From a Tanzanian Village to Mumbai

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Modesta at her international school in India.

Readers of A Girl Called Problem often ask me about my friend Modesta, the woman I dedicated the novel to and whom I introduce at the end of the book in my author’s note. Modesta was one of many village kids I met in Tanzania. We first got acquainted because she sold fruit door to door to earn money to help out her mom. Modesta and I eventually became great friends–she taught me most of my Swahili and how to get by in general in Tanzania–and when I later moved to India to teach at an international school, Modesta ended up joining me there.

But before she moved to India, Modesta had never visited a big city, let alone stepped on an airplane. As you can imagine, deciding to leave her rural village took an immense amount of courage. I flew to Tanzania to accompany Modesta on that first journey, but even with my help, Modesta just barely made it out of East Africa.

Fifteen years later, Modesta lives in Tanzania’s largest city, Dar es Salaam. She’s also flown on many international flights. But we still laugh about our first nail-biting trip out of East Africa together. The Christian Science Monitor recently published my essay describing the journey.

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I hope you enjoy reading our story!

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Two great author visits

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Students at La Côte International School in Switzerland have been reading A Girl Called Problem in preparation for a visit to Tanzania. 

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of Skype chatting with students on two different continents about A Girl Called Problem. Students at La Côte International School in Switzerland and at Nord Anglia International School in Hong Kong have been reading the novel in preparation for their upcoming visit to Tanzania. They asked some fabulous questions about important topics ranging from what it’s like to write from the perspective of a Tanzanian girl, to what obstacles I ran into in the revision process, to what I enjoyed most about living in Tanzania.

While I was chatting with the students in Switzerland, a colorful toucanet was perched outside my window (I’m currently in Costa Rica)–so we ended up chatting a bit about birds, too. These insightful students are going to have so much fun in East Africa!

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Here I am Skype chatting with the students in Switzerland. Photo credit: Helen Baker.

Thanks so much to teachers Helen Baker and David Robinson for making these visits happen, and safari njema (have a good trip) to everyone headed to Tanzania!

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Let Girls Learn!

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Photo credit: CNN.

Today I’m celebrating the great work of the Obamas in their Let Girls Learn initiative, a project that readers of A Girl Called Problem will appreciate. As Shida would tell us, if you invest in a girl, you invest in all the people she will help over the course of her life. Some of you will remember the Liberian proverb at the beginning of chapter 21: “If you educate a woman, you educate a nation.”

Michelle Obama explains her interest in working to ensure access to education for the tens of millions of girls around the globe who are not in school:

“For me, education has never been simply a policy issue — it’s personal.

Neither of my parents and hardly anyone in the neighborhood where I grew up went to college. But thanks to a lot of hard work and plenty of financial aid, I had the opportunity to attend some of the finest universities in this country. That education opened so many doors and gave me the confidence to pursue my ambitions and have a voice in the world.”
Readers of A Girl Called Problem who are inspired to take action can learn more about Let Girls Learn here and also about how to contribute. Watch the video We Will Rise about Michelle’s visit to Liberia and Morocco, where she learned more about girls’ struggles to access education. In the meantime, one of the best things young people can do to help promote access to education for all girls and boys around the world is to spread awareness. Did any of you march at one of the Women’s Marches around the world last Saturday? I did up in the cloud forest of Costa Rica with this sign:
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I made a mistake and attributed the proverb to Nigeria, but folks seemed to understand.
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Stories from Central America

This academic year, my family and I are living in Central America. I’m busy working on a young adult novel set in South India, but I’ve also recently started a blog about life south of the U.S. border. Warmer Than Canada is a website designed to inspire other families to explore living abroad (not permanently, of course, but for a spell). I’ll be posting regularly about Central American politics, culture, nature, and travel.

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For avid readers, there’s a link at the bottom right side of Warmer Than Canada where you can sign up to receive email alerts when I post new stories. If you have friends who are infected with wanderlust or who simply might enjoy some armchair Central American travel, please send them to Warmer Than Canada. I’d also be delighted to see your comments on my stories there. Thanks so much for your interest!

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Happy International Day of the Girl

A few years ago, I wrote the following article for the wonderful website A Mighty Girl about the real-life stories that inspired me to write  A Girl Called Problem and how they relate directly to the International Day of the Girl. I hope you enjoy the article and that it inspires you to pick up a copy of A Girl Called Problem or another book that celebrates strong girls. Enjoy!

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Please vote!

Screen Shot 2016-06-28 at 4.46.11 PMHow delighted I was to learn that a draft of my yet-to-be-published memoir, Sari Swinging: An American Mother Opts All the Way Out, has been shortlisted for the Half the World Global Literati Award!

There is a people’s choice category for the award. If you have a few minutes to spare and would be willing to log in, read some of the entries, and consider voting for mine, I’d be so grateful. Here’s the link. Thanks so much, dear friends and readers!

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Spoiler alert!

If you have yet to read A Girl Called Problem, you probably shouldn’t read this post. As I mentioned earlier, I had the good fortune to visit with 5th grade readers at Boston Collegiate Charter School again this spring. They spent an impressive two months reading A Girl Called Problem and, as a result, they had some great questions for me. But, their first question–a question I get from almost all young readers when I do school author visits–was, “Why did you kill Furaha?!?”

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You see, this why-are-you-such-a-mean-spirited-murderer question was at the top of the list of prepared questions asked by the student reporters who interviewed me for the school paper at Boston Collegiate. They were kind enough to point out that, as the author, I’m not exactly the one doing the killing. Maybe it was Uncle Bujiko? Maybe malaria? But, still, the question is fair. As authors, we wield control over the plot, so why would I do away with such a sweet character?

Here’s my answer:

Much of storytelling and crafting a compelling plot involves placing road blocks or challenges in the main character’s way. If I had said, for example, Shida moved to Njia Panda and everything was perfect and she lived happily ever after, the book probably wouldn’t have been published. It just wouldn’t have been that interesting.

Instead, I hoped to show readers what a resilient and determined character Shida was, and I also wanted to test her desire to be in this new ujamaa village. So, soon after Shida moved, challenges started coming her way. Can you remember what they were?

Right! The cattle were let loose, characters like Mama Malongo and Teacher Karakola questioned whether Shida and other girls should go to school, the crops were killed, and (worst of all) eventually Furaha died. If you think about it, these challenges progressively tested Shida’s determination. They made the story sad at times, but they made for an interesting plot and a satisfying ending. Many of these tragedies allowed us to see that over the course of the story, people had changed.

In a big way.

Characters changing profoundly is another important part of good storytelling. So, when Shida decided to tie her medicine pouch back on after Furaha’s funeral, we realized she had the strength to be a healer through thick and think, no matter what. She was changed. Or, for example, when Shida’s fellow villagers decided to stay in Njia Panda, even after the unthinkable had happened (sweet, young Furaha died), then it was shockingly apparent that their mindset towards girls and school and even their new home had permanently changed.

In short, I sacrificed Furaha for the sake of crafting a compelling story. I tried to make you really like her, and then I took her away. If you think about it that way, you’ll start to realize that a lot of your other favorite authors are up to the same sneaky business.

 

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