When 22-year-old Natasha, who has just completed her second year at Ashesi University in Ghana, returned to her village in rural Zimbabwe this July, her grandmother’s entire being shone with pride. This hard-working woman had nurtured Natasha through difficult times, making every effort to educate her, against great odds, until CAMFED stepped in to help. Two years ago, she had seen her granddaughter off with trepidation as she journeyed to a unique university in a foreign country. Now she was hugging a budding leader, who had just inspired over 100 government officials, and over 1,000 students, to invest in their communities, and in education.
“My lovely grandmother was always on my side. She tried so hard to make enough money to send me to school. She used to say, ‘You are so brilliant. You have so much potential.’ She would try to grow more crops to see me through. I used to sell roasted groundnuts to help my grandmother raise funds to secure my primary school fees,” Natasha explains. Her grandmother was looking after 7 children, and life became even more difficult for Natasha at secondary school, not only because she had to walk 10 miles every day to get there.
Again and again she was sent home to collect money for school fees, and when the money ran out in her second term, she dropped out of school. That’s when her Agriculture teacher, a CAMFED-trained Teacher Mentor, stepped in, and her community recommended Natasha to receive support from CAMFED through junior and senior high school.
“This was an amazing opportunity for me and I started putting so much attention on my academics.” Natasha’s uncle had inspired her to become an accountant. The subject didn’t come easy to her, but she was determined. Often her school went without an Accounting teacher, but Natasha would sit down and dedicate this allotted time to Accounting anyway, using a workbook to teach herself. “I realized it was one of my weaknesses, so I worked hard to improve.”
“There is a very thin line between my life and the lives of girls who were victimized in child marriages and the thin line is awareness and knowledge breadth.”
After graduation, Natasha joined the CAMFED Association of women leaders educated with CAMFED support, whose ethos of giving back and leading in their communities is creating huge momentum for girls’ education. CAMFED Association members support vulnerable students at their local schools, help to prevent child marriage, and provide each other with knowledge and moral support. “There is a very thin line between my life and the lives of girls who were victimized in child marriages, and the thin line is awareness and knowledge breadth,” Natasha says. As well as joining fellow members to help older people in her community by fetching water and fire wood, Natasha worked as a primary school teacher to try and save for a university education, although her small income only covered supplies and clothes.
With CAMFED's help , she applied to Ashesi University in Ghana, and was accepted on a course to study Management Information Systems. Natasha became a pioneer - the first CAMFED Association member from Zimbabwe to make the journey - and her Association sisters donated money, shoes and clothes to help her on her way, while the Mastercard Foundation provided her scholarship.
“Ten years ago, I didn’t really see leadership as an opportunity to make a difference. I thought it was just a position,” Natasha says. Today, her role model is Patrick Awuah, the Founder and President of Ashesi University who, like Natasha, travelled internationally to attend university on a scholarship. In 1997 he returned to Ghana to create a new kind of university, espousing ethics, innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership. “He wanted to give back, and wanted to help students build themselves up, to start a university that creates ethical leaders. It is amazing to give back. We go through a four-year leadership training and a lot of community engagement. Part of the course in our third year is to solve a problem in a community in one week with the practical skills we gained at university."
For Natasha, giving back is nothing new. During her term break she returned home, joined CAMFED Zimbabwe on an internship program, and helped other CAMFED Association members apply to university. At the same time, Natasha was invited to a series of high profile meetings to share her story and insights, and motivate and inspire her elders and peers.
“She took the delegates by surprise by demonstrating the power of discipline, determination and strong will.”
In June she spoke to over 100 government officials, including representatives from Zimbabwe’s line ministries, as well as to school representatives and parents from the districts where CAMFED works. Natasha gave a moving testimony of her journey so far, and encouraged everyone to send their children to school, regardless of circumstances. “She took the delegates by surprise by demonstrating the power of discipline, determination and strong will,” recalls Winnie Farao, Executive Officer for Strategic Partnerships at CAMFED Zimbabwe.
“Don’t just learn because your mother or your teacher tells you to. Discover a zeal to study for personal growth"
In July, Natasha was invited to speak to all 370 students at the day primary school she had attended, and another 700 students at her former high school. “I spoke to students about personalizing the learning environment. Don’t just learn because your teacher tells you to. Discover a zeal to study for personal growth. I also spoke about self-discipline, setting goals, and strategies for achieving your goals – building inner strength and telling yourself you can do it. Also, rights come with responsibilities. When you say you have the right to go to school, you also have the responsibility to learn. I asked students to consider the cost and benefits of the decisions they make in life. I told them that peer pressure hinders progress. They should choose as friends people who can help them grow."
After speaking to assembled students, Natasha met with some of the most vulnerable girls supported by CAMFED, and invited them to stay in touch. She is now answering their questions and concerns as a new role model: “Questions included students who were discouraged by their background of poverty wondering how they would cope after they finished school, and what the opportunities were. Students asked me how effective study groups are. They asked me ‘how do I know whether my friend is helping or hindering me?’ I told them that if their friends only talk about fun and boys, they are not building you up. But friends who are passionate about academics will help you grow.”
“The day I presented was the turning point in her life…hearing a different voice was her motivation for change.”
Natasha spoke of one high school girl in particular, who was an orphan living with her aunt. “She told me that the day I presented was the turning point in her life. This girl had been with 'sugar daddies,' and she would not listen to the Teacher Mentors who told her to stop. ‘These men are giving me life and financial assistance,’ she used to say. She saw the Teacher Mentors as blockers. But hearing a different voice was her motivation to change. Now we are staying in touch. I was telling students, ‘If your parents cannot afford books, do not engage in dangerous activities to get the money.’ I realised that if these young people don’t get a role model, they will fail to dream big and they won’t realize their passion. They have no one to look up to. The only women they see are housemaids and market women.”
“Your background does not determine your destination, it’s just a transit.”
Natasha says that all the different circumstances she has found herself in have moulded her to become a better person. “I’m already motivating students, I like mentoring other young women. I see myself advising a big network of young people - how they can attain their goals in spite of their background. Your background does not determine your destination, it’s just a transit, so they have to come out of their comfort zone and make something and lead the change. Also, not all CAMFED Association members have the opportunity to go to university. I want to bridge the gap between members who went to university and those who didn’t. And I just want to make my grandmother proud, because she was really putting a lot of effort to help me attain my education. There is someone who built my life. Now I can build other peoples’ lives.”