How Some Of The Poorest Girls In The World Get Exactly The Education They Need
Camfed’s work in sub-Saharan Africa might change the way you think about education everywhere.
“To care for yourself, you need first to care for others — so that you feel valued,” one teenage girl reads from a black and white speckled composition book.
She’s standing at the front of a classroom in Tanzania, presenting from her notes. Just moments ago she was huddled in one of many small groups, discussing answers to the prompt: what does it take to care for yourself, to feel competent, to have self-esteem?
“What about accepting your strengths and accepting your weaknesses?” Another student interrupts her.
“And having the confidence to speak out,” the first one jabs back playfully. The room erupts in laughter.
Unlike some of the other girls in the class, the girl in front of the blackboard is not wearing a white cotton hijab. She’s dressed in a long orange skirt and a blue sweater. Just thinking about her sweater makes the back of my neck itch. Tanzania is hot; really hot. I’m dripping with perspiration — uncomfortable even wearing the thinnest linen shirt I own. How does she bear the heat? How can any of these kids concentrate on their studies while packed so tightly into this humid school room? With two or three kids sharing each seat, their shoulders rub up against one another.
How can any of these kids concentrate on their studies while packed so tightly into this humid school room?
I notice that the dull two-toned paint on the dirty walls is chipped and that cracks in the plaster travel from the ceiling all the way down to the floor. And even from inside the building, I’m conscious of the hot sun glaring down on the rusty corrugated aluminum roof overhead. The school reeks of sweat and it feels like an oven. But it’s also an architectural reminder of former president Julius Nyerere’s Ujamaa socialism.
Nyerere was the first leader of the United Tanzanian Republic from 1960 (when it was still Tanganyika) to 1985. Ujamaa means “extended family” or “brotherhood” — it was the word Nyerere used to describe his vision of economic and social development. “Every citizen is an integral part of the Nation and has a right to take an equal part in Government at local, regional and national level,” he wrote in his Arusha Declaration. His writing was succinct and inspiring, but ultimately, Ujamaa policies did little to prevent devastating economic decline. Today, Tanzania’s hunger level is rated “serious” by the Global Hunger Index, with an estimated 32.1% of the population undernourished.
Today, Tanzania’s hunger level is rated “serious” by the Global Hunger Index, with an estimated 32.1% of the population undernourished.
Nyerere wrote a treatise in 1967 entitled Education for Self-Reliance, in which he called for free compulsory public schooling that would contradict colonial “attitudes of inequality, intellectual arrogance and intense individualism.” He thought Tanzania’s education should focus on agriculture and productivity. His influence is obvious when I’m standing outside the classrooms. The simple rectangular school buildings are built from concrete and arranged symmetrically around a well-maintained courtyard. Late in the afternoon, I spot the students singing together while they tend to the grounds, trimming the grass and pruning the shrubs. Their end-of-day contributions would likely please the former president if he were still alive. He envisioned egalitarian “school farms,” where “students will relate work to comfort. They will learn the meaning of living together and working together for the good of all.”
Inside the classroom, however, things get bit more confusing. In my notes, I keep scribbling the buzzwords of post-industrial capitalism — scalable, entrepreneurship, identity, self-worth — right beside Ujamaa words like community, care, work and support. I’m sitting in the back of the room beside Lucy Lake, CEO of Camfed (Campaign for Female Education) — an organization that works with local community leaders and families in sub-Saharan Africa to create networks which provide support to keep girls in school. Since 1993, Camfed and its community partners have directly supported 1,603,674 students in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Ghana, Tanzania and Malawi. And they estimate that nearly four million have benefited from the “improved learning environment” that their work provides.
The class that I’m sitting in is a perfect example of these “improved learning environments.” Shani, a short 27-year-old woman in yellow flip-flops, paces back and forth. She’s teaching a specially-designed life-skills and well-being curriculum. When she was a girl, one of seven children, she was only able to afford secondary school thanks to the help of the local district council. In addition to personal expenses like proper uniforms and shoes, secondary schools in Tanzania required school fees — a practice that was only recently abolished. In 2009, Shani joined CAMA, the Camfed association — a network of young educated women from rural communities which has 55,358 members across sub-Saharan Africa. Then, in 2013, she joined Camfed’s award winning Learner Guide program, an initiative which brings CAMA members back to their local schools in order “to support marginalized children in their studies, help them succeed, and create a better world for themselves and their communities.” She’s energetic and exuberant as she leads the students through exercises about the previous night’s reading.
Each student has a book, entitled My Better World, opened in front of them. It’s written in Swahili, but I’m reading along in an English language version of the text: “This book could help you make your life a better life…this book could help you recognize, understand and overcome your day-to-day challenges…this book could help you become a role model in your community.” I’m amazed at the students’ engagement, their playful excitement, the way they seem to be performing for each other (and for me and the other guests in the back of the room). There’s a familiar goofiness to their humor which I recognize as the same harmless age-appropriate boundary-pushing that one sees among middle-schoolers, tweens and teens all around the world.
