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Social Impact Heroes: How Angie Murimirwa and CAMFED has helped millions of children to go to school

Had CAMFED never existed, there would be many more child brides in the communities we partner with; more inequality, deeper poverty, and higher incidences of HIV/AIDS. An educated girl is three times less likely to become HIV-positive. Girls with no education are three times more likely to marry by 18 compared to girls with secondary or higher education.

I had the pleasure to interview Angie Murimirwa of the Campaign for Female Education. Angeline, known to most as ‘Angie,’ was one of the first young women to receive support from CAMFED to go to secondary school. She is now CAMFED Executive Director — Africa, working closely with all CAMFED offices in a collective effort with rural communities to break down the barriers to girls’ education. The NGO has already supported 3.3 million children to go to school across five countries. Angie became a key founding member of the CAMFED Association, CAMA, a powerful pan-African network of more than 140,000 young, educated women.

Thank you so much for doing this with us Angie! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was born in Sadza, a rural district in Zimbabwe, to a poor family. My parents were subsistence farmers, who made just enough money for our basic needs. These needs did not include my school fees, which every child in Zimbabwe must pay in order to go to secondary school. I went to school wearing a torn dress, barefoot, with barely anything to eat, and I was sent home to collect school fees my family could not afford.

When I got my primary school exam results at the end of the year, I could not help but cry. Cry out of pain. I had achieved one of the best results in the entire country, which made it all the more painful when I knew that I would not be able to go to secondary school as I did not have the money necessary to pay for school fees or for the uniform I needed.

But then I was told about CAMFED. I had qualified for support and they stepped in and provided school fees, and the school uniform, along with everything else one might need. I was one of the first girls CAMFED supported through school, they gave me the chance to excel and succeed.

I realized that there were millions of other girls just like me, who need the support, so they too can succeed -in school and after school” . So I was among the first 400 girls who had been supported through school, and we founded CAMA– a leadership network for young women who had been supported by CAMFED. We offer peer support, mentoring, and training in financial literacy, health and ICT, helping women build businesses, become health workers, or train as educators.

We committed to go back to our communities, to address the isolation that marginalized girls like us encounter. I was elected as the first ever CAMA Chairperson in Zimbabwe, then became an employed program coordinator, and eventually CAMFED Zimbabwe’s Director. Today I am Executive Director for CAMFED across Africa.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

That is a tall order. I think I live interesting stories every single day, especially when I meet with fellow CAMA members. Perhaps the most illustrative story is the story of my greatest challenges — to build trust in the communities in Malawi when I led the roll-out of the Camfed programme there. When you no longer look like where you once started from, you need to convince people that you “get it”; that you truly understand their issues.

We sat under a tree with all the elders, and they looked at me with some suspicion and said, “We have NGOs come through here all the time, and then they leave again. How long are you going to be here? And how much money will you bring?” I said, “We’ll be here as long as you need us, but the question is, what exactly are your aspirations for your own daughters, for your children? And how are you building towards that?’”

But before they could trust me and the challenge I was putting before them, they had to believe that I was one of them. In the Chimukwenzule school community in Machinga, they challenged me to a traditional task, pounding maize, because when I spoke to them, some of them said, “You don’t know how difficult things are here. It won’t work.” I told them I was sent through school by this organisation I was now representing. But they said, “Maybe your circumstances were better — you don’t look like a rural girl anymore.”

So by showing, through pounding, that I was a rural girl, I was proving my word, showing that what I was saying was not “too good to be true.” That’s how I built trust. We are not a parachuting movement.

CAMA enables communities to discover their own power, to recall their own power — not just to focus on what they can’t do. A mother who has no idea how to calculate maths can still make sure her children do their homework and attend school regularly. We engage with these mothers, but also with the teachers, with the students, with the Chiefs and with the government officials. The challenge we face, and which we have overcome, working closely with Camfed, is to meet everyone at their level.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’m afraid this isn’t funny, but….

My biggest mistake was when I started and was young and very impatient about the pace of change. I should have tapped into the experience of others who have walked the same path much earlier, so as not to make the same mistakes, and also not to reinvent the wheel. For example, when we started working with government officials my greatest frustration was that they didn’t do things fast enough, and my conclusion was that they didn’t care. I overlooked the fact that many of them were parents and cared very deeply about the issues. I simply didn’t have the understanding of how government works; of their financial constraints, budgets, and bureaucracy. When we started working in Zimbabwe, I would say to a District Education Officer, “We don’t have a Maths teacher at this school!” and expect them to provide a maths teacher tomorrow. And we were impatient about the lack of female teachers, so whenever we met with the Ministry we would tend to attack them for not posting enough female teachers.

Finally we realised that although it was the duty of the government to provide for its citizens, as it slowly gets there, there were things we as CAMA could do now, such as qualifying as teachers and teaching back in our rural communities, and working with our communities to create better infrastructure — like good houses for teachers — that would particularly attract more female teachers, who were reluctant to move from urban areas and might feel vulnerable. All of these issues were the drivers for creating CAMFED’s Learner Guide Programme, which brings CAMA members into schools as female mentors and para educators, allow them to earn a vocational qualification (BTEC), and then helps to fast track them into teacher training colleges to become fully qualified teachers in their own communities. It was also a great way to engage parents, who were setting up Parent Support Groups with small grants from CAMFED, cooking school meals to address hunger, and building school infrastructure to improve the lives of students and teachers.

So the biggest mistake was to think “Give us, do this, be this,” and I quickly learned that collaboration and respect are everything.

Can you describe how your organization is making a significant social impact?

