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“Too old to learn? Do women “age-out” of their opportunity for an education?” [2013 VOF Week 3]

Wanting an opportunity to learn

My community of women and girls live in a refugee settlement in Uganda, they live there because of the ongoing war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Many have lived at the settlement for more than a decade, some were born there or arrived when they were so small they have little memory of life outside the camp, many are widows, and some are orphans caring for other orphans. They arrived at the settlement with very little, most arrived with only the clothes they were wearing. Many witnessed firsthand brutal murders and rapes. They were given supplies for six-months and a plot of ground to farm; after six-months they were expected to be mostly self-sufficient. Because the war is ongoing new refugees arrive each week.

Life is a struggle. Most homes are mud with grass roofs that leak when it rains. Food can be scarce during the best of times but during a drought people go hungry. Sickness is a constant problem made worse by the difficulty of obtaining medicines. If a mother gets sick and can’t work the whole family suffers. Malaria deaths are common. Pregnancy is a health risk.

But not all is bleak - there can be found care in the community, love in families and among friends, laughing children and friendly people. Many chase the hope of a better future.

People want an education and if they are lucky enough to be healthy they work and sacrifice to get the money to go to school or to send their children to school. I know an orphan who works instead of going to school so she can earn money to send her sister to school.

In 2008 my friends and I formed an alliance to improve the economic status of the people in our group. We’ve given microcredit loans, provided each other with business and personal support, formed business co-ops and done community work. As their economic conditions have improved so has the ability to send their children to school. When reports are given often included with the status of the grain mills, crop production, goat and cow breeding is the number of children attending school.

Several times in the last few years the women have said they want to learn, they to be educated. At the end of a recent meeting they said they wanted to learn to speak English. Considering their ages (20 – 50), where they live and how hard they struggle to survive it takes a certain amount of courage to even verbalize this. Since then I’ve been amazed at how many people snicker when I mention the women want to learn English. When people snicker at someone who wants to learn I get angry. Turns out anger can be a good thing because it’s caused me to think;

• Is the worldwide focus on educating girls too focused on the young? Are women being discriminated against?
• It appears women often “age-out” of their opportunity for an education. Why? There are leaders in this group, mothers, teachers, and nurturers. Can a woman not learn and lead and teach at age 18 and at age 88 and in the years between?
• A woman who wants to learn sends a message to all that education is important. She takes pride in what she learns. She will SHARE what she learns.
• A woman who insists on learning when others snicker behind her back shows strength and courage. She becomes a role model and a mentor for others like her.
• Stopping the discrimination of teaching women would help stop the discrimination that keeps girls from school.

So with a dream of learning and a snicker for motivation the ladies and I have decided to hold a pilot (test) class to start in June.

• We must keep the costs very low and make it easy for the ladies to attend.
• Classes will be held at someone’s house.
• Our teacher will be a newly arrived refugee who was a teacher at home. She knows English and the dialect of Swahili the women speak.
• At last count 20 women have said they will attend.

Overlook these ladies and we overlook a voice of a better today and tomorrow.

(On a personal note – I started college when I was 31 year old, newly divorced and the mother of two young girls. It took me 12 years to graduate and there were sacrifices made by all three of us. Both my girls graduated college before I did. I’m proud of them.)

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pelamutunzi's picture

age aint nothing but a number

my grandmother is always asking questions which means the zest to learn never stops and doesn't stop with age. in Zimbabwe we have night school for adult education and its only because of economic hardships that women have stopped. so many women want to learn wish I was closeby and could help. im an English teacher.
all the best

we may be powerless to stop an injustice but let there never be a time we fail to protest.

PeopleWeaver's picture

Love your subject line

Yes - age is just a number and learning is a sign of life. :-)

Hello! - what a great & colorful photo of the Congolese women w/ you in Uganda! They must miss their land.

