On Saturday night a student in the girls boarding block at Idodi Secondary School decided she would continue studying after the school generator had been switched off. She lit a candle and began to read through her notes. But it had been a long day, and she soon nodded off. The candle, left to its own devices, wavered in the breeze and caught the edge of the mosquito net. The flames soon licked towards the cheap sponge mattress on her bed and the bunk above, then up to the tinder dry hardboard ceiling boards. The girls were alerted to the danger, but the wooden bunks were so closely packed that in no time the whole building was blazing. The building housed around 460 girls and there was only one door. The windows were firmly barred with iron rods, for security. Tragically, twelve girls were burnt to death and 24 are still in hospital, some in a critical condition. The ones who died were unidentifiable, but the government sent up an expert who was able to identify them. The parents of the girls agreed that they should all be buried together in the school grounds as a memorial, so Tuesday the funeral took place, attended by hundreds of people, some from distant parts of the country. Jackson and Mary from Friends of Ruaha were present at the funeral and were able to talk to teachers and students about the tragedy, and give their condolences personally.
Although Friends of Ruaha didn’t work directly with Idodi Secondary School, most of its students would have taken part in Friends of Ruaha activities in their primary schools, and since Idodi is a small community, we know many of the teachers and students. The school received much funding from Ruaha National Park as part of its community fund, and Friends of Ruaha were able to give some environmental education support in the early days when there were still few teachers and students.
But one thing that we have always considered when recruiting staff for Friends of Ruaha is to have young Tanzanian women working for us, who can act as role models for girls in the primary schools of Idodi and Pawaga. The tradition of secondary education, especially for girls, is far from strong in this area, but we have always felt that girls working with Anna Maria, Magreth and Mary might think ‘If they can do it, so can I!’ We have encouraged girls to think ahead, we have worked with organizations who sponsor girls to attend Idodi School rather than drop out of the education system and we have linked Friends of Ruaha donors with individual girls who have gained a place at the secondary school but lacked anyone to pay their fees.
And now this happens. Twelve girls, whose families may have made such sacrifices to ensure a brighter future for their daughters, have had their lives snatched away from them. There are many areas where blame can be laid, but basically it all boils down to poverty. If there were more secondary schools or better roads and buses, children wouldn’t have to board. If there were more resources, better, safer, less crowded boarding houses could be built, and electricity installed. It was heart wrenching to see that four of the dead girls were from one small village, Makifu, where Friends of Ruaha rented a house for a while – Anna Maria and Sarah lived there, and would have particularly interacted with the students and teachers of that primary school.
Conservation of the environment is a key factor in reducing poverty, and this is what Friends of Ruaha has been working on since it began. It is not easy and tangible rewards are few. But we believe that through our actions we can make a difference to the people of Idodi and Pawaga, by educating their children in ways to live more sustainably with the environment, and by showing them how they can use their natural resources at the same time as conserving them.
Friends of Ruaha sends its condolences to everyone in Idodi, and our hearts go out to those who have lost daughters, sisters, dear friends.