What inspired you to get started with your organization?
I grew up in Zimbabwe, and one day we were sitting at home and this young girl came to my grandfather’s house. We didn’t know her. My grandfather gave her parents 10 cows and in exchange, she was supposed to marry this man—my grandfather was 75 at the time. She was only 12… She was not allowed to go to school because now she has to prepare to be a mother, and she also has to… conduct herself as a married woman. I was fortunate enough that I grew up in a family that didn’t practice this cultural norm. My father and my mother were really pro-education, they wanted all of us to go to school, which we did… And after [I] graduated, this woman, this girl… she never left my mind. She never left my heart. I kept thinking about her, “Okay, what happened to her?” “Did she go to school?” You know, it bothered me to the point where I said I have to do something about it.
“Even if I cannot save the whole community, whoever I can save is good enough.”
Are child marriages still happening today?
It’s still happening, not only in Zimbabwe, but in many African countries and many countries as well. Even here in the United States, it happens. But sometimes we don’t hear about it. There are still some communities… where this is still practiced as a cultural norm. Sometimes it happens due to poverty in their families. So, when the kids grow up to become teenage girls that’s what mostly happens. Because now they have to attend high school and high school costs a little bit more than primary school. [The parents] are not able to afford this so they say, “Okay, we can marry them off”. And so, the gender bias is still also happening, because this doesn’t happen to boys… boys can continue with school.
What’s something people often overlook when it comes to child marriage?
When these children are forced to have children, her body’s not even mature enough to carry a child and some of them will die during childbirth. And, when it happens to these children, most of them don’t receive proper prenatal care. So, in most cases, the children will be born with all kinds of health issues. The children might die during childbirth as well, and it’s just a risk for everybody, the mother and the child as well. So we need to make people aware that it’s still happening today… [I]n these communities, where it’s still happening… they think that once you get your cycles, now you are a woman… So, imagine having a child at 11 years old. It’s just unthinkable.
“…just because she was born a girl, it doesn’t mean that she’s less than your son. She’s still your child. She deserves to go to school, get an education, and get some skills so she can be self-sufficient, and be independent.”
How are you aiding your cause from here in the United States?
So what I do here in the United States, I do events that will raise the funds so that I can give scholarships to these girls. I do several events during the year, I talk about this, and I talk to individuals to become sponsors. For example… if you said, I want to sponsor a girl. Great! I will get you the picture of the girl. I will get you the story behind what is happening in her life, what happened, and then throughout the year, you will get updates and progress, her school progress. So, you get to build a relationship with her… [Then] there’s a teacher that I work with, in Zimbabwe… she teaches in the school where all these girls go to. And she’s the one that I am in contact with. She is the one I send the money to pay the school fees, to buy the school uniforms. She’s the one who takes videos, if I’m not there, and sends them over here to me and to the sponsors. So these sponsors really get to know this girl, like personally.
Tell us about an accomplishment you are proud of
The most important moment that I recall in my life is after I started this nonprofit. There is one particular girl that I always think about. I got her in the program when she was only 12, and she was just about to be married off to a sixty-year-old man… So, we took her. She went through high school, she finished the whole program in high school. She went on to go to college. She did her bachelor’s degree in business administration. She did a master’s in finance… and she met her husband when she was in the last year of her master’s degree. They got married after they both graduated… and the best part about it, I was invited to go to the wedding. I attended her wedding and… I was like, “This is it!” And now, she has two businesses that she’s running. She’s employing other people. And to make it even better, she is also sponsoring a girl in the same community that she grew up in. So when I think about this girl, I said, you know if I can not do anything else, and I did this, this is just the best.
“Although I’m not able to save this whole community, I have a big group of girls that I can say they are where they are, because of me. So…I think that’s a big success for me.”
Tell us about a turning point in your life?
I hit a few curves as I was starting. I started this in 2010, and as you’re starting a nonprofit organization, what I didn’t know was, it’s a lot that’s involved… So thank God, my husband was very supportive. In the beginning, most of the things that I was doing were coming from our own personal savings… And of course, family members, friends, will be like, “Are you crazy? What are you doing… You can’t save everybody! You can’t save this community!” So you hear all those and sometimes you be like “Maybe, I really cannot”. But then your heart keeps telling you that “ Yes, you can!” Even if I cannot save the whole community, whoever I can save is good enough. So I kept on going… And I can tell you that now I have 90 girls that are in the program. I have 20 girls that already finished and they are working. Most of them are school teachers. Some are nurses. Some are business people. I have a lot of girls that are in culinary… Some of them started their own restaurants. So when I look back, I said, “Wow!” Although I’m not able to save this whole community, I have a big group of girls that I can say they are where they are, because of me. So… I think that’s a big success for me.
When you’re not working, what are you doing for fun?
I love traveling… We actually went to Cancun last month, and in March, we are going to Puerto Rico. In April we are going to Zimbabwe. I usually go to Zimbabwe twice a year… and every time I’m in Zimbabwe, I always go and visit the girls in the school. They all call me mom, so you can imagine we have like a big party. They all come. We do stuff together for the day or two that I’ll be there with them… [But] if I’m not doing what I’m doing, I am watching my grandkids and playing with my grandkids…So yeah, I enjoy doing that.
Nominated by Elaine N.
“Bongai has the biggest heart and is so smart about creating ways to amplify her reach, adding to the resources available to save the girls. I hope to see her recognized for her loving and persistent dedication to this cause.”
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