“Accept yourself for who you are!” One of the students says in Swahili, “Many people want to be rich, but if you don’t accept that you are poor, you will want to steal.” I’m touched by their self-reflections and I feel my lips often curling into that same half-smile, half-pout hybrid expression that my psychotherapist always made whenever I revealed vulnerabilities.
I ask a few students about the My Better World book after class and their responses all resonate with the predominant secular conception of the 21st century self: personally unique, empowered, autonomous, self-aware. In fact, they sound just like adults in the USA when they read a self-help book for the first time. They’re overly enthusiastic converts, celebrating their new found wisdom, insisting that the same curriculum should be available even to younger primary school students. I look around just to make sure I’m not really on some vegan pseudo-ashram in Southern California.
“Basic human needs are not just food and shelter,” four girls tell me, “but also love and health.”
Soon my cynicism dissolves. “Basic human needs are not just food and shelter,” four girls tell me, “but also love and health.” I nod in agreement, convinced that some schools in the USA, Europe, and the UK should use this My Better World book. After all, back home I’m increasingly concerned that nobody’s talking about the socio-economic ‘soft-skills gap.’ Folks rarely acknowledge that school-day opportunities for identity exploration, or for students to consider their own personal well-being, are distributed so inequitably. In the USA, for example, the poor get drilled on grit, perseverance, and eye-contact, while the wealthy get creativity, purpose, and empathy.
Here, thanks to Camfed, the poor get purpose, hope, belonging, respect. I tell Lucy Lake how impressed I am with My Better World and she explains that although it was developed in partnership with Pearson, creating it was really a process of aggregating local expertise. This curriculum is apparently specific to sub-Saharan Africa — written in collaboration with members of Camfed’s regional teams, most of whom are CAMA members themselves.
Still, if you ask me, the My Better World content seems pretty universal; it features precisely the sort of focus on autonomy, voice and empowerment that all tweens and teens will need to thrive in a secular, post-industrial global economy. Researchers have linked this sort of identity exploration to “intense engagement, positive coping, openness to change, flexible cognition and meaningful learning” (Kaplan, Sinai, and Flum 2014). And I’d argue that one’s ability to flourish in any particular economic epoch is, to a large degree, dependent on having a sense of self that’s framed within the predominant conception of personhood. In our times, that means accepting the individual — as opposed to the household, the tribe, or the Paleolithic band — as the primary socio-economic unit (hence, the current popularity of both the serial entrepreneur and the personality brand).
If you ask me, the My Better World content seems pretty universal; it features precisely the sort of focus on autonomy, voice and empowerment that all tweens and teens will need to thrive in a secular, post-industrial global economy.
Miraculously, Camfed managed to persuade the Tanzanian government to allow CAMA Learner Guides like Shani to facilitate this Swahili language My Better World curriculum in 151 secondary schools. That’s a pretty significant achievement when you consider that these schools have always been strictly English-language-only. And it was necessary. After all, it would have been disingenuous to ask kids to explore their own identities in a foreign language. So Camfed worked with politicians and community leaders to get permission to teach in Swahili.
While some Tanzanian officials may have been reluctant in the beginning, I suspect they’ve been convinced by now. Student performance has increased by unprecedented amounts (effect sizes of 0.5 in English and 1.0 in Math) at schools that include the Learner Guide program. Retention of marginalized girls has also improved: they are 38% less likely to drop out than girls at comparable schools. What’s more, 84% of head-teachers said the sessions helped students feel more confident about school. 96% of students agreed; they said the My Better World sessions “made them feel more positive about the future.” 97% said it helped them shape their goals. And 95% of the students said that the CAMA Learner Guides were “role models.”
No wonder. The CAMA Learner Guides are not teachers, but rather local community members, local stakeholders — many of whom now serve at the very same schools they once attended. “I’m a link between the school and the community,” Shani explains. Camfed has trained 3,903 young women like her working as Learner Guides in 1,009 schools across Ghana, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. They’ve reached 121,212 secondary school children over the past year. In exchange for their commitment, Learner Guides become eligible for interest-free micro loans through Kiva.org. Most of them use the funds to start small businesses.
Julius Nyerere would probably be appalled. He certainly did not envision an educational trajectory where self-empowerment leads to individual entrepreneurship. But that’s precisely what seems to be working. I visited a few of the CAMA small businesses nearby: some beauty salons, some dress shops. And at each one, I saw proud women — often joined by proud husbands — excited to show off their success. One woman showed me her handwritten bookkeeping system, and explained that she couldn’t do any of this without a good math education.
