In a photo published in a magazine, Sr. Mary Vertucci, a Maryknoll Missionary, was standing in a crowd of happy-looking Maasai girls. In love as I am with Africa, it was not the location of the shot but the Vertucci name that first attracted my attention. I wanted to find out more about my fellow alumna of the College of St. Elizabeth. You see, I have cousins in Naples and Cilento in Italy whose last name is Vertucci. I thought Sr. Mary might be cousin to my cousins, a relationship that counts for something both among Neapolitans and among the Maasai. Mary and I have never been able to establish whether my cousins are her cousins, but I now know this about her: I admire and support the work she is doing with those girls at the Emusoi Center in Tanzania.
Emusoi’s website declares it to be “a safe and supportive place that seeks to provide and facilitate opportunities for education for secondary school age Maasai girls: to enable each to become aware of her potential and worth as a person; to realize the value of education for herself and her community; and to engender a desire to discover ways to use her education to influence change for the good of her community. This is accomplished by giving these young women a chance to continue their education beyond primary school level.”
Before we go on, let’s talk about the Maasai. They are a pastoral tribe that inhabits southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. Their culture is ancient and has, to a certain extent, withstood the assault of change. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the British moved into their territory and began to corral them and their herds into reservations to make room for European settlers. The Maasai culture has been threatened ever since.
There are beautiful things about their way of life, and preserving them seems worth a struggle: the closeness of helping, supportive families, their sustainable way of using the land by migrating their cattle. There are also traditions that do not sit well with modern thinking, like female circumcision and the complete subjugation of women. The place of girls in their society is what I want to emphasize.
The Maasai practice polygamy. It is not unheard of for a wealthy man to have as many as fourteen wives. These men acquire their women by buying girls and paying with cattle. Fathers value girl children because they can bring a bride price. The girl sold for cattle will then have no choice but to go off to bear the children and tend the animals of her husband. Her girl children will be sold in turn. Educating a girl in this environment is seen as a waste, at best, since it does not increase the price that her father can charge for her.
Some fathers, out of affection for their daughters or their mothers, can be persuaded to give up or postpone the income and let their daughters continue into secondary school, but with the AIDS crisis, many girls have lost their mothers and their fathers and become pretty much the chattel of uncles and grandfathers.
Here is where Emusoi comes in. Its name means “discovery” or “awareness” in the Maasai language. Emusoi is not a school. It is a place where Maasai girls can live in peace and security while they continue their studies in nearby schools. The students often arrive, accompanied by female relatives, in defiance of the men who wish to seal their fates. The women who bring them often suffer brutality at the hands of men whose plans for the girls are frustrated. The girls often arrive with only the clothes on their backs. One poor child had to give back to her mother the cloth she was wrapped in and the car tire sandals she wore because they were borrowed. In a sense she came to Emusoi naked.
Sister Mary and the Emusoi staff teach the girls their true worth and what their future can hold—beyond bearing children and caring for the herd. They can preserve what is best in their ancient way of life by learning about the laws of the country and how to stand up for their people when their rights are denied. They can help their families beyond just bringing in a bride price. They can learn medicine—how to care for the sick of their tribe. Most of the girls who have passed through Emusoi have returned to help their people. A woman from New Jersey named Mary Vertucci founded Emusoi in 1999 to help them. The hardest thing she has to do in her work is to turn away the 60% of girls who want to learn, because she does not have the means to support them.
If you want to learn more, here are two ways:
You can buy the book Emusoi: Maasai Girls Tell Their Stories by Kasia Parham. It’s available here:
You will read in their own words the stories of, among others, Anna, whose mother stopped her circumcision ceremony and brought her to Emusoi instead. And of Neema, whose brave mother spirited her away rather than see her sold into marriage at age 12 in return for a truckload of beer. All the profits from the sale of the book go to Emusoi.
And you can go here:
You may decide to help the effort by clicking the donate button. I invite you to join me in becoming a regular supporter. Each month, a small amount is charged to my credit card. It makes nary a blip on my monthly balance, but it means a lot the girls of Emusoi. And it makes me feel good when I receive Sr. Mary’s monthly email reports of their progress.