A woman recounts her two decades dedicated to educating Massai girls in Tanzania in this debut memoir.
Many teachers have said that they learned as much from their students as their students learned from them. When the pupils are the girls of Maasailand, the lessons learned are a bit different than those gleaned by other teachers. When the 24-year-old native of Billings, Montana, arrived in the country in the late 1990s to teach at the Maasai Secondary School for Girls, Cutler met teenagers whose experiences had already included the threat of arranged marriages, early motherhood, polygamy, and genital mutilation in addition to rampant gender discrimination and severe poverty. “Helping others and empowering others are not always the same thing,” writes the author in her introduction, recalling her idealistic motivations. “Neither are simple matters, particularly for outsiders, but I didn’t know this yet. If I had, I might never have gone.” Using her own experiences as well as those of some of her students—including a teen whose father was ordered by village elders to educate one of his 23 children and a pupil who, at the age of 13, escaped an arranged marriage to a 30-year-old—Cutler presents a picture of the joys and challenges faced by this first generation of educated Maasai girls. Following her two-year stint in Tanzania, the author continued to support the school from afar for 20 years. Cutler’s prose is considered and often lyrical, as when she describes the physical conditions of the Great Rift Valley: “During the dry season, it is a dusty, radiating cauldron of cracked earth. In the wet season, it is a verdant miracle rising from the very brink of despair.” The author is sensitive to the traditions of Maasai culture but is unafraid to criticize those aspects that she feels are damaging for girls. The book is a valuable record, showing both the successes and limitations of education and Western assimilation of native cultures. At its heart, though, it is an education memoir—alternatingly moving and tedious, as they frequently are—to which anyone who has spent time in a classroom will likely relate.
A sometimes-slow but often enlightening account of teaching in East Africa.