Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Katie: The Story Behind A Girl Called Problem

I moved to Tanzania, East Africa, a few months after I graduated from college.

Tanzania's there in dark orange--just below the equator.

On paper, my job was to teach writing and English to journalism students at a newly-formed university. The reality was that I did a little bit of teaching and a lot of learning during those two years. I was schooled in the many arts of basic living: washing clothes by hand, carrying water in a bucket on my head, and pounding rice in a giant mortar and pestle. 

Me pounding rice. Yes, I know the glasses look a little silly--it was the 1990s.
I learned what it felt like to have malaria, typhoid and ecoli, and to value life in a place where almost everyone I knew had lost a sibling during childhood to a tropical disease. The most enjoyable lesson came in the form of informal, daily Swahili tutorials on my front porch with Tanzanian kids who congregated to play in the shade of a nearby flamboyant tree.

Within a few months I grew particularly close to one such kid. Like many Tanzanians, Modesta didn’t know her age, but she was probably about twelve when I met her. Every day after school, she scaled papaya and mango trees and sold fruit door to door to help out her mom. 

Modesta in 1999.
Modesta wasn’t afraid to correct my Swahili, and her laughter filled my home. We started spending so much time together, villagers called me “Mama Modesta,” or Modesta’s mother.

The only problem was my visa ran out after two short years. I had to leave Tanzania and, worse, Modesta. She was just graduating from primary school and, because her family was poor, early marriage was a more likely prospect than continued education. As a result, Modesta and I found a private boarding school for her to attend and I arranged to pay for her school fees, but I still moved away broken hearted. 

A picture of Modesta a friend gave me on the day I left Tanzania.
That first year back in the U.S.,  I spent evenings after work reading and writing about life in Tanzania. A couple themes emerged. Modesta, of course, was primary in my mind. I also thought about the unique resilience of the women and girls I met in Tanzania: burdened with hours of house chores, girls sacrificed sleep to study by kerosene lanterns at night; female students at my university courageously banded together and wrote a letter condemning the behavior of a male lecturer who had threatened to fail them unless they slept with him; Modesta’s older sisters dodged marriage proposals so they could continue to work and control their own finances to pay for their younger sisters’ education; and students of mine wrote articles questioning the commonly-held, local belief that poor widows were prone to witchcraft and responsible for societal woes. The determination of these women and girls to improve their quality of life was inspiring. 

One of the many hard-working girls I met in Tanzania.
That first year back, I also did a lot of reading about Tanzania's founding father, Julius Nyerere. The list of corrupt rulers African countries have suffered under is long, but Nyerere’s name belongs on an entirely different list: that of the truly principled. He increased literacy and life expectancy rates in his country; he gave Tanzania a sense of national, rather than tribal, identity (no small feat when you consider its many neighbors who have suffered civil war or conflict between tribes); he attempted bringing his own brand of African socialism to his citizens; and when he retired, he moved back to his rural village to farm, occasionally taking trips to broker major peace deals. 

Nyerere in his home village.
Without realizing it, I was carving out the components of a book: a story set in historic Tanzania during the early presidency of Nyerere about a strong Tanzanian girl, who would face some prejudice but who, through sheer resilience, would not only prevail but would ultimately empower her village by empowering herself. That’s the essence of A Girl Called Problem

Oh, and for the real and far more important story, if you are wondering about Modesta, she’s thriving. Modesta went on to spend high school at an international school in India where my husband and I taught.
Me and Modesta in India--note the glasses upgrade.
After that, she did a gap year volunteering in Tanzania, completed a university degree in Uganda, and now works for an awesome organization called Media for Development International, which makes popular television shows and movies with imbedded development messages, like how to prevent malaria. Modesta has also helped out a lot with my book, providing research support, photographs for the glossary, and footage for this video supplement we made to go with the book. 

Naturally, A Girl Called Problem is dedicated to Modesta. Thanks for reading. If you'd like to learn more about the book, please visit katie-quirk.com.


  1. Katie, this is an AMAZING story, and it makes me want to read Problem all the more. You and Modesta are incredible!

    1. Thanks so much for your kind words, Jenny. I look forward to reading Tracked when it comes out!
      All the best,

  2. Really, truly, amazing. Both of you displayed true strength, the kind that comes from character and determination and the ability to look beyond oneself. But mostly, I think, from an unwillingness to take societal injustice lying down. And you did it the right way - through education and by trying to change people's perspectives. We need more people like you two, we really do. True grit is rare to come by. I look forward to reading your book.

    1. Thanks so much for your kind words, Suja. And best of luck with your writing. I see you have several revision projects, and a very full life on top of that. Don't despair. This book was several years in the making! All the best.

  3. Serving others and overcoming obstacles - wonderful and inspirational. Thanks!

    1. Thanks for your enthusiasm, Rob, and best of luck with your writing. I know from personal experience that juggling parenting with writing can be a challenge. Thanks again!

  4. Inspiring, amazing... I'll just repeat the comments above. Can't wait to read, Katie!

  5. Congrats to Katie..seems like this will make a poignant and informative read. Waiting to get my own copy!

  6. I loved this story (you made me cry!). I can't wait to read the book.

  7. Wow, what a story. What a difference you made in someone's life. And it sounds like you were just as impacted.

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