Walking to school – uphill both ways

Remember when your grandmother used to tell you that she walked an hour to school, uphill both ways? This story always seemed to be told while you were complaining, as a warning that things could always get worse and you should feel more grateful for what you have.


Fatuma’s story is a lot like your grandmother’s story (or your father’s, uncle’s, or whoever tried to bestow perspective on your younger self). The difference is that Fatuma’s story is true. The difficulties she faced put our minor inconveniences in sharp perspective.


Fatuma standing outside her family’s home in Mota. Photo by Joni Kabana.

Fatuma, one of Dignity Period’s program managers in Afar, used to walk two hours to school on foot over rugged terrain. She lived in Mota, a small village that is a long way from the closest town. She went to a school where girls had never seen a camera and they dreamed about visiting a town that is a mere hour away by car.


The village of Mota, in the Afar region of northeast Ethiopia. Photo by Joni Kabana.

The kitchen where a village woman is making bread over a wood and dung-burning stove. Photo by Joni Kabana.

A young girl from Mota in the kitchen making food. Photo by Joni Kabana.

It is difficult for us to imagine the way life was for Fatuma, and still is for the girls in her village. What it would be like to live without running water? To gather wood to burn for warmth and cooking? To walk four hours every day just to get an education?


And Fatuma is luckier than most girls she grew up with. Her father was and still is a clan leader and an influential person who values education. When Fatuma’s mother wanted her to get married to an extended family member when she was 14, she said no. She wanted to stay in school.


Fatuma and her mother outside her childhood home. Photo by Joni Kabana.

Her suitor ignored Fatuma’s wishes and transferred the dowry funds to her father. Fatuma continued to refuse. She pled with her father to be allowed to continue school. Going against the wishes of his wife, Fatuma’s father did something unheard of in their community: He returned the money and gave Fatuma her wish.


She gratefully walked back and forth to school every day until she finished grade 12, then she continued on to university in Sumera, one of the biggest cities in the Afar region. Fatuma boasts a strong mathematical mind and she excelled in science, earning a degree in botany.


After graduating from university, Fatuma once again faced family pressure to marry. She refused saying, “I’ll turn down any proposal I get until I have an advanced degree.” She is looking for scholarship funding to continue her studies in botany.


In the meantime, Fatuma is throwing herself into work with Dignity Period. She provides the insights we need to better understand the life of schoolgirls in Afar – because she was one of them. Fatuma is able to connect with the girls and she shows them what they can accomplish by staying in school.


Fatuma with girls at the Haridan school she walked two hours both ways to attend as a girl. Photo by Joni Kabana.

Fatuma remembers what it was like to get her period for the first time. She was shocked and more than a little afraid. She had learned that periods were something that happened after marriage or being with a man sexually. Being a devout Muslim from a respectable family, she worried what people would say about her and her family if they found out. Eventually, she told her mother what was going on, and her mother set the record straight, but not until after Fatuma experienced a lot of fear and anxiety.


She wants the world that girls are growing up in now to be different. She works tirelessly in Afar to bring pads and education to some of the most difficult-to-reach places in the world, acting as a translator and advocate for Afar girls.


She never wants to return to living in Mota, and in fact, wants to move her entire family to Sumera someday. Only then will she consider marriage to a man who considers her his equal.


This is what happens when women are educated. As you send your daughter back to school, remember girls around the world, like Fatuma, whose lives are made more difficult by having a period. Girls who really are walking hours to school – uphill both ways.


In honor of Fatuma's story, please consider supporting Dignity Period's Shameless Back to School Campaign. Period stigma can end with you.

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All photos are the property of the photographer Joni Kabana and Dignity Period. All rights reserved and cannot be used without permission.

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