BTW, I heard an interview w/ a 70-someting Scottish actor/comic yesterday where he said defining yr life based on yr age is about as sensible as basing it on yr street number (address). LOL. And that's cute (if I may use the word w/o the adverse connotations as applied to women!) that yr daughters graduated college before you! Love that -- life is odd but has a way of making full circles. My big congratulations for hanging in there w/ college as you raised your girls.

"If a mother gets sick and can’t work the whole family suffers." -- that is a pivot point, apparently. One question I have is, where are the men & boys? Fighting? Gone/dead?

I appreciate yr thoughts: " it’s caused me to think... " These are exciting questions that you go on to write -- & I have a feeling that women anywhere past 50 often want to redefine society's sense of what they can offer. One thing most of us women over 50 share is that society sidelines us. I want to see us redefine the last half of our lives & what we offer. Because we have enormous wisdom & experience to give our people. I'm lucky that I have 2 unmarried sons (35 & 18) who recognize that I am a crucial ally in helping them to learn to navigate the world. And I am sure it transfers into their belief that older women can be wise warriors & that they will also pass that on to others, including their children.

As in most steps in claiming our rightful places w/in society as women,it seems we will have to redefine ourselves 1st, since others may not allow or envision it. And I think that willingness to try to communicate with our 'enemies' or oppressors gives us power -- they live right alongside of us -- in the end, they will have to convert their thinking in order for all our girls not to suffer others' limited views.

surfgirl-CA --
When we come from the willingness to love, not fear, we will see the best and highest materialize in our world.
Quand nous venons à partir de la volonté à l'amour, pas la peur, nous allons voir le meilleur et le plus élevé se matérialise

PeopleWeaver's picture

Wow - thanks for what you wrote

I appreciate what you wrote very much. Thank you.

Concerning the picture. Yes, the women must miss their homeland but many have lived in the camp since around 1995 and probably feel somewhat safe especially since 2012 saw an increase in rebel activity in the DRC. Life is very difficult at the camp with limited possibilities. A few of the women I’ve given loans to have returned home.

And, another person over the age of 50?! Sometimes I feel I need to hide my age to be taken seriously, even at World Pulse.

You wrote “One thing most of us women over 50 share is that society sidelines us.” Yes.

When I wrote about educating older women I got so upset again that the younger men I work with snickered. To snicker at anyone, at any age for wanting to learn is such a put down. They didn’t even realize what they were doing, it was an automatic response, and these are young leaders (good, honest men) that help me in the settlement.

Concerning where the men are when women get’s sick – most of the women I work with are widows or orphans. A few of the women are married and I’m starting to expand into larger group loans with male members. Women do the cooking and caring for the household and children. The women I work with also dig (farm). I’m sure many men help when their wives get sick but I’m not sure just what kind of tasks they are willing to do. It seems every time I go back the women with husbands have babies which concerns me but that’s another, larger, huge topic.

surfgirl-CA's picture

plse tell the Congolese women...

how much we care about them. I am hoping you can show them WP & read some of the posts to them. I think it will amaze them to know we can be connected. They can also translate Swahili to English & vice verse via Boy, am I grateful I don't hv to write in Swahili to connect here.

surfgirl-CA --
When we come from the willingness to love, not fear, we will see the best and highest materialize in our world.
Quand nous venons à partir de la volonté à l'amour, pas la peur, nous allons voir le meilleur et le plus élevé se matérialise

PeopleWeaver's picture

Getting info to the ladies

Please excuse my grammar because I’m tired but I wanted to tell you something that really brought home to me how isolated the ladies are.

During our first visit in 2008 Obama was being inaugurated; we actually watched it in our hotel. During our whole trip throughout Uganda everywhere we went people saw us and yelled “Obama.” During one of the meetings with the ladies I asked them if they had heard of Obama. They said no. To me this is just one example of how isolated they are. I’d love to bring some of the world to them. They want the info.