Had CAMFED never existed, there would be many more child brides in the communities we partner with; more inequality, deeper poverty, and higher incidences of HIV/AIDS. An educated girl is three times less likely to become HIV-positive. Girls with no education are three times more likely to marry by 18 compared to girls with secondary or higher education.

By giving girls access to education, CAMFED addresses gender inequality, marginalization and exclusion, unlocking the tremendous potential in women and girls. True equality is beneficial for all, boys and men, and nations as a whole. As the World Bank reported last year, “Limited educational opportunities for girls and barriers to completing 12 years of education cost countries between $15 trillion and $30 trillion in lost lifetime productivity and earnings.” . Investing in a girl’s education not only unlocks her potential, but also changes the trajectory of her future and the future of her community. Educated girls earn up to 25% more per year of secondary school, and invest 90% back in their families. As business women and leaders, they can create employment opportunities and act as positive role models. Girls’ education is also the best investment we can make to tackle climate change, as educated girls have smaller, healthier families (leading to lower emissions), are more financially security, have more agency, and more knowledge and tools to navigate and mitigate climate change. More than half of our alumnae are farmers, and they are adapting and teaching climate-smart techniques — vital in preserving our planet.

CAMFED, together with our alumnae and partner communities, has already supported 3.3 million children to go to school, and that number will continue to grow. Currently there are almost 140,000 active CAMA members, the largest network of its kind in Africa. Our members support others to flourish, and lead by example in their communities and beyond, including as elected officials. For example Hawa, the first girl in her community to go to secondary school, is now one of CAMA’s first politicians. Hawa is effectively creating change in Ghana with policies she is implementing. Members of CAMA are leading social change as teachers, medical professionals, businesswomen and lawyers, and regularly advising on local and national policies in partnership with traditional leaders and departments of education.

Wow! Can you tell me a story about a particular individual who was impacted by this cause?

I will tell you about Ayisha Fuseini, the third child in a family of ten. When she was a little girl, Ayisha would help her mother collect shea nuts on her walk to school. Sometimes she’d arrive late. When it came time to go to secondary school, her school fees created a challenge to her family. However, with dedication and her family’s hard work, she was able to graduate. Then Ayisha joined the CAMA alumnae network and enrolled in one of our youth enterprise programs.

Through the program, Ayisha received training, a small grant, and business mentoring. Ayisha came up with a business idea then, organized and trained 70 women to gather and process shea nuts into butter.

Now Ayisha is the CEO of Asheba Enterprise and works with a co-operative of hundreds of women to produce shea butter for her value-added products sold at local, national and international markets. In addition to the economic value Ayisha has created, she gives back to her community by passing along the business skills and financial literacy training she learned over to the young women she works with.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. Prioritize investment in girls’ education, and recognize that parity in numbers at school is not the same as equity. We need to address all the barriers to education imposed on marginalized girls, including their vulnerability to exploitation, the burden shouldered by girls in caring for younger siblings or elderly relatives, as well as the issue of child marriage, with is both a reason for, and a response to, girls dropping out of school, and usually driven by extreme poverty.
  2. Invest in young women’s enterprise and leadership after school: Addressing issues like women’s lack of access to finance or land, for example, to start and sustain businesses.
  3. Respect Respect Respect families and communities, and make sure that ownership of any solutions to the issue of girls’ and young women’s exclusion are owned by communities, with safeguarding at the core of everything. No programme can be successful if there is no local responsibility and accountability to the most vulnerable in society. All our volunteers are community members, and you should see the pride shine in parents’ eyes when their school meals lead to improved exam results, and when the Chief sees women flourish as leaders who might have been child brides were it not for her (or his) advocacy. This is not a one person, one entity or one individual challenge to solve. It will take each and every one doing what they can, how they can, the best way they can, and urgently.We owe ourselves and the next generation that at the very least! We must all remember to own the challenges at hand, take the action required to improve the situation and remain accountable to agreed results. Together We Can

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

For me leadership means a special opportunity granted by those you lead (who follow you or your cause) to inspire them forward and upwards. It is about service to others and a willingness to put the shared vision first and foremost and to exercise empathy and understanding as you gallop forward together.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I think it’s fair to say that we have inspired a movement, a movement for girls’‘ education, and we have some incredible partners who’ve stepped up behind us. It’s what has allowed me to be here today. I love leading CAMFED because I know I am impacting girls who come from the same struggles that I did. We still have a lot of work to do, there are still 52.2 million girls out of school in sub-Saharan Africa alone. And many more young women graduates who don’t have the resources they need to succeed after school.

So I encourage all to join the CAMFED movement, by spreading the word and, importantly, fundraising. We have the leadership and the expertise to drive lasting change in and with our communities, but we can’t do it alone. However, together we can change the world, and there’s no time to wait.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

This quote comes from my mother, Mercy Mugwendere, and it really speaks for all of CAMA, and the experience of so many women from rural Africa. Once you’ve lived through the level of hardship most of us have encountered, you build up a level of resilience and gratitude, and you don’t sweat the small stuff. It’s also what makes us powerful, and audacious:

“We have been through a thunderstorm. Showers don’t frighten us.” In my local language: ‘Ndokudai tichachema mubvumbi chimvuramabwe chakatisiya takadaro’

It kept me going in the early days to know that I had it in me to live with the cards life dealt me, while making the best of every opportunity I got.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

I so wish I had had the chance to meet Madiba, Nelson Mandela. He was full of wisdom, compassion, courage and was forward looking. May he rest in power!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow me on Twitter @AngieMurimirwa and follow @camfed for updates from our work, the girls we serve, and my CAMA sisters across Africa.