Eve Hersh: What inspired you to join the Girls Ed board?
Rai Farrelly: I have been involved as a board member for Girls Education International for five or six years. My memory of how I became involved with Girls Ed is a little fuzzy. What I know for sure is that the founders, Lizzy Scully and Heidi Wirtz, are friends of mine through our shared love of climbing and adventure. The three of us also volunteered together for the HERA Foundation, an organization dedicated to raising awareness about ovarian cancer and fundraising for out-of-the-box research.
I have always been motivated by social justice causes ranging in scope from health and education, to the environment and animal rights. Joining the Girls Ed board seemed like a natural fit for me because I have always been compelled to rally behind human rights issues, but especially those specific to marginalized and underrepresented populations (e.g., women, girls, refugee populations, etc.). Access to education is included in the United Nations Bill of Human Rights, and promoting this basic human right internationally is an easy cause to fight for – it’s something many of us take for granted, yet so many people around the world have limited to no access to formal education.
EH: And what about Project Wezesha, what moved you to begin this venture?
RF: In addition to my penchant for social justice, I also love traveling. I see the world through a new lens after every trip I take and I feel like these international experiences give me important information about the world – about humans and all the various ways in which we interact with one another. This love of travel and observing human behavior is part of what brought me to Tanzania, where I began my work as the co-founder of Project Wezesha.
In 2007, I began teaching English to women with refugee status from Burundi. None of these women had been afforded the opportunity to acquire print literacy in any language. They had limited formal education due to civil war in their country, which caused them and their families to flee for refuge in Tanzania. A friend and colleague of mine, Tamrika Khvtisiashvilli, introduced me to a Tanzanian man who was about to open a school in Western Tanzania, close to the refugee camps that my students called home for many years. I jumped at the opportunity to work with this school as an English language teacher educator and curriculum designer. However, when I arrived – there was no school in place, no teachers to train and generally, not much for me to do besides be a visitor.
I made the most of this experience, however. I visited Burundi, I traveled to the refugee camps and delivered pictures and money from my students to their families, I visited Gombe National Park, and I observed several secondary school classes in the Kigoma region. Over the course of the five weeks I was in Kigoma, I befriended several Tanzanians – most importantly Lucas Lameck. He was my friend, translator, and guide while I was there. By the end of the trip, I asked Lucas to help me identify five children that I could assist with secondary school fees. He located five youngsters that showed both motivation and need: Edina, Diana, Hindu, Ismael and France. The following year, I returned to Tanzania to visit the students and Lucas. On that trip, Lucas and I walked to the neighboring village of Mgaraganza to offer support to the village leaders. I suggested that I could return home and fundraise to build an additional classroom on their overcrowded primary school. My offer was kindly refused, but, Chief Bitata asked if I would be able to support them in building the village’s first secondary school. I naively said “Of course!”
That summer, in 2009, Lucas and I formed Project Wezesha. We made plans for how to move forward with this ambitious plan. We met with the village leaders and we brainstormed further. In the months that followed, back in the US, I began fundraising. I returned a year later–to the surprise of the villager–with $12,000 to start building. In addition to the school building, we also added a scholarship program through which we currently support 27 students. We are also partnering with Girls Education International this year to launch a new Girls Ed Tanzania program, which will support 30 girls attending secondary school in rural Kigoma.
It’s definitely a labor of love. There is a lot that goes into this endeavor, from crossing cultures and navigating business in another country to constantly thinking of ways to raise enough funds to build 16 classrooms and support students in school. The travel to and from is long, but the time in country is so rewarding. I think I’ll be going to Tanzania for the rest of my life!
EH: Can you describe your experience in these roles, and how they’ve impacted you?
RF: I have had overwhelmingly positive experiences in both roles. My work with Girls Ed has been super rewarding. In this capacity, I started out as a learner of the nonprofit world. It was the first time I served on a board, so I had to learn all the ins and outs. My role on the board inspired me to go for a professional certificate through the Nonprofit Academy of Excellence at the University of Utah. Both my role on the board and this certificate program were very complementary to my work with Project Wezesha and informed much of my growth as the co-founder of this organization.
Motivated by my roles in each organization, I started to read a lot about development work – what works, what not to do, how to fundraise, how to make connections with donors, how to implement sustainable efforts in-country, how to identify trustworthy partners, and so much more. One of my favorite reads is The Trouble with Africa: Why Foreign Aid Doesn’t Work. I also like Dead Aid and, of course, in times of doubt – wondering what I’m doing – I am always inspired by Half the Sky.
I have been impacted immeasurably by this work. For one, I now speak Kiswahili (poorly, but sufficiently to get to know people and places)! I have learned so much about Tanzania–I can speak to the culture, the environment, the government, the ways of doing business, the education system and more.
EH: What have you learned about yourself, life and the world while working in Tanzania?
RF: I’m not sure I’ve figured out all the answers yet! I think my personal growth is still unfolding, my knowledge of life is elusive, and my understanding of the world is deconstructed daily. When I am working in the village, I smile, I chat, I assert myself, I use the native language and I enjoy the food. But, at the end of the day, I want to retreat to my little cave and watch a movie, read a book, or blog in peace. I’m like that in general–social butterfly one minute, recluse the next.
In life, I have learned that relationships are formed through the simple interactions between people. Sometimes, relationships are formed in the absence of words.Many of the students in our program can’t say much to me in English, but through songs, gestures, laughter, sharing food and sitting with silence, we have become friends. Greetings are always filled with hugs, handholding and big smiles. The world is a fascinating place. Just when I think I have something figured out, I’m surprised by someone or something.
I have learned from my wanderings around the globe to observe my reactions to experiences and use those observations to better understand what it is about a given culture, person or experience that has surprised, impressed, upset, or pleased me. I used to be more reactionary; now I have more patience, acceptance and peace.
EH: You’re off to Armenia soon. Can you explain what you’ll be doing there and what kind of work you’ll be pursuing?
RF: I accepted a faculty position as an Assistant Professor at the American University of Armenia. I will be working in the MA TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) program. I won’t be teaching English as a foreign language (EFL), but rather training the university graduate students in the program who plan to pursue careers as EFL teachers.
I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to live and work abroad. My colleagues are excited to have me share the work I do in Tanzania with our students in Armenia. I have a dream of implementing a teacher education exchange between Tanzania and a language teacher education program. It might just come to fruition with the American University of Armenia. I would love to bring some Armenian students to Tanzania to explore the teaching practices in the Kigoma region and engage in a mutual sharing of second language teaching approaches.
EH: Can you share something about yourself that most people don’t know?
RF: I’m such an open book that I think most people know everything about me. Here are a couple of things that might be a surprise:
- I’m the daughter of Irish immigrants, so I have an Irish passport–which means I can live and work in the European Union.
- To get a little more personal, I’ll share this tidbit: I am 38 and have never had children. Through my years of fostering dogs, especially the vulnerable populations (i.e., sick, elder, behaviorally challenged), I have come to appreciate that I am a great mom. So, in recent years I’ve been thinking about adopting an older child. I’ll see where I am on the planet in a few years and perhaps, if I have the means, I will pursue adopting a child–from the US or abroad. I might actually beat most of my friends to parenting a teenager, even though many of them have young children of their own right now.
Thanks for sharing your stories with the Girls Ed community, Rai! The States will miss you but we’re eager to follow your Armenian and Tanzanian adventures!