I will tell them about World Pulse and take some of the post with me during my next visit in 2014.


no need to worry about yr spelling or grammar here, Jeanne. My typing is awful anyway. Interesting anecdote. What is also interesting to me is how much southern Africans were identified w/ Obama as one of their own, & that they felt he gave validaton to them, since his daddy was Kenyan -- the family/clan ties & obligations concept.. I remember the newsreels of folks dancing in the sts. in Harare.

I'd love it if the ESL teacher were able to read to your Congolese friends some of the WP posts. I wonder if they feel their lives have hit a dead end, since they washed up there, in another land, 10 yrs ago, w/ no hope of going home. We humans so need to feel safe, existentially, & in the West, we've managed (the illusion of) that -- when something happens, like a flood, it's almost like an insult from God or something, like, how COULD this happen??!? Then we have ppl like refugees, collaterally damaged, whose entire lives have been rerouted by natural disaster or war. The psychological disparity is so huge. One wonders how oneself wld do in similar situations, as an entitled Westerner. I think about that, when I think about climate change, for example...
best to you - hope yr day went very well.

surfgirl-CA --
When we come from the willingness to love, not fear, we will see the best and highest materialize in our world.
Quand nous venons à partir de la volonté à l'amour, pas la peur, nous allons voir le meilleur et le plus élevé se matérialise

J écoute's picture

It really would be wonderful

It really would be wonderful if you, as well as others, would share this online community with them to let them know we are listening and want to help, and if they would also be willing to share their own voice on World Pulse!

Thanks for sharing!

J écoute

PeopleWeaver's picture

Share online community


Yes, I will. I'll do that during my next trip to the refugee camp. In the meantime I am hoping to get their education program started in the next few months.

Thanks for your help.


Emily Garcia's picture

Thank you for your post!

Thank you for writing. I appreciate the perspective you've brought to the discussion of women and girls' education. You've done a great job in highlighting how age, like gender, is another obstacle to education. I agree that learning at any age should be encouraged and supported, and that access to education for women will help open the door to education for more girls as well. I loved reading how you are an advocate for these women in their desire to learn. I'm also interested in hearing more about your personal experience of you persevered and completed your degree despite what I imagine must have been great challenges as well.

Thank you again for writing and I look forward to reading more from you soon!

Best wishes,


Emily Garcia
World Pulse Online Community Lead


Sorry it’s taken me a while to respond. I hope you have been well.

We have started the pilot group of adult students in Kyangwali. I received a report from our Ugandan administrator but I need to ask questions. He is from the DR Congo where they speak Swahili and French. He has been in Uganda as a refugee since the mid-i990. He had a university scholarship so his English has improved greatly since we first met him in 2007. Still there are always questions. He said our target group is 80 students, 40 in each group. I’m not sure if this is the first semester or for the year. We decided today we would probably charge a very, very small fee. People usually value more something they have to pay for.

As far as my college education I didn’t start until I was ~32. I was raising two daughters and for years worked full-time taking just one class a semester. I took a year off after a difficult divorce. My girls basically went from being little girls to teenagers by the time I got done. It took me until I was 44 years old to finish! At the end I was so sick of it that I started taking four classes a semester. I was spread thin which makes me sad now that they are gone (out-of-state because of jobs). One of the reasons I think I’m so sensitive to the lady’s desire to learn is my birth family was not supportive.

I just looked at your World Pulse profile.

I like that your passions are: “words...poetry and music. love. big trees, clouds, hiking, walking, running.... dancing!” Me too. I run but after 20 years my knees are acting up. I love clouds!

Your challenges sound like mine. “I worry too much and sometimes lack confidence. I can also be too stubborn and prideful.” I worry and lack self-confidence. I’ve learned being stubborn “can” be a good thing. If I weren’t stubborn I wouldn’t have finished college or started and kept with peopleWeaver.

I hope you get your garden.


Emily Garcia's picture

Hello Jeanne!

