Text over white screen Angeline Murimirwa, CAMFED Executive Director – Africa, and founding member of the CAMFED Association shares her epiphany at the 2018 Skoll World Forum in Oxford, UK.
Angeline Murimirwa On Thursday the 2nd of July 1998, I found myself in a room with 400 other young women. We had been educated through school and supported by CAMFED. And CAMFED stands for Campaign for Female Education. They had supported us through school with a bursary.
So as we stood in there, we had come together to celebrate, this huge fete. We are among the first in our villages to have gone that far. And so this was a huge fete to celebrate. But we were also there to talk about, so what’s next? We were daunted by the future. Just the idea of, what’s next?
CAMFED works in the most remote rural districts where even the ministers of education rarely got to and are even aware of as much as their schools. So for us, there were no jobs that we could see. We were not just daunted because we didn’t really think, we didn’t have an imagination. And you don’t really need an imagination to know what would become of you.
We knew what was going to happen because when we got back to our villages, girls were still dropping out of school. Children were still leaving school prematurely because they couldn’t afford the cost. Challenges of child marriage, challenges of teenage pregnancy. But look here, everybody in our community was celebrating us with the heroines. Girls had made this huge break.
But we were conflicted because we knew, we knew what we were going to become. I recall sitting there in that room when young woman after young woman when girl after girl was walking up and talking about their stories. I just remember thinking, did they steal my script? Because that really sounds like me. And it was the first time that we had met together. We were not aware that there were 400 of us across the country. So just sitting there and realizing from that proximity that my story wasn’t unique. I wasn’t the only one with monopoly on poverty and how it affects women. There was a shared story and a shared narrative in this room.
So it wasn’t easy. I remember sitting there and looking at one of the girls who was there, Emma. She was wearing this dress and I was like, If only I had that dress. And please stop judging me, I can see that judging. So, I was thinking, if only I had that dress. It wasn’t new. It was a fitted dress. It was too big for her. But her aunt had given it to her to come to that meeting. I had come to that meeting wearing my uniform because I had nothing else different to wear. So you see why this dress matters to me.
So, you know, just looking at them feeling envious. But, you know, before I really got to settle down about my entitlement to feeling envious and justified to feel like that then Tendai spoke. Tendai, from the day she left secondary school, a teacher had taken her in because the only surviving grandmother had passed away. And to be honest, I was ashamed of myself.
So I was vacillating between feeling sorry for myself and empathy, when all of a sudden there was commotion. With 400 of us in this room, a room like twice the size of this room. And this man stormed into the room. He was big and this is relative as well to my size. So he stormed into the room and this man was shouting. He was very well dressed. But he was shouting and he was shouting to one of the girls in the room.
“How dare you ignore me? I’ve been calling you and you are not listening to me. Do you know that you are nothing without me? The clothes that you’re wearing and now all of a sudden, I own you. And so when I say come, you come.” I recall feeling outraged. You know, when you’ve got a knot in your throat, but you feel so powerless to challenge this person. And everybody else in the room was recognizing the injustice of it all.
And so one of the young facilitators was in the room, stood up and says, “Look here sir, you have no right to do that. If you’re going to ask this girl to get out, you need to do that through your friends.” Long story short, everybody in that room found their voice. They were shouting. They were screaming. They were standing barefoot. Some of us were big stood up and every one was like, no, no, you can’t. After all, do you realize that she’s a minor? So some of them tried to appeal to the law.
Someone said, “Oh, you know, she’s young enough to be a daughter.” And others are saying, “No, but to be honest, whatever you gave her, it doesn’t matter, what is it? Can we raise it and give it back to you?” But just to say that for me, sitting in that room when the whole morning we’re having a pity party about where we were at and how terrible our lives where and to sit there and see this room with 400 young women standing up to this hefty well-dressed and looking very educated man and saying to him, you’re not going to do this as long as we are all here.
It made me realize our collective power. It made me realize that we might not have the money at that time. We might not have been as educated. You know, most of us had not gone to university at that time. And we didn’t have even the money to be able to match his. But we were together, the 400 of us, and if he was going to do anything he had to go through us.
So on that very day, that’s when we started CAMA, our CAMFED alumnae network. We said, we are going to be together. We’re going to be there for each other. We’re going to support each other through anything. We’re going to go back to our communities and use our voices to make everybody understand that you might not have the money, but you’ve got a lot more that you’ve got.
And we also say that actually, no, they have catapulted us into leadership positions. All of a sudden, we are trendsetters. We’re going to use this leadership position, this position of influence to be purposeful role models in our community. And in that meeting, they elected me to become their very first national chairperson. So I had no option, I had to step up my game, as much as I really thought initially I was the one who supposed to be feeling sorry for myself.
