Liz Moran is a ginger from Connecticut whose heart is in Africa. Her international development projects have taken her across the continent – from Cape Town to rural Kenya. I was lucky enough to catch a bit of her time to hear more about her inspiring work supporting girls’ education and empowerment through WISER.
(PS: Do yourself a favor and watch the videos. I guarantee that they will make you smile.)
So Liz, what originally took you to Africa?
I’ve been interested in Africa for literally as long as I can remember. When I was in pre-school and kindergarten, everyone would ask, “Where do you want to go?” Everyone else would say Hawaii, Disney World, or Grandma’s house. I would say Africa.
Where do you think that idea came from? Were you exposed to African culture at home?
No, not at all. Initially, I always loved animals so I think the idea of safari was really appealing, but then as I got older I started to listen to a lot of African music and read about different tribes and countries. When I was 16 I convinced my parents to let me go on a voluntourism trip to Tanzania. I was in a little village outside of Arusha, and the first day I was there they had a big welcoming ceremony for us in the village. And I just knew that I was going to grow old in East Africa. I knew I this is where I wanted to base my life.
That experience informed a lot of my decisions. I decided to go to University of Cape Town for undergrad having never been to South Africa before. I just booked a one-way ticket. I decided that rather than studying about Africa in the US, that it would make a lot of sense to go to live within the place that I wanted to study.
Tell me about WISER and what kind of work you are engaging in.
WISER runs a school in a remote area of Kenya called Muhuru Bay. It started when one of the co-founders was doing research in the area, and she got a note under her door from a 14 year-old girl that said, “Should I stop having sex with the man who is paying my school fees? I’m afraid of getting AIDS.”
Muhuru Bay is very remote. It is a fishing village, and there is a huge cycle of transactional sex, which has resulted in one of the highest rates of HIV in the country and really anywhere in Africa. We estimate that there is 38% HIV prevalence in Muhuru.
Before WISER, there was really nothing for girls in the area. Girls were getting married to get their dowry, which would then be used to educate their brothers. There was a really strong social stigma against girls remaining in school because it wasn’t seen to have a direct impact on the family. People in Muhuru then didn’t have the luxury of dreaming about tomorrow. Their decisions were focused on what they could do today.
WISER came at an amazing time because it has been able to create a sense of hope for girls. More girls than ever are in secondary school now, and they are the first girls in their family to stay in school. The main value of WISER is that we remove all of the barriers that were preventing girls from excelling in the first place.
In the 30 years before WISER, only one woman from Muhuru Bay had ever gone to university. So for someone who wanted to continue their education, they weren’t really seeing that as a realistic possibility. At WISER we have a lot of really powerful women that the girls can look up to. Our principal is the first female principal in the district. We have leadership and psycho-support built into our curriculum. WISER girls are much more confident and expressive than other girls in the village. They can articulate what their vision for the future is. You can see what I’m talking about in the video they recently created (below).
In development and social change-y circles, educating girls is often spoken about as the silver bullet to creating change. What are your views on the wider global campaigns around these issues like Girl Rising or Malala Fund, which are kind of at the opposite end of the spectrum to what you are engaging in with WISER?
I think there is a lot of value to both. In WISER’s case, we are changing the way that girls’ education is perceived in a specific context. I can tell you from having lived in Muhuru for the last year that there is not a single person who doesn’t want their daughter to become a WISER girl. So without the grassroots, community-level change, there is not anything to build off of. At the same time, I think that these global movements make a huge difference. I think the idea of partnership is something that gets overlooked in the NGO world – so many of us are engaging in similar work. We are always trying to differentiate ourselves, but actually we should really be interdependent and learning from other organizations working in the same thematic area. Ideally, community-level work like WISER would become a global movement.
If you look at something like Half the Sky, it uses the huge exposure of Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, but it focuses on grassroots level initiatives that were already working. That is really the value: when you can build on the larger movements but still remain true to the work you are doing on the ground.
If someone is reading this and wants to support WISER, what can they do?
We currently have a GoFundMe campaign up where people can make donations to help support our work of providing free schooling for girls. You can also visit the donate tab on our website. And you can like our Facebook page to stay in the loop. We just past 2,000 likes!