How some of the poorest girls in the world get exactly the education they need
June 8, 2016
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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?

(Photo by Jordan Shapiro)

“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.

(Photo by Jordan Shapiro)

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.

(Photo by Jordan Shapiro)

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.

(Photo by Daniel Hayduk, Courtesy of Camfed International)

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.

Continue reading this story by Jordan Shapiro, Senior Fellow for the Joan Ganz Cooney Center in the Sesame Workshop, at Medium. Mr. Shapiro is a future guest of the Citizen Ed podcast (in development) and has given us permission to share his important work.

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