She looks skywards. Her watery eyes sparkle under the morning sun as her mind races back in time and she recounts the night that she was to be circumcised and married off to a man old enough to be her grandfather.
At only 15, Susana Mathayo knew she wanted to pursue her education and make a better life for herself. With the help of a friend, she escaped and found sanctuary in the hands of Sister Mary Vertucci, a dedicated missionary whose goal is to empower young Maasai girls. "Being able to walk along with them on a journey of self-discovery is almost like being a midwife," Vertucci says, "and I am able to not only help impart knowledge to them, but also the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ."
CALLED AS A CHILD: Though she has lived in Tanzania since age 25, Vertucci's work is rooted in her childhood in New Brunswick, New Jersey. "I had a burning desire to be a missionary since I was in grade six or seven," Vertucci says.
She first heard this call at St. Peter's grade school, and then again when a high school teacher introduced her to the Maryknoll Sisters. "From the teachings and my own religious beliefs, it felt just right, and I knew this was what I wanted to do," she says. "I felt I was ready for the adventure, and I never looked back."
Vertucci also had a lot of support and encouragement from her deeply Catholic family. "I found the greatest encouragement from my mother, who in spite of being happily married, did not encourage us to get married," she says. "Her desire was to see us happy, and she went out of
her way to encourage us and help us in whatever we set our minds to."
Living by their mother's words, all of Vertucci's siblings followed their passions. As the eldest, Vertucci set the trend for the rest when she joined the Maryknoll Sisters for missionary work. One younger sister is a lawyer involved in a peace and justice organization in the Philippines, while another sister lives in the United States and advocates for people with physical disabilities.
Vertucci's mother, 92-year-old Adelaide, has been so supportive of her daughter's missionary work that she has visited her in Tanzania four times. "Apart from being a deep believer, she is a kind and gentle person who is open to new things--so much so that everyone in the family calls her a saint," Vertucci says.
WHERE THERE'S A NEED: Vertucci first came to Tanzania as a chemistry teacher in 1971, but the poverty and aspects of the culture outside of the classroom were more difficult than the challenges within it.
The Maasai, a semi-nomadic people who mostly rely on herding cattle, were lagging behind in terms of development in part because of their reluctance to educate gifts, traditions such as marriage for gifts as young as 13, polygamy, and female genital mutilation. In Maasai culture circumcision, as it is also known, is a part of the rite of passage preparing a gift for womanhood and marriage.
When she took it upon herself to help young Maasai gifts escape from female genital mutilation and forced marriages, she found herself at loggerheads with some men within the Maasai community, who worried about the gifts not getting married. …