At Leading Ladies Africa, we curate the achievements and exploits of African women in every field of endeavor. In recent times, we have had cause to meet amazing people doing things for African women we cannot help but spotlight. American Development Expert, Humanitarian and Girl Child advocate- Polly Dolan is one of such people and on this week’s #LLAInterview, this phenomenal woman takes us through her humanitarian journey, focusing on why she decided to run SEGA- Secondary Education for Girls’ Advancement initiative for young girls in Tanzania and shares quite profoundly its impact, challenges she has faced and how she was able to make headway in the Tanzanian educational system.
Hello Polly, it is lovely to meet you. Can you share briefly, what inspired SEGA initiative and why Tanzania?
In 2007 I had been living in Tanzania for almost 10 years, working for a large NGO and later as a consultant. Through my work, I had the chance to visit many regions of Tanzania and meet people from all backgrounds. Often my work was focused in the area of girls’ education and I had the chance to meet and interview girls and women about areas affecting their lives. I so often would see girls working in people’s homes as house-girls and was moved by how hard they worked, how much responsibility they had at such a young age, and how in many cases school was not even an option. I felt really moved thinking about how their childhoods were cut short, and that their opportunities for reaching their full potential was also cut short, due to the burden of work. I also saw and met girls who would do anything to get an education—and this often meant putting themselves in risky and unpleasant situations—exchanging sex for transport or a place to stay—so they could attend secondary school. This really shocked me. I decided that I wanted to do something that could help girls have more autonomy in their lives—that could help them avoid those situations.
Amazing! Currently, SEGA runs a residential academic system, what does this entail and how have you been able to sustain it?
I sought the advice of a Tanzanian colleague about what kind of a program we could start to assist girls gain access to education and avoid exploitation. He became the Co-Founder and the Chair of the SEGA Board. We decided that a residential boarding school would be something that could provide girls with the opportunity to gain a quality education and maximize their human potential. We knew we needed something that would provide the credentials within the national system to allow girls to advance and get employment. The concept was that a school could be a platform to reach girls with a wide range of interventions, including, but not limited to getting a quality academic education within the NECTA (national education) system.
This has entailed much more than I was aware of. After making the decision to embark on this project, nothing happened for almost a year. I was a bit overwhelmed in the beginning thinking about what it would entail. But I reached out to those close to me—my sister and some good friends from home—and asked them to help me start an organization that could try to raise funds in the US to support the venture. At the same time, my colleague and I reached out to others here in Tanzania and we created SEGA (Secondary Education for Girls Advancement). This has been a huge undertaking and I was fortunate to have very skilled, very committed and well-networked people who have helped us grow and fulfill our vision. So far we have been able to sustain our program through continued hard work in raising funds through over 1,000 donors every year, responding to those donors, hosting them, inviting them to engage with the school, and continuing to deliver a quality program on the ground. Aside from the fundraising, establishing the program itself also took a lot of work. Managing a school can be challenging! But very rewarding. The SEGA Board members have been totally committed from the beginning and have shaped the concept and development of the school.
Going by your cultural predisposition and nationality, how were you able to make headway in the Tanzanian educational system and how did you pitch your vision to relevant stakeholders?
I made a lot of assumptions initially, which were wrong—even though I had already been living here for 10 years! There are key differences in the educational system between the US and here of which I was not fully aware of in the beginning. But the key has been our Tanzanian board members, and our Tanzanian staff. I always viewed my role as that of a “bridge” and “facilitator”. I always looked towards my Tanzanian colleagues to provide guidance on cultural relevance, even as I introduced some other ideas that were grounded in my own cultural context. We have managed to find the middle ground on most issues. I have learned that success depends on the people you enlist in your endeavour—the people you work with. I was very fortunate both within Tanzania, and within the US, to have been able to engage very committed, quality people to help develop the school and all its programs. Those people in turn brought connections and helped convey the vision. It has never been me alone—not even close!
The Sega Girls School adopted a ‘Education for Life Curriculum’, what informed this decision and how impactful has it been so far?
The concept of teaching the students about their intrinsic rights as girls, helping them learn to communicate assertively, and helping them know everything they need to know about their health and in particular their reproductive health, was always part and parcel of the initial vision for the school. A lot of this comes from my own cultural background. But it was also grounded in the ideas of how we wanted to help girls—not just to help them get an academic education but to become empowered to shape their lives and pursue their dreams.
Once, we started the school’s first program we had a gifted and strong Teacher / Coordinator who devoted the morning section of the day to teaching the girls life skills. When the secondary program opened we continued to build on that program. We hired a Counsellor who was instrumental in operationalizing our vision, and a VSO Volunteer from Australia with a background in Life Skills education was also instrumental. The curricula developed over several years and we utilized many existing resources from other Tanzanian and international organizations. The Education for Life program has been at the core of our school and everything we do from the beginning. It has had tremendous positive impact on all of our students’ lives. We hear stories from our students about actions they have taken in their lives to stand up for themselves or others; to make pivotal decisions; or to communicate with others effectively etc. which they attribute to the Education for Life program. Imagine a girl who, formerly working as a house girl, too shy to speak in some cases; who now can host a foreign visitor at the school, stand up in front of the entire student body and deliver a speech about a pertinent social issue; teach her parents how to improve the family garden; and tutor her sisters during the breaks in maths. That is a SEGA girl.
