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Angeline Murimirwa, founding member of the CAMA network of young women leaders in sub-Saharan Africa, talks, encourages. and personifies audacity.

A little over twenty years ago, Angeline Murimirwa had finished primary school and, along with her four siblings, was working on their parents’ farm in rural Zimbabwe. Despite the fact that Angeline had earned the best score on the primary school graduation exam and one of the highest in the country, there wasn’t enough money for her to attend secondary school.

24 years later, Angeline, now Camfed Regional Executive Director, was sharing a stage in Washington DC with Michelle Obama, Julia Gillard of the Brookings Center for Universal Education and other education experts on a panel entitled Mobilizing for Children’s Rights, Supporting Local Leaders and Improving Girls’ Education.

What made the difference in changing the trajectory of Angeline’s life? Education. Angeline’s childhood story is one that is familiar to many girls whose only misfortune was that they were born into poverty. And the key difference to breaking that cycle of poverty is, she believes, the audacity to believe that how you start is not how you finish.

Camfed - Empowering Step Change

It was Angeline’s audacity that propelled her from a life that seemed to hold few prospects for a girl from her background, to becoming a leading light in a movement that has harnessed the power of education and connections to change the lives of thousands of girls just like her, through the support of Camfed.

“I come from a context where the only choice was between food and education; where whole communities grew to believe that their place was at the bottom of the pile, that things would never change. Poverty is a psychological state, not just a physical one,” she states.

“I come from a context where the only choice was between food and education; where whole communities grew to believe that their place was at the bottom of the pile.”

Camfed is an international education charity established by Ann Cotton that tackles poverty and inequality by supporting girls to go to school and succeed, and empowering young women to step up as leaders of change. Camfed invests in girls and women in the poorest rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa, where girls face acute disadvantage, and where their education has transformative potential. Since 1993, Camfed’s innovative education programmes have benefitted over 3.5 million children in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Ghana, Tanzania and Malawi.

Camfed’s unique approach not only provides school fees, supplies and uniforms to support girls through school; it also studies and dismantles the barriers that keep girls from attending and doing well in school, whether these be social, psychological or to do with the quality of the curriculum provided. Camfed not only supports girls and young women through school, but also on to new lives as entrepreneurs and community leaders. By the end of 2014, Camfed had supported 1.4 million children to go to school, improved the learning environment for 3.5 million children in 5,270 partner schools across 119 districts, and enabled over 33,000 young women to make the successful transition to a secure livelihood and active citizenship

Through funding from the organisation, Angeline was able to attend secondary school and, a few years later, attend an elite and predominantly male, white school where she rose to become the head student.

Completing the ‘Virtuous Cycle’

While many people would have moved on with their lives and enjoyed the benefits of this investment in their education, Camfed’s support was proof for Angeline that if others were given the benefit of what she had learned, she could cascade the impact of that support not only on her family but on the families of many other girls.

Thus Cama was born; a network of young women who, like Angeline, had been able to use education to make a change in their lives with the support of Camfed for, she realised, “Education taught me that I can do something about inequality.” Through Cama, Angeline Murimirwa has been able to do a great deal about inequality. To complete the “virtuous cycle,” and create sustainable change, graduating students become CAMA alumnae, many of whom return to school to train and mentor new generations of students.

Critically, works with alumnae to support young graduates during the crucial time after they finish school, when pressures to marry or leave their district for employment elsewhere make them extremely vulnerable. Members of CAMA, a unique 33,111-member strong pan-African network of Camfed graduates, use their experience and expertise to design and deliver extended programs to the next generation of students and their communities, including health and financial literacy training. These young women ignite community philanthropy: In a “virtuous cycle,” each CAMA member supports the education of another two to three students outside of her extended family, multiplying the benefits of her education, and testifying to the programmes’ effectiveness and sustainability.

The network provides financial, ICT, health and business training; support young women to act as Learner Guides in schools; to enter tertiary education; or to start local innovative businesses with seed grants and interest-free loans.

