Founder of End Child Marriages
Can you imagine being so poor and desperate that you had to sell your daughter to a wealthy old man, just so the rest of your family could survive?
Bongai was 12 when she first encountered a child bride.
One day a young girl came to Bongai’s grandparent’s home. Bongai and her sister had no idea who she was. And they kept prying their mom with questions.
“Who is this girl who came to our grandfather’s house?”
“She is his wife. She’s your grandmother now,” our mom said.
“But we are the same age, how could that be?”
“The girl’s father sold her to your grandfather in exchange for 10 cows.”
“So, she became my grandfather’s wife,” Bongai explains. “She had no say.”
Can you imagine how terrifying it would be for a 12-year-old to be told you need to sleep with a 75-year-old man?
Bongai and the young girl became friends because they were the same age.
Miserable, scared, stuck, and out of options, she came in tears to Bongai and her sister.
“I don’t want to be here. I want to finish school like you. I want to be a nurse. Help me run away and promise not to tell anyone.”
Filled with compassion for her plight, she and her sister kept that secret for three months. But Bongai never forgot about this girl.
In this poor community in Zimbabwe, families just like yours struggle to take care of their children. It’s still culturally acceptable to marry off your daughters once they hit puberty. That shifts the financial burden of caring for your daughter to her husband.
“And these girls end up marrying some 50-,60-, or even 70-year-old men,” says Bongai. “Whoever has the money has the power. These young girls have no say.”
Because these children have no voice.
For Bongai the first time meeting a child bride was traumatic. The second time, it was personal when she witnessed some of her very closest friends dropping out of school, only to find out that they were married off to older men because of the poverty in their families.
“It’s heartbreaking to see,” recalls Bongai. “And you see the men who will be celebrating and being happy. Yet here is this young girl crying.”
Bongai considered herself lucky because her family always had enough to survive: shelter, clothes, and food.
“My mom wanted us all to get an education, which we did.”
Education comes with many sacrifices
She finished high school, fell in love, and got married.
Her husband came to America ahead of her to continue his education and get his degree.
She had to wait one year to come because she was nursing their first child.
Torn between leaving her family behind, including her first son who would be raised by her mom, she came to America to be with her husband and get her college degree.
She didn’t know that she would have to wait 10 years to return to her home in Zimbabwe because they had student visas. And it took until 1998 to be approved for citizenship.
She graduated with a degree in social work and got her master’s in special education.
“I was a social worker for more than 20 years in the two Pennsylvania counties, Chester and Lancaster County.”
Giving back to her community
After finishing college, Bongai began helping family members and friends back in Zimbabwe. She knew they were struggling to send their children to school.
Her first trip back she reconnected with a childhood friend Rashai, who became a teacher. She learned how widespread child marriages still are in the poorest communities in Zimbabwe…
And how this practice is destroying families and keeping them in poverty.
Inspired to follow her calling
Bongai couldn’t ignore the passion that welled up inside her to make a difference and help these vulnerable girls. And she didn’t wait for someone else to do what God has called her to do.
“I wanted to start a nonprofit so that I could stop the girls from being married off to these old men. Those were the ones on my mind, because of what I witnessed as a child.”
She didn’t listen to those well-meaning naysayers who tried to deter her.
Bongai’s husband’s unwavering belief in her and her rock-solid faith in God helped her navigate this huge undertaking and steep learning curve. It took years to save up for the legal fees to set up a 501(c)3 nonprofit.
She knew it would take a dedicated team of God’s foot soldiers to run and manage this nonprofit. She established the American & African Youth Leadership Foundation, AAYLF in 2010. She has an all-volunteer board here in Pennsylvania. Rashai oversees the funds and manages the program onsite in Zimbabwe.
“Every dollar raised goes to cover all the costs of educating these girls–including tuition, books, transportation, nutritious meals, and, in some cases housing, so that the girls can escape child marriages and further their education.”
This teacher knows the families and girls very well. The girls from too far away live in the dorm (for $10 a month per girl). The community provides fresh vegetables and basic cooking staples and supplies. And the school provides chicken and eggs, so the girls can cook their own food.
“I’m keeping girls in school and stopping them from being married off.”
No mother wants to marry off her daughter Bongai points out. She often was a child bride herself and knows what she went through.
“These girls don’t have an education, and they don’t have any skills. So, they are forced to stay with old men. Most likely these men will die off leaving these girls to raise the children themselves.”
Since its inception 10 years ago, 20 girls have graduated and gotten married to the man they chose. Bongai has attended two of the weddings. “I have girls who graduated college and became nurses, teachers, and social workers.”
She currently has sponsors for 85 girls. But there are more girls at risk than there are sponsors. So, she has a waiting list.
Every year 15 million girls become child brides, according to the worldschildren.org.