Madam Irene closes the door of her office and climbs the stairs. She is on her way to teach her first ever class at St Jude’s Girls’ Secondary School.
One of the youngest teachers at St Jude’s, Madam Irene is charismatic and popular amongst her students. She has a quick wit and a wisdom beyond her years.
“I’m looking forward to teaching in the new school,” she says, drinking in her surroundings. “When girls are supported, you are supporting the whole community.”
Madam Irene walks into her pristine classroom, sitting down at freshly burnished desks are 25 Form 4 girls. The walls are freshly painted, the blackboard is untouched and through the open windows is the sound of a lawn mower, chugging away.
“Welcome back from the holidays girls,” says Madam Irene. “It’s the start of a New Year! I hope you had a good rest.”
When Madam Irene was in Form 6, her year level had 480 students. Only two of these students achieved Division One exam results (the highest grade) and Madam Irene was one of them.
When she graduated from Form 6, the school asked her to come back and help out with their students. Madam Irene quickly learnt that she had a talent for teaching and went on to study at Makumira University in Arusha.
Growing up, both of Madam Irene’s parents played a pivotal role in supporting her throughout her life, with her mother being an important figure in her education.
“She brought me up to be a responsible person,” says Madam Irene. “To be confident, and to work hard, to earn what I’m supposed to earn, not to expect things to happen.”
These are lessons she hands on to her students, lessons that tie in nicely with today’s class topic.
“Today we will be studying a new topic,” says Madam Irene. “Culture!”
“So, what is culture?”
The students raise their hands and offer answers.
“Culture is the way you dress.”
“Culture is the language you speak.”
“Culture is the food you eat.”
For Madam Irene and her fellow teachers, teaching at the new girls’ school is an opportunity to establish a new culture and a new beginning for these students.
There have been times in Madam Irene’s career when she has been the only woman in a room filled with men.
“Being a woman in the midst of men can be challenging,” says Madam Irene. “If I speak things, then some men will think I’m too emotional, or sometimes I’m expected to wait for men to speak first - it’s challenging.”
But Madam Irene is seeing a lot of change and women are now contributing to society in a diverse range of roles - as political leaders, in business and even driving cars, something that in the past was uncommon.
“I know there are other women behind me who are supporting me and when men see a balance of 50-50 in a room they will not look down upon me, they will see an equal.”
As a civics teacher, there will be many opportunities for Madam Irene to discuss equality with her students.
“They will get to know their rights,” she says. “For example, our constitution does not differentiate men and women – we are all equal!”
As the class moves on, the students begin talking about their tribes, comparing different handshakes. Madam Irene approaches one of the students, Susie, who is sitting by the wall.
“Susie,” says Madam Irene. “Come and show me how a woman would greet a man in your tribe.”
Madam Irene poses as a man, and Susie curtsies in front of her, offering a handshake.
“You know,” says Madam Irene. “In some tribes a woman has to kneel before reaching a man.”
As Madam Irene speaks she moves to the front of the classroom and stands proudly, knowing that she is in the privileged position of showing these students what an independent, capable woman can achieve.
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