“We call this the CAMA multiplier effect,” says Angeline. “It is not enough for us and our families to be OK. Because we have lived poverty, we empathise; we can transform lives beyond our own. And we are doing this with the support of our communities, not in spite of our communities.”

Education – Only the First Step

Speaking at a reception for Camfed at the House of Lords in the British Parliament in July 2015, Angeline’s message was simple. “We need to take away the feeling of inadequacy, the lack of choices, the isolation – and replace it with a situation where, together, young women change the default settings poverty has imposed.”

Education is the first step, she said, but it doesn’t stop there.

“Because it isn’t enough to pay a girl’s school fees, and give her a uniform, then launch her back into the same context. We needed to change young women’s prospects and their life choices, after school. To take away the feeling of inadequacy, the lack of choices, the isolation – and replace it with a situation where, together, young women change the default settings poverty has imposed.”

Only by embracing audacity, she said, citing the story of Jemima, would change come about for the young women she has made it her mission to support. “Take Jemima, a CAMA member from Ghana. From a poor rural background, she was supported through secondary school, and then dared to dream of not only attending university, but studying medicine. During an interview with the selection panel she was told in no uncertain terms that her ‘kind’ should not punch above their weight –she had neither the background, the money, nor the connections to make it. Tragically, her father agreed that she was aiming too high. He had been put down all his life. Like parents across rural Africa, he just wanted to protect his daughter.

But Jemima would not be told. Thanks to CAMA, she had developed a new sense of self-belief, and the audacity to dream. She refused to accept the limitations imposed by poverty. Through CAMA, she secured the funding, and is currently in her second year at university, studying to become a doctor. Jemima recently addressed over 2,000 young women school leavers in the Cape Coast. She told them that they too can do it! By her very actions, and the moral and financial support she received, she changed her own default setting – and those of the people she touched... she changed the definition of what is possible for a rural girl, family and community! She gave others the freedom to dream and pursue.”

“But Jemima would not be told. Thanks to CAMA, she had developed a new sense of self-belief, and the audacity to dream.”

In an interview with Frances Mensah Williams, Managing Editor of ReConnect Africa.com, Angeline, the co-founder of CAMA, was asked about what inspired her to set up Cama.

“400 of us who had been supported by Camfed met to celebrate and reflect on our journey. It was the first time ever that we had all met in that way and we realised that there were so many similarities in our stories and struggles. As we talked we realised that it wasn’t over yet – and with all the energy and camaraderie that was there, we decided to set up Cama. This was not only to continue the support as we stepped into the world of work but also because we realised that there was a lot we could do to support the other girls coming up. From teaching them discipline and how to utilise the opportunities we all got. So we decided to set up a network for ourselves which would also be a platform to support the other girls.

Frances Mensah Williams:
So, it really was a case of ‘Sisters doing it for themselves’?

Angeline Murimirwa:
Exactly! As women, there’s always that instinctive sense of pride. We didn’t do any thing to be born into our circumstances, but once we get the opportunity, then the playing field has been levelled. It was a deliberate choice to work together to give these girls something that the other young girls in our community didn’t get.

Frances Mensah Williams:
Your role involves lobbying and spreading the message and you have shared platforms with the likes of Michelle Obama. What is the key message that you give to the philanthropists, governments and individuals you address?

Angeline Murimirwa:
My key message centres on the role of our default settings. When you are born into deprivation, it is almost predictable where you will end – at least, that is the default assumption. But my key message is that it doesn’t have to be like that. Nothing is set in stone; you can change your trajectory, push your boundaries. Nothing is defined and anything can happen. This is why the whole support constituency is vital; providing resources and expertise, but at the same time respecting their own autonomy and choice.

Frances Mensah Williams:
You have inspired countless people, myself included. Who inspires you and what’s the best advice you were ever given?

Angeline Murimirwa: I would have to say my mum. Her advice has always been about not giving up. My mother had a very difficult childhood but she would always say that every following day is better than the day before. Today, you know what you didn’t know yesterday. So don’t wail and wish things were different – do the best you can with what you’ve got.’

To find out more about Camfed and CAMA: https://camfed.org

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