As Tariro’s founder, I wanted to begin by sharing with you the story of how I came to start this organization. Some of you may know me personally, while others do not, but I thought that all of you would be interested in hearing how I came to found Tariro.
Tariro’s story is the story of friendship between two teenaged girls, a friendship which endured for over a decade despite the very different lives the two girls came to lead. The story begins in 1995, when I first traveled to Zimbabwe as a fifteen-year old high school student. There, I lived for six months with a host family in Highfield township, a low-income neighborhood in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare. I chose to travel to Zimbabwe to study traditional music and dance, and my host family was a perfect fit for me, as several members of the family were professional dancers and musicians.
The story of Tariro is partly my story, but it is equally the story of my best friend, Blantina Chauruka. Thirteen at the time I first met her, she had been abandoned by her mother at birth, and lived at my host family’s house, where she was being raised by Kesi Chauruka, her grandmother. Blantina was my first and best friend in Zimbabwe. From the moment we met, we bonded immediately. Each evening, we would spend hours talking together by the fire in the cooking hut as the family prepared the evening meal. After dinner, we would join other neighborhood children just outside the gate to her home, playing traditional children’s songs and singing and dancing under the stars. Blantina taught me to speak Shona by naming for me every object I came across- ruva, a flower, dombo, a stone, zuva, the sun- and by writing these words in the dust with a stick to teach me how to spell them. Despite the difference in our ages, Blantina’s teacher welcomed me as an occasional guest in his classroom, where I read Shona folktales and formed a lasting relationship with the headmaster, to whom my mother would later send boxes of books as donations to the school’s library. And on weekends, we would walk to nearby Machipisa to drink a coke and watch soccer games at Gwanzura stadium.
As young teenaged girls, Blantina and I shared similar hopes and dreams despite our different backgrounds. Little did we know how differently our lives would turn out to be. After returning to the United States, I finished high school and was accepted to Mount Holyoke College. Upon graduating in 2002, I made plans to go to graduate school, and received a Fulbright Fellowship to return to Zimbabwe to study for a year. In the meantime, Blantina’s father had died of AIDS, and without his financial support to pay her school fees and cover the costs of her uniform and school supplies, Blantina was forced to withdraw from school. She worked for a maid as a time, returning to live with her grandmother only to witness many of her uncles die, also from AIDS related illnesses. Finally, Kesi Chauruka, her grandmother, passed away of a stroke. Blantina was now twenty years old, had been out of school for five years, and was practically homeless. Her one surviving uncle, who was mentally impaired, allowed her to sleep on the floor in the kitchen of her grandmother’s house, which he had inherited. However, she had neither a key to the house, nor anyone to assist her with food or other living expenses. She was now desperately poor, and living in an unsafe situation.
When I returned to Zimbabwe in 2002, I reconnected with Blantina. With youthful idealism and a sense of optimism, I arrived determined to help my best friend move toward a brighter future. However, I had little idea of the challenges we would face. First, I tried to help her reenroll in school. After a five-year absence from the formal education system, however, Blantina lacked the necessary paperwork to reregister immediately, and a long time elapsed before we had the required documents, including her birth certificate and previous school records. Additionally, the headmaster at the local school in Blantina’s neighborhood was reticent to allow her to re-enroll since she was now well beyond the age at which students in Zimbabwe normally finish high school. After a long struggle to collect the proper documentation and negotiate with the headmaster, Blantina was finally able to enroll.
After I paid Blantina’s school fees, bought a uniform and saw her walk through the gates of her new school, I felt sure that she was on the right track. However, I was unprepared for the challenges which face students who have missed several years of school as a result of poverty and the effects of losing family members to HIV/AIDS. Having been out of school for five years before she re-enrolled, Blantina was not well prepared to focus on academics. Compounding the problem, she was in classes with students much younger than she was, and lacked the support of her peers. After two years, and passing only half of her classes, Blantina approached me to tell me that she would rather take a vocational course than continue working toward a high school degree. Upon discussing various options, she decided to enroll in a course to learn hairdressing, with the goal of working in and perhaps someday starting her own beauty salon.
While Blantina was attending vocational school, I left Zimbabwe to return to the United States and begin graduate school. Intensely moved by the challenges I had experienced in trying to help my best friend finish a high school education, I turned my thoughts to starting an organization to assist other young women whose families are affected by poverty and HIV/AIDS. This time, I was determined to connect with orphaned and vulnerable girls early on, to provide support for them throughout their high school years. I also realized the importance of providing support services to empower and motivate girls to make positive choices for their own futures. To achieve this, Tariro now provides a number of support services, including a five-day empowerment camp held each year for all of our sponsored students.
My friendship with Blantina, and my experience living in Highfield as a teenaged girl, inspired me to form Tariro in order to work toward empowering and educating Zimbabwean teenagers, especially those whose families are affected by the double challenges of crippling poverty and HIV/AIDS. As an organization, our mission is to ensure that other Zimbabwean girls in positions like Blantina’s are supported and can finish a high school education. Since the time of its founding, Tariro has grown from sponsoring 6 students in 2003 to almost 60 students in 2009, and many of our sponsored students are realizing their dreams to complete high school. Some of them have joined a imcome-generating project sponsored by Tariro, learning embroidery and sewing skills. Others are enrolled in college and have plans to work in the professional world. All of them bring the knowledge, confidence, and skills they have acquired through Tariro back to their communities.
And Blantina? The skills she learned in vocational school gave her the confidence to emigrate to Botswana, and later to South Africa, in search of work and a better life. She and I stayed in touch during this time, and I was excited about the thought of seeing her when I returned to Zimbabwe in April of 2009 to do fieldwork for my dissertation. In June of 2009, however, during the xenophobic attacks in South Africa, her cellphone number stopped working, and I have been unable to locate her since. Not a day goes by that I don’t miss Blantina and wonder where she is. I continue to hope that we will see each other again. I would love to see one of my oldest and closest friends again, and to share with her the work Tariro is doing with other young women.