A Maryknoll sister in East Africa
works to uplift at-risk students
At the Mmazami Primary School outside of Musoma, a city on the eastern shore of Lake Victoria in Tanzania, Sister Marion Hughes and a small group of visitors are greeted with a song as they enter a classroom full of students.
Sung in Swahili, the national language, the song is about being in school, and says, “Education is like light and with light you can see everything.”
The welcome is a fitting tribute to Sister Hughes from a grateful cohort of students. They are in class in large part due to a program she started with three Tanzanians 20 years ago to keep children in school.
Begun in 1998 with 12 students as a program for AIDS orphans—children who have lost one or both parents to the disease—it now serves both AIDS orphans and other students in danger of leaving school or not attending at all because of difficult home situations, such as abuse, neglect or other factors that put them at risk, says Sister Hughes, who is now 82 years old.
“The purpose of the program was to keep the children who are AIDS orphans or children living in difficult situations in school so that they have an education, and teach them to be better citizens and to take responsibility for themselves, their neighbors and environment,” she says.
Called Children Against AIDS, or Watoto Wapinge Ukimwi in Swahili, the program targets nursery and elementary school students to make sure they are going to school and to keep them in school with the assistance of counselors who monitor the students and interact with their family, teachers and others involved in their lives.
Key to the program is after-school tutoring in English, Swahili, reading, writing and math, which the students receive five days a week.
Currently, the Watoto (which means children) program is serving 225 nursery and primary school children in five sites around Musoma, says Sister Hughes. Its counselors also continue to monitor and assist 75 children who are now in secondary school and 30 who are receiving vocational training.
“When they finish primary school, they take the government exams,” Sister Hughes says of the children in Watoto. “Then, some of them are chosen to go to secondary school; some are chosen to go to vocational training school.”
The Maryknoll missioner from New Rochelle, N.Y., generally prefers that the students follow the vocational training track as a more practical career route for most of them.
“At the end of two years (of vocational training) they have the tools that they need to work in what they’ve been trained in and they also have experience,” she says.
For the already disadvantaged students in the program it is hard to move on to meaningful employment with just a high school degree and no marketable trade or skill, she says.
According to UNICEF, an estimated 2 million children between the ages of 7 and 13 years are out of school in Tanzania. Almost 70 percent of children aged 14–17 years are not enrolled in secondary education and a mere 3 percent are enrolled for the final two years of high school. Even fewer attend university.
Watoto Wapinge Ukimwi, Sister Hughes says, is now part of a much bigger movement to address the problem of children dropping out of school before they have even a basic education.
The program is part of the Mara Alliance, a group of non-profit organizations in the Mara Region on the eastern side of Lake Victoria in Tanzania with the same goal of getting children into school and keeping them in class. The Alliance and its local partners, such as Watoto, are in a partnership with the Graça Machel Trust to enroll and get 20,000 children in the region back into the country’s education system over a two-year period.
Sister Hughes, who joined the Maryknoll Sisters in 1959 after earning a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Mount St. Vincent College in the Bronx, N.Y., says the Watoto program’s staff of counselors goes out every work morning to make sure the students are attending classes and to screen potential new students. They also follow up on abuse cases and children who are ill.
“We ask government officials, the teachers, neighbors and other religious people who would know who the children are who might benefit from this program,” she says. “We ask them for recommendations for children who might be eligible for our program. After they give us the names, we check the family and do research ourselves and choose children to go.”
For example, she says, the program learned of a 12-year-old boy who had stopped going to school. “We followed up and he wasn’t being fed and so he was running off to where there were parties or something so he could find food,” she says. The boy was also taking care of three siblings. The boy and his siblings were admitted to the Watoto program.
A troubling trend, the missioner notes, is an increase in domestic violence being reported by the counselors who are doing the field research.
“We could spend all our time answering the violence cases,” she says, “and we do spend a lot of time on it.”
Back at the Mmazami School, Sister Hughes is surrounded by clusters of students as she meets informally with parents and tutors and even some volunteers, like Jackson Witaro, the Mmazami Village chairman, all of whom help keep the Watoto program running and successful.
“My work is counseling children,” says Witaro, 70, “following up to see that they are attending tutoring.”
First assigned to Tanzania in 1964, Sister Hughes is preparing to turn her work over to local staff and to eventually return to the States. She is optimistic about the program’s future. “The people are basically in place,” she says. “They just need a little more training.”
Featured Image: Children in the Watoto program to help at-risk students stay in school greet Maryknoll Sister Marion Hughes, who helped start the program in Tanzania. (S. Sprague/Tanzania)