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Abigail: I escaped the trap of poverty, just because I was given the opportunity to go to school

CAMFED Association member & Program Officer, Zambia

11 min read

The first word that describes me is determined. I don’t easily give up on something. Once I fix my eyes on something that I desire, I make sure that I get it. Just like I was determined to complete my Grade 12* — even though I did not know how that was going to play out. And the second word to describe me is focused. I’m so focused. Once I fix my eyes on something, like getting an education, there’s no going back for me.

My life growing up was bittersweet. It was sweet because my grandmother, despite not having completed formal education herself, understood the importance of education. She was my mentor, encouraging me to wake up every day, even if we didn’t know what lay ahead. But in many ways we really struggled.

We lived in a thatched house in a rural area of Samfya, Zambia. Sometimes in the rainy season, the roof would leak and we would spend the entire night standing up, waiting for the rains to stop. Our household survived on vegetables grown in our small backyard; we didn’t have any extra to sell. We could not afford to buy school shoes for me, let alone a uniform. At that time I felt real pressure to get married, to try and reduce the financial burden on my grandmother. I was so embarrassed that we could not afford the basics. It was painful. Sometimes I would have to go into the head teacher’s office at school to explain my lack of shoes and uniform, then walk the 4 ¼ miles (7km) back home crying.

Here I am back in 2009, wondering what my future would hold. (Credit: CAMFED)

In the last term of Grade 8 (the first year of lower secondary school), a man from the School Based Committee came to announce that an organization will be supporting vulnerable girls to stay in school. I remember that day so well. Just by a leap of faith I was the first one to register on that list.

A few months later, during the school holidays, he visited our home to break the news: CAMFED will take me to boarding school! That day we cried tears of joy! My grandmother and I were so happy that I would be able to attend school without any difficulties. I would no longer worry about how I am going to afford a uniform, or how tired I will be after walking the 8 ½ mile (14km) round trip on an empty stomach. I entered Grade 9 in 2003 with all the necessities that I needed to stay in school, and my only job was to study hard. From the very day that I first encountered CAMFED, things have never been the same. I am sure that if I had not had this opportunity to stay in school, then today I would have been a mother of 6 or 7 children.

I had a chance to get married, but I didn’t even give it a thought. I wanted first to be independent and know I can make my own decisions.

I really enjoyed boarding school, even though it was further away from home. I enjoyed spending time with my friends, including some other CAMFED supported students like Victoria, Christine, and Alice. We would study and do homework together. The support I received from CAMFED was not only financial and material. We had a Teacher Mentor — a government teacher with additional skills in psychosocial support — who would help us. His name was Mr Wilbard and he was so warm hearted. He would always listen to me and encourage me to study hard.

On weekends I would rent a bicycle and visit my grandmother. I’d tell her stories from school, like how I’m finding my peers, what it’s like to have electricity — because at home we didn’t have any. Any spare items like small bars of soap from my CAMFED support package, I would share with her. I never forgot home.

Because of education and the support I received from CAMFED, I’m able to do anything. I’m able to dream dreams and I will see my dreams come to pass. I have escaped that trap of poverty just because I was given an opportunity to go to school.

Growing up in rural Zambia, I didn’t see many role models in my community. I could see a teacher at school, a nurse at the nearby hospital, but no other career paths for women were visible. After graduating from secondary school I struggled, not knowing what steps to take. But luckily I joined the CAMFED Association — the pan-African network of women leaders educated with CAMFED support — and my new sisters were so helpful, offering career guidance and mentorship. I decided to apply for a diploma in Business Insurance at Zambia Insurance Business College, which I completed in 2011. But I also realized that I love community work and that was my true calling.

If we have to achieve anything in this world, we have to make sure that everybody is treated equally, and it needs to start with education. Until we get every girl educated, there will be no equality.

Working as a Program Officer

I was so excited to get the opportunity to intern at CAMFED after graduating from college, rising to the position of Program Officer in a few years. I’m such a go-getter! I don’t shy away from difficult tasks. My role cuts across all three levels of CAMFED’s work: school support, Guide programs, and young women’s enterprise. Because of my passion for what CAMFED does, I really connect well with my work.

Many other CAMFED Association members are also professional employees of CAMFED, bringing their expertise and lived experience to our programs. In fact, three of my school friends are here working with me in the CAMFED Zambia National Office: Victoria, Christine, and Alice. We all come from the same district. That’s one of the things that makes CAMFED’s work unique, because we bring the faces to the numbers that CAMFED reports about. You can see us face-to-face and know that it is not just numbers, but we are here, bringing the story to life.

Supporting women in entrepreneurship

Another key element of my job is supporting young women into entrepreneurship and financial independence. I’ve participated in many business training programs, and now I train business skills trainers. I count myself lucky to have this knowledge to share, because in rural areas of Zambia there are big skills and resource gaps, which limit options for aspiring young entrepreneurs.

I offer knowledge to help young women start their business journeys, and the skills to help navigate the road to success. One young woman I supported was Mwamba, a CAMFED Association member from Samfya district. Through CAMFED programs, she secured seed funding of 500 ZMW (approximately $20 USD), which helped her launch a grocery business. More recently she received a loan of 50,000 ZMW (approximately $2,000 USD) which meant she could grow her business tremendously and diversify into making and selling furniture.