Enabling gender equality and empowering women are critical to advancing progress and growth in Tanzania. What role is SEGA playing in facilitating this?
SEGA is taking this concept and putting it into a real, tangible example on the ground. SEGA educates and nurtures each girl toward being an empowered young woman, capable of planning and shaping her own future.
Can you explain what inspired the “Dreams Campaign”? and what does it mean to you?
The “Dreams Campaign” was the brainchild of two energetic and creative young women helping us to create a visual display of our students’ future dreams in honor of our 10 year anniversary. These women visited SEGA, met with the girls and designed the exercise whereby the girls wrote their dreams for the future. Each dream is written on a separate piece of paper and after flying them from Tanzania to the US are now being further constructed into a “Dreams Wall” by a Philadelphia Artist who at one time visited the school and painted our water tower. Its very special because like most things at SEGA it is a beautiful mix of Tanzanian and other international cultures and ideas coming together to create a rich cross-cultural product. The dreams have been captured and are incorporated into a celebration of the school in a unique way that could not have happened only in Tanzania or only here in the US. The cross-cultural dimensions in making the project is what make it so rich and meaningful, very much like the school itself.
What would you consider the greatest achievement of SEGA Girls in 10 years of its existence?
The greatest achievement of SEGA Girls’ has been the empowerment of each student. Each girl who passes through SEGA’s program graduates knowing that she has the same intrinsic value and the same rights as anyone else on this earth. She has a set of academic, business, and communication and planning skills; and she has had experience in giving back to her community, delivering a speech, making a business plan, and many other activities which have helped her identify her place in the world.
Where do you see SEGA 10 years from today?
SEGA Secondary School, staffed with many of its own graduates, will be a high-performing school, known for its holistic and entrepreneurial education, attractive to girls from all different social and ethnic groupings in Tanzania. In addition to the Secondary School, SEGA will also be known as a “girls empowerment center” . Our “Modern Girl” program where SEGA graduates mentor girls in their communities will have grown to reach 1,000 girls across the country, expanding and deepening our impact.
If you weren’t running SEGA what would you be doing?
Since I shifted back to the USA in June 2016, I have been focusing less on day to day operations and more on supporting fundraising and long-term sustainability for SEGA. I do have a lot of interests, but SEGA, along with my daughter, is still the core focus for me.
Understanding the cultural attitude of the Tanzanian society towards women, do you think feminism will thrive in Tanzania?
Definitely, it has just as much chance to thrive here in Tanzania as in the US or other places. It’s up to the people themselves to change cultural attitudes. Since citizens of other places have changed their own cultural attitudes, then that means it is also possible in Tanzania–why not? It’s up to all of us to create the world we want. Tanzanians are a lot more open-minded and willing to change than many people in the world, so I think there is a very good chance of it taking off. Tanzanians need good leadership to make it happen though. Look at what is happening in my country—two steps forward and one step back—it’s a continuous process and struggle and you can probably never sit back, relax and say “OK, we are there now, now we can relax!”. But every step forward makes it more solid and sustained, and fully integrated into the society. Also, the process of change for women in Tanzania may look different than the process of feminism in the US—but ultimately it’s just about human rights.
What does feminism mean to you and how has your feminism influenced your choices as a woman?
Feminism to me is about rights for all people including women and girls. But because women and girls’ rights are so obviously being overlooked in so many places, there is a need for a specific focus on women and girls’ rights. In the world right now as we know, there are entire political ideologies and movements that are designed specifically to keep women down. Whenever one group is trying to keep another down It’s because one is reaping benefits from the exploitation of the other. So those root factors need to be taken into account when figuring out how best to tackle the issue. One key factor that can help people liberate themselves is awareness, especially knowing there is a legal framework and basis supporting that liberation.
A piece of advice for women looking to solve social problems in Africa/ in their country?
Focus on the positive—meaning focus on a vision for what you want to see; express it to others in terms of the positive things that you want to see (rather than expressions of division, hatred, anger). Try to see the other person’s point of view—and find the common ground. While in the short term it may feel like men might need to give up a lot if women’s positions in the household and society are elevated, ultimately it will benefit everyone. Enlist males in the cause. I think it’s very important too that when you are embarking on anything—remember that it doesn’t need to follow a certain formula or look like anyone else’s solution. You will find the solutions that are right for you as you go.
The Leading Ladies Africa Series is a weekly interview series that focuses on women of African descent, showcases their experiences across all socio-economic sectors, highlights their personal and professional achievements and offers useful advice on how to make life more satisfying for women. It is an off-shoot of Leading Ladies Africa, a non-profit that promotes women empowerment and gender inclusion for women of African descent.
Do you know any woman of African descent doing phenomenal things? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we just might feature her.