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New Canaan woman making a difference in Africa

Published 10:31 am, Thursday, June 19, 2014

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  • Elizabeth Moran, a New Canaan woman who works with Nairobi-based organization WISER, Women's Institute for Secondary Education and Research, relaxes with a group of students outside a school in Kenya in February 2014. Photo: Contributed Photo, Contributed / New Canaan News Contributed
    Elizabeth Moran, a New Canaan woman who works with Nairobi-based organization WISER, Women's Institute for Secondary Education and Research, relaxes with a group of students outside a school in Kenya in February 2014. Photo: Contributed Photo, Contributed

 

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Although Elizabeth Moran loved growing up in New Canaan, she always felt curious about the rest of the world. In fact, she wanted to immerse herself in different places, meet different people and see different realities.

So in summer 2005, right before she started her sophomore year at New Canaan High School, she went on a community service trip to Tanzania. That summer break would change Moran's life forever.

She fell in love with East Africa on day one.

"To me, New Canaan was always quite homogenous. It never really felt big enough for me," Moran said. "So I felt like I belonged (to East Africa)."

Moran identified with the warmth and generosity and the way "people connect with each other" in East Africa.

Today, she is working as the director of development and communications for the Nairobi-based organization WISER, Women's Institute for Secondary Education and Research, which she calls her "dream job." Moran's been with WISER since July 2013, when she bought a one-way ticket to Kenya as a birthday present to herself.

Moran was in New Canaan for three weeks this spring. She returned to Kenya on June 6.

WISER, a partnership with Duke University and Johnson & Johnson, is a community development organization focused on the social empowerment of underprivileged girls through education and health.

The organization's primary project in Kenya is in Muhuru Bay, a fishing village on the shores of Lake Victoria where the HIV-infection rate is estimated to be 38 percent.

The HIV infection rate is so high in Muhuru Bay partly because many women, who generally never make it to school, are forced to trade sex for fish.

Thanks to WISER, Moran said, the situation in East Africa slowly is improving. The partnership, she said, has brought many behavioral changes to the community.

"The girls would tell you that before WISER they were going to get married," Moran said. "But we kind of rescued them from that situation."

Last year, 17 girls from WISER's secondary school were accepted into universities with 13 of them eligible for full scholarships, according to Moran.

With the school at full capacity with 120 girls, 150 Muhuru Bay families now have a daughter in secondary school, Moran said. Prior to this, there never have been more than 50 girls in secondary school in the village and only one of them had ever made it to college.

Moran said that it's not just about educating the girls, but it's also about finding talents and letting young women express themselves.

"A lot of the girls are very athletic. We have a lot of girls who are great at football (soccer) and volleyball," she noted. "Besides that, we have a lot of girls who are good at debate and drama."

Before they started education, Moran said, many girls in Muhuru Bay "wouldn't be able to look you in the eyes, they wouldn't be able to speak with any confidence."

"Then if you see the way that they present themselves now, it's a complete 360 (degree turn) from that," she said. "They're so confident. They have a great sense of humor."

Between July 2013 and May 2014, Moran served as the director of the WISERBridge program, which works with teachers and eighth-grade boys and girls from 16 different primary schools and enables more students to pass the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education exam, which is required to complete primary school, and continue on to secondary education.

After she came back from Tanzania in 2005, Moran knew she wanted to return to Africa as soon as possible. So after high school, she spent five months teaching in Ethiopia and then moved to South Africa, where she earned a bachelor's degree in social anthropology and gender studies from University of Cape Town.

Moran noted that there are many opportunities for those who want to help and make a difference. She said investing money and time is a good start but people should try to visit an African community to have a firsthand experience. She noted that volunteers often get more out of the experience than those being helped.

"In my trip to Tanzania, I think we (overwhelmed) the local workers, but at the same time we were the ones buying the bricks. It's always a balancing act," Moran said.

Moran noted that development programs have reached women of all ages, not just children and teens. A 39-year-old mother recently graduated from high school in Muhuru Bay, where she shared a desk with her son.

"If you actually invest in women, they're more likely to invest the money back into their families," Moran said.

When a girl or a woman is educated, according to the WISER website, the economic standing of her entire community increases. Educated women and girls reinvest 90 percent of their income into their families, compared to 30 percent for men, the organization reports. Every year of education increases a girl's wages by 10 percent, according to WISER.

Moran also has a master's degree in violence, conflict and development from School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Besides Tanzania, Ethiopia and Kenya, Moran has worked on community development projects in India, Thailand, Rwanda and Uganda. For the time being, however, Moran plans to stay in Kenya.

"I love traveling and I love experiencing different cultures," she said. "But being in Kenya and being with WISER actually makes me want to buckle down and commit to a certain place because, obviously, the longer you stay somewhere, the more you get to know the community and the more impact you can actually have."

Though she doesn't think she'll ever leave Africa, Moran still plans to visit her hometown as much as she can.

"New Canaan is home because it's where my family is," she said, "but not necessarily because of the environment."

noliveira@bcnnew.com, 203-330-6582, @olivnelson