Our powerful sisterhood

Without a doubt I’m a leader and role model. I served as CAMFED Association National Chairperson for Zambia from 2011 to 2013, and I have led a team of trainers to implement a cascading model for training in financial literacy in my home village.

I keep in touch with CAMFED Association members everywhere, supporting them with advice and encouragement because that’s how CAMFED supported me and saw potential in me. Whenever I go to meet them, I am watching out for their inner potential, their passions, skills and talents which I can help them tap into. I love being a mentor and a source of hope for someone.

I am so fortunate to belong to the CAMFED Association sisterhood. What makes me even happier than receiving such warmth and support from my sisters, is giving it back to others.

Today we have many more role models in rural communities like where I grew up, as CAMFED Association members follow careers in business, medicine, law and so much more, and raise the aspiration of a new generation.

I am a testimony to what education can do, once you give someone an opportunity.

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Bringing my experience to a global stage

In 2010, I was selected to attend President Barack Obama’s Young African Leaders Forum in Washington, D.C, and a year later, selected to attend First Lady Michelle Obama’s Young African Women Leaders Forum in South Africa where I was awarded a $5,000 grant to implement financial literacy training for young rural women in my home village. In 2012, I was selected to be part of the United Nations’ Youth Advocacy Group (YAG), and I also spoke at the Global Education and Skills Forum in 2014. 

I was present at the United Nations when Malala Yousafzai gave her first public speech calling for universal education, and I joined two fellow CAMFED Association leaders to stand with Malala when world leaders committed to the Sustainable Development Goals at the United Nations in September 2015.

Sharing my story

Often policy makers have no direct experience of the challenges rural girls are facing. They don’t know how it feels to go to sleep hungry and wake up the next day to walk miles to school. I am bringing the reality and lived experience to the table — representing the voices of rural Zambian girls.

Attending global forums has been more than a dream. Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with important people like Michelle Obama, Ban-Ki Moon or Gordon Brown, I realized that it’s not about where you come from — living in a thatched house with a leaking roof, not knowing what the future will hold —but what you have inside of you and what you can become, when you are given an opportunity. Sharing my story gives me a sense of fulfillment and joy.

I wake up every day and imagine taking myself back to my home village. Today I have a decent home. I can defend myself. I can do anything I desire. But it’s not the same for everyone. There are so many ‘Abigails’ out there that we want to bring to the table so that they too can contribute — to the development of themselves, their community, nation and the world. So that’s why I do what I do and continue to speak up whenever I go. It doesn’t matter which forums, which important people I’m meeting, what matters is that people don’t forget about us rural girls.

It doesn’t matter where you come from, your dreams are still valid.

Here I am at the CAMFED 25th anniversary celebration gala in New York, 2019

The importance of community trust

As CAMFED Association members, we are trusted and highly respected by local communities and leaders. Whenever there’s an issue to do with a girl’s well-being, the schools and community will call on us. We have a very strong relationship with the school teachers, heads and authorities because they know our work and understand the value of our actions.

In 2022, I heard through a Teacher Mentor that a 15 year old girl had been married against her will. A group of CAMFED Association members rallied together with the CAMFED Association district leadership, and approached the parents, to advise them on the dangers of early marriage. The parents were facing financial difficulties, but we assured them that we would be able to support the girl financially to stay in school. Now the girl is back in school finishing her Grade 9.

Education gives you this boldness and the confidence where you can reason with people and come to a decision together.

We were so brave and bold to approach a family around such a sensitive issue, and saw it through to a positive result. As CAMFED Association members we are proud to tackle important issues head on, and if we think we might need back up, we go to the Victim Support Unit or to CAMFED for support until the case is resolved.

Plowing back into our community

Although here in Zambia, primary and secondary education is now free, there are hidden costs that children in rural communities can’t afford. That’s why I support children outside of my family as well. I put myself in the shoes of that girl who is waiting for the opportunity to have her books paid, to have her uniforms purchased.

Wherever we go as the CAMFED Association, we scan through the needs of the community, especially when it comes to education. We do charity work, pooling our resources to provide girls in our local community with school necessities. They say if you want to go far, you go with a team, you go with a community. Well today we are several hundred thousand members strong across Africa, and it’s our collective efforts which are making the greatest impact. Being in the network brings a wealth of experiences and skills, and a source of hope to those who are joining behind us.

Together we are fearless, together we are more powerful than one person alone. When we move together as a team, we can conquer all kinds of obstacles.

I wouldn’t want any child to go through what I went through. It was so very painful. I’m proud I didn’t give up on myself and that I dared to get out of poverty. I have my job. I’m independent. I can do whatever I want. But not everyone has got that opportunity yet to go to school. So that’s why I do what I do, and I’ll never get tired until my last breath. 

To our supporters in the global sisterhood and around the world, I want to say your support really matters. It doesn’t matter how much you are contributing — just one dollar goes a long way. Because I lacked one dollar, I had to walk in plastic shoes that were not even my size. So you should not underestimate your contribution.

The way we count it at CAMFED, it’s a multiplier effect. That means that generational poverty ended with me. Everybody who comes after me, they have a different ball game altogether, because they all have come after a girl who secured her right to education.

Now, the future is limitless.


*Grade 12 is the last year of secondary school in Zambia

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