Hello Jeanne,

Thank you for writing back and for your kind words. I'm sorry I'm just seeing your message now. Sometimes it takes me a few days to respond to messages so thank you for your patience. :)

I am impressed by your tenacity in completing your college education. It is a great achievement as well as an encouraging example to other women who struggle to continue their education in spite of their families' or societies' objections. I was lucky to never have doubted that I would go to college. Even though I didn't know where the money for college would come from, I didn't worry. I wonder at my 17 year old self and my certainty that everything would fall into place. Nowadays I worry a lot about the future. I'd like to reconnect with that Emily of the past that had more faith and more patience. I think about the courage it must have taken to go back to school after having started a family, and the dedication to keep going after a difficult divorce. Education is something that has always made me feel alive and excited about the world, though I feel I have taken it for granted. I admire the work you're doing in the Kwangwali refugee settlement to help adults access education and wish you all the best as you kick-start your program.

Thanks again for sharing. I'll keep an eye on your journal for more updates.


Emily Garcia
World Pulse Online Community Lead

PeopleWeaver's picture

Hi Emily

What kind words. Thanks for starting my day this way.

I like this "I wonder at my 17 year old self ..." I too worry, it such a big emotional drag. I know worrying doesn't change the future so I wish I could quiet it.

I was just working on my peopleWeaver Facebook page and wrote about a young man and his group trying to get an education in a war zone. Bunagana is where many of the refugees I work with come from. Seems as though updating this Facebook page in a lot easier than updating my website. I need to find a product that I can use on my web page rather than updating it via the code. Anyway - here's the Facebook page I was just working on if you are interested.

Now I need to go on a run, seems as though my weight is taking on a life of it's own. :-)


Anais Tuepker's picture

great post

Thanks for this thoughtful and interesting post. It resonated with me personally because of my own experiences working with immigrant and refugee women who have been resettled in the US and Australian. So many of them had their education cut short, or never had much access to formal education to begin with, and very much want to learn, but their are few programs tailored to help them, or often even for which they are considered eligible. The fact that some women, like those you work with, overcome the odds and demand an opportunity to learn, is very impressive.

I especially liked how you pointed out that the long-term effect of supporting older women's quest for education is likely to be changed attitudes that will help keep all girls in school and working towards whatever goals they set for themselves.

On a different note, I work in healthcare and often see that there are more services available for younger women: again, much needed, but the healthcare needs of older women are not often prioritized in settings like resettlement communities. Education and health are often linked, and educating women is often shown to have a positive health impact. I'm just curious if health concerns are also part of what your group of women talk about?

Please share my admiration and respect with the women that you work with in Uganda. Best of luck in your continued collective efforts,


PeopleWeaver's picture

Anais, Thanks so much for

Thanks so much for your comments.

I’m interested in how you work with refugee women in the US, that’s something I’d be interested in but I’m not sure there are many refugees in Colorado. I know Kyangwali refugees that have immigrated to Denmark, Canada, and Las Vegas. I doubt the older women I work with even realize they could immigrate but then they’ve lived in the camp over 10 years and all the family live there, etc.

Health…such a problem. A few years ago we were having a meeting and I asked the ladies how they thought the projects could be improved. They said, “help with their illnesses.” My immediate thought was we aren’t in the health care business. Peopleweaver is basically my husband and myself and a few donations every once in a while. I did take vitamins the following year but that didn’t seem worthwhile. I later found out my administrator shared the vitamins I gave his kids with his school – they were given out to about 30 kids daily in class, which means the vitamins probably lasted a few weeks. I think the kids thought they were like candy. But, again vitamins aren’t the solution. This year when we visited we drove by (on motorcycles) a health care building. There were many people outside but I was told the health care facility is open only during certain hours and not on the weekends. Then there are the ladies that go into labor. Many have their kids at home. I was told several years ago a lady died because she was supposedly turned away from the health care facility because she didn’t bring her birthing supplies – sheet, etc. Malaria is a problem. If water was boiled things would improve greatly but there is the wood problem. This is something we are going to address during the pilot classes. Our administrator’s wife started boiling water a few years ago and their illnesses have been dramatically reduce, of course I know you know this. Mind-boggling.

