Tom Eblen

Two Kentucky women raise money for African schools

She was a bright girl of 12, but on the day she was to take the entrance exam for secondary school, her father chained her to a window frame in her bedroom.

He had other plans for his daughter: an arranged marriage to a much older man, who would make her his third or fourth wife.

The girl escaped and sought refuge with a small group of Roman Catholic nuns, who begged the father to let her go to school.

The story has a happy ending: The father relented, and the girl now lives with the nuns and attends school.

Flaget Nally got to know the girl and the nuns during the three years she spent as a lay missionary in Tanzania. But there were many other girls she knew in that East African nation — and thousands more she could never know — whose fates are much different.

"Girls there are at great risk for rape, for early marriage, for HIV infection," Nally said.

Only 5 percent of Tanzanian girls ever attend secondary school. But Nally, who is from Bardstown, and the Missionary Sisters of Mary, who are from Uganda, hope to change that.

Since she returned to Kentucky last summer, Nally has been raising money to help the nuns build an English-language boarding school for as many as 800 girls of all faiths in the Tanzanian town of Bukoba.

"They're hoping it will be a safe haven for these girls," she said.

Giant Steps for African Girls, a 3k walk/run, is planned April 26 at the University of Kentucky's Commonwealth Stadium to raise money for the school.

So far, with a similar event in Bardstown and many private donations, Nally has raised $80,000 — enough to buy seven acres of land and an old building that will soon be renovated into the first school building. To make the entire school a reality, perhaps ten-times that amount will be needed.

All money donated will go towards the school, said Nally, whose living expenses are being covered by local friends and church members.

Nally was an occupational therapist in Louisville when the Catholic faith of her childhood began calling her back. "I said, 'God, do whatever you want to do with me,' and my life has been nuts ever since," she said.

In 1994, she became a volunteer with Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity in New York City. Then she went to Selma, Ala., to work with Edmundite Mission Corps, helping at-risk African American children.

Then, after earning a master's degree from the Franciscan School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif., and working several years in the Bay area, she felt God's call to Africa.

After months of preparation and Swahili language training, Nally spent three years with Franciscan Mission Service in Tanzania, mostly working in a home for "abandoned" people with leprosy, HIV or mental illness. She was the only Westerner.

She loved Tanzania and its people, but was appalled by the culture's treatment of women. Boys go to school; girls go to work. Women not only cook for men, but they must serve the food while walking on their knees.

"I saw women beaten for not having the meal done exactly when the husband wanted it," she said. "It's extremely sad to watch."

Tanzania is less advanced than some other African countries because it has united its tribes with Swahili rather than English, and educational materials in the language are limited. The nuns from Uganda, where English is an official language, hope education will improve the lives and treatment of Tanzania's women.

The nuns kept asking Nally to go back to America and raise money for them. After much prayer, she agreed.

In addition to English and traditional subjects, the nuns hope to teach the girls self-respect, practical skills they can use to help support their families and values they can pass on to their children.

"To educate a girl in Africa is to educate a family," Nally said. "What the Sisters want to do is create leadership among women, to empower them and improve their lives."

Another Africa project

Carol Holzhausen Hunt, Kentucky's 2007 Carnegie Foundation professor of the year, also felt the tug of African children when she accompanied a Kenyan collegue on a trip home in 2005.

Hunt, who retired last year after more than two decades teaching women's studies and literature at Bluegrass Community and Technical College, has been raising money since then to support schools in the Okela village of Kenya's Nyanza province.

When she visited the school, she was shocked: "The science lab had nothing. No tables, no equipment. I didn't even see any textbooks. Most of the children are orphans. It's an area hit hard by HIV."

"The principal said, 'Can you help us?' The kids were so sweet and so smart and so friendly, I thought there must be something I can do," she said.

Hunt decided to raise money for the school. Five former students — Melissa Adkins, Veronica Heacox, Erin Wellman, Molly Hukle and Chrissy Herren — embraced the project and have kept it going.

So far, they have raised about $10,000 for the school. They also send $300 every two months to a village women's group that makes school uniforms for the children and earns money for the village.

Hunt's non-profit group, Okela School Charities, will have a fund-raising sale and silent auction Saturday, April 14, at BCTC. This year's goal is to finish raising $5,000 to buy a water purification system for the village.

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