Two girls talk at sunrise
A Quick Chat Teresia Gabriel (left) talks with a classmate outside of Lagosa Secondary School in the Tuungane Project area. © Roshni Lodhia

Stories in Africa

Tuungane Project: Empowering Girls for Conservation Success

A new dormitory in western Tanzania is a win-win for people and nature

Teresia flicks on her lamp. It’s just after four in the morning, but she’s excited for the day’s lessons. She opens her math book and starts working on problems.

By 6 am, sunlight begins to slowly brighten the room. Thud, thud, thud. One by one, girls jump down from the top bunks.  Faces are washed, shoes are shined, and morning pleasantries are exchanged. 

With books in hand or expertly balanced on their heads, dozens of girls in matching burgundy and white uniforms walk across a clearing over to a small building. They find their desks, settle in, and listen, energized and eager, as a teacher begins to speak.

If only it was this easy for all girls in this area.  

A girl walks down a long road
The Long Walk for Education Teresia Gabriel used to walk more than 12 kilometers from her home to Lagosa Secondary school in the Tuungane Project area every day. © Roshni Lodhia

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THE LONG ROAD TO SCHOOL

Teresia Gabriel lives about 8 miles (12 kilometers) from Lagosa Secondary School in western Tanzania. The road is long, often muddy, and treacherous. But Teresia, like so many other young women, persisted, spending six or more hours a day walking back and forth to school in the pursuit of education.

During the school day, she was tired and hungry. There was no time to cook before leaving her house before daybreak and since she couldn’t go home for lunch midday with the other students, she spent her lunch hour reading. When she finally got home, there were chores to do. If she could muster the energy, she’d study by flashlight in her family’s small brick home.

Eventually, Teresia began renting a room close to school for just over $1 a month. She was spared the daily walk, but still had to spend enormous amounts of time cooking, gathering water, and performing other chores. Still, this kind of expense wasn’t an option for everyone, and Teresia considered herself lucky. 

She had watched as her female classmates had dropped out of school: many quit to help their families work on their farms, some got pregnant by men who interacted with girls living alone in rented rooms, and some were discouraged to pursue their studies due to their gender. In fact, the plunge in school attendance for girls here is precipitous: from 72 percent of 14-year-olds to just 10 percent of 18-year-olds. 

Unlocking the Power of Education Access to a new dormitory next to her school in western Tanzania has been life-changing for Teresia Gabriel.

A FOCUS ON EDUCATION

But Teresia’s fortunes changed in early 2019. A group of TNC donors called the Africa Affinity Group for Women and Girls (AAG) built a new dormitory next to her school. The 80 beds provide girls with a safe place to sleep. The school cook provides them two hot meals a day, giving them the energy to focus. Solar panels provide light for them to read by. But most importantly the dorms provide the girls with something so rare in this area: an opportunity to succeed.

Teresia’s village is part of the Tuungane Project, a joint partnership between The Nature Conservancy and Pathfinder International to create healthier families, fisheries, and forests in this remote area along Lake Tanganyika. In this region of high poverty, record birth rates, and near-total reliance on natural resources, the Tuungane Project takes a 360-degree approach to address the interrelated challenges of population, health, and environment.

Research shows that girls in this region who attended any amount of secondary school had about half as many children as other women. Staying in school means these girls typically marry and start having children at a later age, and education provides women more opportunities to become employed, earn an income, and reduce their overall reliance on natural resources. By educating girls, we have a better chance of saving forests that are home to 93 percent of Tanzania’s chimpanzees and a lake that provides food and income for thousands of families.

Education can also make a big difference on the global scale: The Drawdown Project lists educating girls as the number 6 solution to climate change. 

But for these 80 girls, the impact is immediate. Now, Teresia spends her afternoons hosting study groups with her fellow students. Her classmate Zainabu can study for more than one hour’s worth of flashlight batteries. And Magdalena no longer has to fear walking home in the dark.

This dorm is more than just a building: it’s safety, it’s nourishment, and it’s a plan for their future. And in the long term, it’s a ray of hope for the resources everything — from the chimps swinging through the trees to the women collecting fresh water — depends on.