabaig Community in Tanzania
The Barabaig have traditionally been pastoralists. Even in the recent past, the Barabaig have not been completely disenfranchised. Until recently, they were one of the largest suppliers of beef to the rest of Tanzania. Coupled with their remote location, and prolonged seasons of drought, the Barabaig have had to look for alternative economic lifestyles. Like many pastoral communities in Africa, the Barabaig have suffered in the hands of their government and foreign developers who have seen their land as a resource for development.
Hanaag Women Counseling and Development Association (HAWODA)
Gitagno found that her efforts with the Barabaig community were not isolated. In 1998, she joined HAWACODA, a women’s group whose mission is to sensitize both men and women on problems faced by women through personal interaction with the community in seminars, workshops, public rallies and skits through radio and television.
“Education is key. For instance, we made a list of all chores in the community and found that women were overworked. We made the men realize that there are only two things that neither of the genders cannot cross-perform, child-birth and breast-feeding, “she chuckled.
HAWOCODA works closely with lawyers from the Legal Human Rights Center. One of the greatest inroads that have been made is a reduction in female circumcision. According to Gitagno, thanks to education on the hazards of FGM, members of the community report FGM activities as it is illegal.
Economic Empowerment for Women
The Barabaig Traditional Heritage is a community organization whose goal is to empower women to use local resources for economic sustainability thus reducing poverty and some issues of inequality. The project has been a great success, as the women who have made economic gains have risen to leadership positions in a community that is male-dominated.
With a smile on her face, Gitagno says of the project, “It is wonderful to see women educating their children. I am delighted to see that these women have choices to make thanks to the newfound respect in the community.”
The Amias Project is an American-based organization that was founded, by Nichole Smaglick, on the premise of economically empowering the Barabaig community. Amias (which means beautiful in Barabaig) purchases arts and crafts made by the community and sells them to an American market.
“When I see someone suffer, their rights being violated, it pains my heart. But it also softens me making me work even harder to make sure that they never have to live like that.”
About Julia N. Opoti
A former Mshale editor, Julia Nekessa Opoti is now the producer and host of the radio show: Reflections of New Minnesotans on AM950 . She also edits/publishes Kenya Imagine.