Eliza (and Kelly)
So at the end of May when Georgia called to say that she was coming back to Tanzania (and so soon after she was just here in early April) I knew that something exciting was coming my way.
Georgia is the head of MTV’s global HIV initiative called Staying Alive. Staying Alive now has a foundation that gives small grants to amazing young people doing HIV work in the developing world. Some of their grantees are here in Tanzania. And when Georgia was in Tanzania in April I introduced her to a young Tanzanian woman I thought she had to meet… Eliza.
Eliza is someone who has had 100 years of hardship in 20 years of life. Eliza was born in Iringa – a region whose closest parts are about 8 hours by car from Dar es Salaam. Her father abandoned her mother and his young children when Eliza was just a baby. When she was 12 her mother “sold” her to a family that wanted to use her as a house girl. The family promised that Eliza would go to school, but that never happened. In Tanzania a “purchased” house girl is the equivalent of a modern slave. She makes little (or most often) no money in exchange for a place to live. In this case, Eliza’s mother got some small money and was then freed from having to worry about one more mouth to feed.
When Eliza got to Dar her life was hell. The family worked her seven days a week. When she was 14, the wife of the family went out one day and left Eliza home alone with her husband who brutally raped and beat her. Bruised and battered, Eliza went to the police station to report what had happened to her, but the police refused to open the case without a bribe. As Eliza was leaving the police station, the wife and husband showed up and claimed that Eliza had been stealing from them. Eliza was thrown in jail for six horrendous months.
The day Eliza was released from jail she somehow found her way to Hyena Square. Hyena Square is a neighborhood in one of the poorest communities of Dar. It is called Hyena Square because it is, “where the people who are like the hyena – feeding off the scraps and terrorizing the neighbors come to work and live.” That same day she met a young woman who invited her to stay, brought her to the guesthouse where she lived, and taught her how to sell her body for sex to men.
Hyena Square was one of the first places my colleagues took me to when I moved to Dar. USAID has asked me to show around a NPR reporter who was in town doing a news story, and so I asked my colleagues to take us to a place where there was sex work happening, and thus we arrived at Hyena Square. It would not be a lie to say that it was one of the most intense, overwhelming, and memorable (in a bad way) days of my life. (And truth be told, I’ve been to a lot of intense and bad places.) The square was filled with drunk and high people. Women were preparing injections of heroin in the alleyways. Men and women were meeting up in the squalid bars and guesthouses and retiring to the filthy beds in back rooms to have sex. There were some women who had several partners during the hour that I spent in one particular bar. And to top off the scene, outside a fire and brimstone-type church was blaring a sermon by a preacher who was screaming into the microphone. It was front row of a concert loud. You couldn’t hear yourself think. You couldn’t talk to the person next to you. And I guarantee you there were no conversations about condoms or safer sex that could happen in that environment.
Eliza managed to live and work in those conditions for about four years – and somehow – by a miracle really - managed to stay off drugs. And despite all the horrors of Hyena Square there were good moments, too. Eliza has a photo album of some of the stolen happy times – a group of girls sitting on a motorcycle, or hanging out with some friends in her room. When Eliza shows you that album now she points out all her friends who are gone – most of them dead from AIDS, malaria, drug overdoses, or the many other diseases that come from living and working in such conditions and from being addicted to heroin.
One day Eliza met some outreach workers from a local NGO that had put up a counseling booth for people in Hyena Square. She was inspired. Eliza started visiting them everyday, and eventually they invited her to join them in their “rescue house”. Eliza left her room in the guesthouse and she stopped having sex for money. She started to think about her future. And before long, Eliza was the woman in the counseling booth, reaching out to her former colleagues with advice and help to “get out”.
She also tested HIV positive. She was devastated at first, but eventually realized that with HIV drugs and “clean living” that she was being given a new lease on life. She joined the women’s soccer league. She started doing more work to reach out to young women in similar situations. I found her because I saw a film a NGO made about her life. It was pretty inspiring.
So now, in her early 20s, Eliza is an amazing role model. The Staying Alive Foundation is funding her to go back to Iringa, the region she came from, and work with young women and their parents to help them understand what happens when they send their daughters to be “house girls” in Dar, and to educate them about the dangers of HIV and the devastating consequences of sex work.
So… when Georgia called to say that she was coming back to Tanzania to officially give Eliza her grant, and that she would be accompanied by international singing sensation, MTV Staying Alive Foundation Ambassador, solo artist, and multi-platinum group artist (and member of Destiny’s Child), Kelly Rowland, I must admit to thinking…
Oy vey, another famous artist on a fact-finding tour. This is just the thing that Africa needs.
Kelly was coming, after all, to film MTV’s World AIDS Day program for this coming year, which will feature - in large part - Eliza’s story.
And isn’t Eliza’s story something important to get out there? Besides the obvious inspirational qualities of her story, shouldn’t the privileged young people of the world – including Tanzanians whose families pay $80/month for satellite TV – get some insight into what life is like for millions of young people.
But the best part was that Kelly turned out to be just the loveliest person. Georgia told me she was, but I didn’t believe it until I spent the day with her. She was thoughtful, and interested, and empathetic. Kelly asked great questions, and had just the right touch of indignation (and rightfully so) when the journalists at the press conference announcing the Staying Alive Foundation grant to Eliza asked cynical question after cynical question about the funding and the selection process instead of about the goals and objectives of Eliza’s work and the horrible situation of other young women just like her in Tanzania.
Kelly held Eliza’s hand as she told her story. She stood by Eliza’s side as Eliza gave her an unabridged tour of Hyena Square. Kelly got down on the ground to look into the eyes of a shy young woman with a baby engaging in sex work for money and drugs. She shared that she, too, grew up in a household with no father and understands that loss, but also believes in the power of faith and perseverance to create a better life for herself – just like Eliza. .
Kelly is beautiful on the outside, and she seems to be pretty lovely on the inside, too – just like Eliza.
In fact, the two of them – the American international pop sensation and the Tanzanian former sex worker – had more in common than you might think possible.
But isn’t that just the thing? Two people, from anywhere in the world, with the right dose of empathy can connect with each other at the most basic human level for the purpose of doing good.