Our administrator, Benson, is a finalist in an Echoing Green scholarship, which is wonderful, but I worry about our projects. He started a youth leadership club about six years ago (where is the adult leadership club?). He’s started to trained several young women to help us in the Peopleweaver work and fairly quickly they get education scholarships because of their community work. This is good but we have a problem getting women involved in leadership roles – because of the language barrier of the mature women.

We are trying to start the pilot classes in the next month.

If we could be would very seriously consider adopting a girl (I have two adult daughters). We are “older.” George is 73 and I’m 63 but we are very, very healthy. My youngest daughter adopted one granddaughter (she’s six) from Vietnam and another from China (she’s 3). We were foster parents for about six years.

Are you a nurse? Do you travel to the countries where the refugees you work with come from?

Sorry to be so long winded. I’m not checking my grammar very well so forgive me.


Anais Tuepker's picture

so interesting

Hi Jeanne,

That wasn't long winded at all, it was fascinating. Thanks for sharing these experiences. In just a few words you manage to convey a few of the different serious challenges people face. Even if the work you are doing doesn't directly involve healthcare, it could well have a beneficial effect on health. There's more and more evidence that educating women is one of the best predictors of improved health, both for themselves and for their children. As you point out, by educating older women in English they will have the necessary language skills to take leadership roles, and can then use their maturity and knowledge to advocate for services that they and younger women need.

No, I'm not a nurse, I'm a sociologist (I did field work in South Africa, with refugee communities there), who then trained in public health; I do health services research and also work as an advisor/researcher/advocate with a community group of African immigrants and refugees here in Portland (I also work in cervical cancer prevention, which is another field where the focus is often on younger women, even though older women are the most at risk). Even in Portland, which is not known for its ethnic diversity, there are perhaps twenty thousand African refugees and immigrants (those are their legal categories, their stories are often similar). Helping people to access care and understand the US healthcare system is a big part of the focus and challenge.

It sounds like you and your husband do quite a lot with both your organization and personally - I admire your commitment. And being married to a very healthy man who is in his early sixties himself (I'm 39), I can well understand you have plenty of energy and wisdom to share!

Looking forward to continuing to hear your voice here,


PeopleWeaver's picture

Your work and health care


Thank you for what you wrote. Your work sounds fascinating. Have you published anything? Do you get grants for your work?

I read a book a few years back talking about the difficulties of refugees coming to the US (and elsewhere). Especially the older immigrants. Many immigrants work at the Denver airport. I would think for many immigrants, especially the educated ones, the lack of opportunity could be depressing. My daughter lived in Minnesota until a few months ago. There is a huge Somalia population there. I would often see Somalia women working at the hotel we stayed in and wondered about their backgrounds.

Yes, educating women helps many.

Several years ago Benson, our Ugandan administrator, and I talked about him immigrating as a refugee. He decided not to because he’s committed his community work. But, when we were discussing his immigration I actually said coming to the U.S. might not be so good because of our health care costs. Like I said some people I know were sent to Denmark and Canada. I watched a TV show about immigrants coming to the US a few years ago and there was a young man that broke his leg and it took all his savings plus some to pay the doctors.

I told you Benson has been selected as a finalist for Echoing Green. We are trying to get him a VISA to come to the US for the face-to-face interview. If he is selected he’ll receive $20k for four years for his community work AND Ugandan health insurance. He’s listed on this page as Benson Wereje. We are very proud of him.

I hope I haven’t told you most of this before… I hear my husband and he just got home with our take-out for dinner. Cooking isn’t something I do much of anymore.


PeopleWeaver's picture

grammar and clear thoughts

Damn it - I should have proofed better but dinner is downstairs.

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