ARUSHA, Tanzania (Reuters) - At 12, brown-eyed Neema Laizer persuaded her elementary school teacher to accept one liter of milk each morning instead of money because her father refused to pay for a girl to be educated.
At 13, her father selected a 30-year-old stranger to be her husband. The next day, she was supposed to drop out of school and begin a new life as a housewife and a mother within a year, a common fate for young Maasai girls in Tanzania.
Laizer had a different plan.
While her father slept, she and her mother quietly packed a small backpack of clothes, then she slipped on a pair of black rubber sandals and escaped by moonlight through heavy tears and forest brush, running more than a mile to her uncle’s home.
The next morning, the two of them drove for six hours to a refuge 200 miles away that he had whispered to her about.
Now 19, Laizer is preparing to start college in the autumn -- hoping to be the country’s first Maasai woman doctor -- and speaking out against female genital mutilation, forced marriage, and violence against Maasai women in the East African country.
“In the village, we only exist to earn cows for our parents and to serve a man we normally do not love,” said Laizer, referring to the dowry of cattle paid for brides.
The Pastoral Women’s Council, a non-government organization, estimates at least three Maasai girls run away from home daily to escape arranged marriages.
Hundreds of thousands of others are enslaved by oppressive traditions handed down by their elders, while the laws to protect them are rarely enforced, even as unsuspecting tourists marvel at their beadwork.
The Maasai, easily recognized by their colorful dress and traditional jewellery, number about 1 million throughout the hills of northern Tanzania. Fewer than 10 percent of girls reach secondary or high school and fewer than 12 have received a college diploma, according to Maasai schools and support groups.
Most young women are denied education, forced to marry men decades older, and face a life of servitude, abuse and rape.
“These aren’t traditions worth protecting ... because girls are being refused education, they just don’t understand,” Laizer told Reuters. “Some are starting to say it’s wrong, but only in secret. I am ready to talk openly about it. The Maasai must change.”
The refuge that freed Laizer from her tribal traditions lies in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro at the end of a ruddy dirt road lined with banana trees and footprints, behind 10-foot (three-meter) high bushes and white steel gates.
A remedial school for 13-to-18-year-old girls, the Emusoi Center was founded by Catholic missionaries with the help of one of Tanzania’s few female Maasai college graduates, and is now home to 75 Maasai girls.
Since it opened in 1998 Emusoi, a Maasai word meaning “discovery,” has placed more than 400 in 80 boarding schools across Tanzania after housing them for one year. Of the 240 or so Maasai girls who started secondary school in the country last year, 119 had been through Emusoi.
Tanzania’s government has created programmes to encourage semi-nomadic peoples such as the Maasai to educate their children and not marry off under-age girls, but to little effect. Laizer cited many tactics used by Maasai men to preserve the status quo.
In her village, she said, girls as young as six are forced into wedlock. Those who manage to evade marriage after elementary school may be raped -- a pregnant girl is not allowed to attend school in Tanzania.
“It is a strategy,” said Sister Mary Vertucci, who created the centre with the help of 29-year-old Maasai graduate Anna Shinini. Girls who make it to Emusoi risk being raped if they return home for a holiday: “The men of their village will plan to do it ahead of time so the girl can’t leave again.”
Such practices are illegal, but law enforcement in Tanzania is often a struggle. Laizer’s mother was hospitalized after being nearly beaten to death for aiding her escape. Laizer herself did not return home for four years after running away.
So Emusoi never closes. Seventy girls spent Christmas there last year.
The girls’ year at the school in the resort of Arusha is also an introduction to electricity, running water and meeting people from other tribes, said Vertucci in a cement-floored office of bare walls, filing cabinets, bulletin boards and an aged Dell computer.
Many new arrivals do not even know they live in a country called Tanzania.
“We ask them what their nationality is. But many of them will just say the name of their village -- they’ve never even heard the word Tanzania before,” she said.
“They don’t understand that they are part of a bigger country ... (never mind) the concept that there is a whole other world of opportunities and lifestyles out there for them.”
“Normally, circumcision and marriage is the way, not school or work or planning a future like that,” said Vertucci. “These girls are really becoming role models who never existed before.”
Emusoi students are set to be the first Maasai women to take up several professional roles in the country: one of the school’s earliest students, Teika Simango, 25, is due to complete her legal training later this year.
The Maasai’s seclusion -- and resistance among the males -- remain major obstacles, said teacher Shinini.
“I will go to the door of many girls’ homes in remote villages, and tell them ‘just graduate from primary school and then I know where you can go,”’ said Shinini. “It’s dangerous, but I want to help my people. What else can I do?”
Laizer finally returned to her village after she had finished secondary school. She smiled as she re-lived the moment: “Now, everything is fine,” she said. “Even with my father, he understands now.”
Editing by Sara Ledwith and Andrew Dobbie