by Elizabeth Sias
As far as Debra Pangerl is concerned, anyone can make positive changes in the world.
Twenty years after her first trip to Tanzania, the girls she sponsors through the IMAGE Project attend the same school she helped build on that first trip.
And now Pangerl has a book out, A Full Circle: Walking Alongside Maasai Women of Tanzania. A book reading and signing at Scout & Morgan Books will take place Saturday, April 7, at 11 a.m.
Nine trips and 20 years later, A Full Circle is a unique memoir that chronicles how Debra’s search for her life’s purpose leads her to Tanzania, over and over again, where she meets Maasai girls and women. The author discovers the deep desire of these women to change their predetermined lives of pre-pubescent marriage, genital mutilation and extreme poverty. She likewise discovers her own innate need to help these girls and women, in whatever way she can.
“I’m hoping to raise more awareness for the Maasai girls, and to inspire people,” Pangerl said. “You really can make a difference in the world just by doing one more thing than you’re doing now. Whatever it is, just follow your passion.”
Debra Pangerl grew up on a small farm in Minnesota far from Tanzania, East Africa. Following several life-changing events in her early 20s, she was adrift and unsettled. Stumbling across an ad in the local newspaper’s travel section appealing for volunteers to travel to Tanzania, Debra felt a call so strong that it was “deep within her soul.” Debra was on a plane to Tanzania a few month later.
While she was there, she met interpreter Phoebe and helped build a one-room schoolhouse. She thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime trip, but 10 years later, she was asked to go with a representative with 25 women from the U.S. and 10 women from east Africa to study women’s issues.
“We were learning from women by going to their homes and going to AIDS clinics, finding out what their challenges and struggles are in their lives,” Pangerl said.
It was unbelievable what the women go through in their lives.”
Pangerl was particularly moved by the Maasai girls. The Maasai are one of 120 tribes in Tanzania. Semi-nomadic, they are the lowest of the social ladder.
“The women are very oppressed,” she said. “Culturally, they’re a very proud people, but have different beliefs than most Tanzanians. A lot of them exchange their daughters for cows, so they go into marriages when they’re 12 years old. These little girls never have a chance to even dream of going to school.”
The government pays for children to attend school up to sixth grade, Pangerl explained. After that, they have to have a sponsor.
On her trip in 2000, Phoebe happened to be the representative from Tanzania. It was then the two women started talking about what they could do to help. Phoebe suggested starting a project that would help these girls go to school. At the end that trip they found a couple girls, and Phoebe would teach them in her home.
“Maasai girls had this hunger for education,” Pangerl said. “It was unbelievable.”
She found sponsors for four girls the first year at $350 a year each for tuition and room and board. That’s how the IMAGE Project started. Today, 97 girls are sponsored and attend secondary school.
The girls sponsored through the IMAGE Project are 12 and older. After school, some have gone on to college, some get married, while others attend a vocational school.
They started by working in a village where they built a one-room primary school for boys and girls. The organization also helps the women implement agricultural projects to have some money to help their kids go to school.
“We created projects that are sustainable by them, empowering them to do their projects rather than telling them what to do,” Pangerl said. “Education is our focus, but agriculture is also important.”
Pangerl’s book out inspired by the Maasai women and girls came out in December 2011.
“I decided to write about two or three years ago,” she said. “I felt I had all these stories inside about these girls and their challenges and I really wanted to create more awareness for them.”
As the personal stories of the author and the Maasai unfold in tandem, readers see the transforming effect that all the women have on each other, reads the book description. A Full Circle speaks plainly to the human condition—the deep yearning for fulfillment, the determination to escape oppression and poverty no matter the peril, and the life-changing bonds that develop when individuals help one another.
“My life would never be the same had I not met these women,” Pangerl said. “What these young girls overcome in their lives and the courage they have has taught me that some things I face in my life are nothing compared with what these girls go through, and yet they face them all by themselves. I want people to realize that the way other people in the world live is more similar than different, and how we can learn from each other.”
A Full Circle is Deb Pangerl’s first book. She lives in Rush City, Minn., with her husband, Gary, a barn full of cats, two horses, and faithful Border Collie, Jack.
For more information, visit www.DebraPangerl.com. To learn more about The IMAGE Project, visit www.imagetanzania.org. A Full Circle is published by Beaver’s Pond Press and can be purchased at www.Amazon.com or www.BeaversPondBooks.com, or by calling 800-901-3480.
“I want to really inspire people,” she said. “I didn’t think I could make a difference in the world, and I didn’t set out to have this organization, but I just did one thing and it led to this. We can help many people change their lives.”