I smiled and thought, yes, this is precisely what Julia Gillard, Former Prime Minister of Australia and current chairwoman at the Global Partnership for Education, meant when she spoke to me about “the transformative potential of education” last year. A few months after our conversation, Gillard became Camfed’s patron and said to a group of CAMA Learner Guides in South Africa, “If you can deal with poverty, then the girls, with their inherent strengths, will seize the opportunities given to them. If you can get the right resources to the right girls at the right time, then you will enable them — because they are strong, and they’re smart — to change their lives.”
Members of the local district council, as well as all the headmasters I met, agree. They’ve seen the impact that CAMA Learner Guides and the My Better World curriculum has had on the secondary school kids. Most of them told me they hope Camfed will develop a similar program that brings self-awareness and empowerment to primary-school students too. And almost unanimously, they cited the reduced drop-out rate, explaining that they can usually attribute almost all attrition to just three causes: financial insecurity, family instability, and teen pregnancy. Financial capital only addresses the first. It takes local buy-in to address the second. And they insist that the best way to address teen pregnancy is through precisely this kind of education.
To drive the point home, Jeanne Ndyetabura, a retired civil servant who used to work in the department responsible for vulnerable children, tells me the story of a local girl. At the time of her first menstruation, the girl had no idea what was going on. Nobody had taught her about her body. All she knew was that she was bleeding from the inside. She was certain that this meant she was dying. So she ran away from the school; she ran to die at home. She didn’t tell anyone, not her friends, not her classmates, not her teachers. Instead, she cried and walked — terrified, worried. But along the way she met a boy. “Why are you crying?” the boy asked. The girl explained and the boy laughed. “You have nothing to worry about,” he told her, “go home, clean up, sleep. Then come back in 7 days and I’ll give you the medicine so this doesn’t happen again.” She did as she was told and this is how she got pregnant.
Jeanne Ndyetabura insists that through education, girls learn more self-respect, they understand their own bodies, they take care of themselves. But I’m wary that this perspective inadvertently places all the responsibility on the girls. I think about the surrounding society’s accountability. I’m certain that the solution is not just an education that teaches girls how to be on their guard against the supposed natural spirit of boys. Instead, complex problems require multi-faceted approaches. And while I’ve seen enough data about girls’ education in the developing world to recognize the accuracy of Camfed’s slogan: “When you educate a girl, everything changes,” I also know that the simplicity of the phrase doesn’t do justice to the organization’s intricate approach. It doesn’t acknowledge the degree to which their work depends on a local community’s “knowledge capital, social capital, and institutional capital.”
These are the terms that Camfed’s founder, Ann Cotton, used when I first met her after she won the 2014 WISE Prize. Knowledge Capital, she explained, “resides in the community itself,” they will always know more about what they need than any outsider. Social Capital describes existing community support systems that need to be mobilized and strengthened rather than replaced. And Institutional Capital refers to pre-existing institutions, like chiefs, schools, churches, and mosques which already have a strong foothold within the community. “You need to honor and dignify what already exists,” Cotton explained.
Stuck in Dar es Salaam’s abysmal traffic on the way to Julius Nyerere International Airport, Lucy Lake confirms that the same attitude even permeates Camfed’s outlook on financial capital. “We approach from the assumption that communities want to do what’s best for their children and will allocate the funds accordingly,” she explains, “not from the assumption that people are just out to get the money.”
Most of my readers live in a world where political battles often rage around tiny semantic distinctions between words like “welfare” and “entitlement,” so I expect that people will dismiss Lucy Lake’s perspective as naïve and idealistic. But what I saw in Tanzania was an intricate and sophisticated approach to solving major systemic problems. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. In a recent Brooking’s Institute report on scaling-up solutions for education, Jenny Perlman Robinson and Rebecca Winthrop explain that Camfed “challenges the common perception that community participation and efficient, accountable management are incompatible in the transition from small single-community initiatives to large-scale, multi-community or multicountry programs.”
I was still sweating in the airport restaurant. Lucy Lake and I were eating cashews and drinking fruit juice while discussing other examples of education programs for the developing world. We shared a mutual appreciation for some and a wariness about top-down, drop-in, and secular missionary-like approaches. I heard them call my flight number over the loudspeaker and I gathered my belongings to head to the gate. In place of goodbye, Lucy Lake paused and spoke as if she wanted to punctuate all of the conversations the two of us had all week. She said, “the distance to school is not only about how far you have to walk.”
A few days after I arrived home, I started hearing all those familiar debates about whether to blame poor student performance on bad schools with lazy teachers, or on toxic home environments with un-engaged caretakers. Frankly, that discussion seems downright silly now. I’ve seen first hand that it is possible to blend Ujamaa socialist values with post-industrial individual entrepreneurship — to create functional community networks, which honor local expertise and mobilize all the stakeholders together, so that they can care for individual students’ well-being, even in the face of extreme poverty.
If you want to help some of the poorest girls in the world get exactly the education they need, visit camfed.org