Made for More Than Marriage

A 10-year-old Masai girl is rescued and pursues a big dream.

By Eric D. Lema With Katy Bennett
Photos by Eric D. Lema

The new school year was just around the corner in Msitu we Tembo, Tanzania, and Paulina was excited.

Paulina would be going into the first grade. She had loved kindergarten and was eager to return to school. Paulina looked forward to learning new things and seeing her friends. And thanks to her Compassion center held at a local church, she was ready to go with books and a uniform.

But when it was finally time to return to her classes, Paulina was never taken back to school. And to her surprise, she learned that her father had a different plan for her life — a plan that involved a dowry.

The rural village of Msitu we Tembo is home to the Masai people, a beautiful, vibrant group that holds to many tribal customs, typically including strict gender roles. Boys are expected to learn to herd cattle, and girls are expected to get married — often at a very young age.

In Tanzania, three out of 10 girls are married before their 18th birthday. Most of these girls live in rural areas and are denied access to education. Paulina was on track to be included in this group.

When Paulina was a baby, her father, Abraham, moved to work in another country. She was left with her mother, Elizabeth, and her older brother, Elisha. For four years, they never heard from Abraham.

While her husband was gone, Elizabeth enrolled Paulina and Elisha in primary school. She dreamed that both her children would have a bright future — her daughter as well as her son.

But when Paulina’s father unexpectedly returned after four years, he was furious with what he found. Most of his anger was spurred by the fact that Elizabeth had enrolled Paulina in school without telling him. And as a result of their disagreement, Elizabeth moved back into her parents’ home.

She took Elisha with her, but her husband insisted on keeping Paulina with him. And in order to keep her out of school, Abraham sent her to his mother’s home where she would spend her days selling milk.

You see, Abraham’s plan for Paulina was early marriage. Paulina had an older sister who had been married as a child and had earned her family a good dowry. Abraham hoped the same thing would happen again, which would make Paulina’s education unnecessary.

“My father told me that my mother was a bad influence because she wanted me to go to school,” Paulina said. “He wanted me to get married, but I wanted to go to school.”

And just like that, Paulina’s dreams were stripped from her. But hope was not completely lost yet — even if she didn’t know it. And this hope came in the form of a man named Jackson.

Jackson was a staff member at Paulina’s Compassion center. When he heard that Paulina wasn’t attending, he acted immediately. He started by going to Elizabeth’s mother. She was the only one who would be able to tell him where Abraham’s mother lived.

From there, they visited her mother-in-law’s home in hopes that they would be able to confront Abraham. When they arrived, he wasn’t there. Jackson and Elizabeth searched for Abraham for three days, but he seemed to have disappeared.

Their next step was to visit a village elder who played an influential role in their community.

“Although Abraham was avoiding us, we were sure he would not ignore the call of an elder,” Jackson said.

But the elder was yet another obstacle in their mission. He told them that because Abraham was the head of the household, they had to do whatever he said.

“Since the elder was of no help, we took the matter to the police,” Jackson said. “As soon as he saw that the police were involved, Abraham agreed to let Paulina start first grade.”

Victory. Paulina would not be a victim of child marriage. She would go to school instead.

But not only was this a victory for Paulina — this would affect many other girls in her community. Paulina was the last girl at her Compassion center to be denied education. Now, families know that if their daughters are enrolled in the Compassion program, they will be attending school.

And an increase in girls’ school attendance means a decrease in child marriage.

Today, 10-year-old Paulina is happily attending school. Her dream is to be a Swahili language teacher in the city of Arusha.

Sometimes it takes breaking with tradition to allow hope to break through. For Paulina, and other girls in her community, it’s what’s giving them a future.

Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. — Isaiah 1:17, NIV