So for me, everybody says to me, “What are the three things that you would tell to any entrepreneur?” I’ll say three things. Number one, just start. When we started this whole CAMFED alumnae network, it didn’t have a name. But one thing that we wanted to do, is we wanted to be able to go back and change what we had seen happening with what we had, with what we knew, with who we were at that time, at that moment, we’re not going to wait another day longer. So just start. Don’t wait until you have crossed every T and dotted every I. Start what you have and what you know and what you know is enough. Start. No excuses.
The second thing, partner. There’s some people that you would think actually this is the time for you to settle old scores with. If you’re still trying to settle old scores, you don’t care enough. You realize that this is not about you, this is about bigger issues at stake. So you will partner you will partner with some people that you don’t really think very well of because your passion should be able to override any inconveniences that you have got.
Which gets me to the third point. Be willing to learn and be able to face criticism. Know that actually you don’t know everything. You don’t know everything and you need to be able to learn. Be open to having your truth as you know it challenged, and most importantly know that you, you are enough and you can do it. So CAMA has always been about getting close to our problems, getting close to our challenges and realizing that actually we could. And we have done that. Thank you.
Interviewer So, you know, two questions for you. The first is, and you give this gorgeous example, right, of how do you honor where you’re from, how do you respect your culture and yet challenge it at the same time? Because I think this is something a lot of our entrepreneurs face and I’m wondering if you have a thought on that.
Angeline Murimirwa Definitely. I would say that the CAMFED alumni network, the young women that I’m representing today, by the way, we rose from 400 members that day, to 120,000 members today. So as I stand here and talk to you, Fiona, who is now a lawyer, said to me that we’ll be cheering and singing and dancing so I can hear that in the background.
So I’m going to tell you like a very brief short story. She’s telling me one minute, but I come from Africa, for as long as the sun is out, we’re fine. So, I’m going to tell you about Fatima. Fatima is 19 years old now. She told me this story three weeks ago. So Fatima comes from rural Malawi. So she went to the traditional leader who were the cultural custodians in her community. She’s 19. She was supported through school by CAMFED. From form one, she dropped out three times before CAMFED supported her.
So she said to me she went to the traditional leader and said, “I’m not very happy about what’s happening to women in my community, the number of girls who are dropping out of school, you know, the challenges that we continue to face, I think there are things we need to change.”
And he said to her, “Look here, baby girl, small girl, look here, you were born when we were doing this. Your father, I can guarantee, was born when we are doing this. Your father’s father, your great grandfather. And you are just a small girl. You know you are a baby. How can you tell me what to do?”
And she said, “Okay, I agree with you. You have been doing this all this time. And yes, my father’s father, my grandfather and everybody else before me has seen you do this.” And she said, “But I don’t think that this works.”
And he said to her, “Aren’t you a teacher? You’re now a teacher, qualified teacher, right? Would you have become a teacher if this was not working?”
And so Fatima, long story short, she said to him, “Look here, sir, if I showed you the scars that I have got and the wounds that I have got for just trying to get through the barriers that are in this community for women, you would be shocked. But unfortunately, it is not physical, it’s emotional, it’s psychological, it’s the torture that I go through to become who I am right now. So sir, all respect, but you are not a woman. I’m a girl. So I understand this problem here better than you.”
So he said, “Okay, fine. That’s a point. Can I listen to you?”
Well, they spoke a long time and she said to him, “This is how I’ve become a teacher.” And she even said, “That’s why you don’t have as many teachers, because you need to realize that some of the things that we are doing is not really working.” Now, you know what happens?
So the chief said, “All the other traditional leaders, please come. Next time we’re going to have a discussion about how to support girls, how to work with women. Make sure Fatima is there. She’s now a teacher. Not just for the children, but also for us.”
So for me, yes, with respect, and when you’ve got the bottom line, which is the red line, that actually this is not right, you can find your way to turn somebody who is a potential distractor to a champion. It works.
Interviewer If you close your eyes at night and you see the most beautiful dream of all girls in Africa being educated, what happens in Africa that doesn’t happen now?
Angeline Murimirwa Oh, please don’t go there. All right. By the way, I need to also state that that man that walked on stage that day, it was his kid. He was brought in to be able to assist us to reflect on what we thought was a barrier and, you know, on the fact that we felt weak when we’re not really weak. So it worked that he used that.
So you asked me my dream for Africa. I’ve always said that Zimbabwe is my birthplace. Africa is my home, and the world is my village. I believe passionately in the power of education because it changed my life totally. If I told anybody I would be in this room speaking in English on the stage, they would have sent me to the psychiatric unit. So I’m standing here and my vision for Africa. Let me just use that, because it’s also the vision for the organization that I work for, for the vision for CAMA, because I believe with every iota of my body in that vision.
Our vision is a world in which each and every child is educated, protected, respected, valued, and can grow up to turn the tide of poverty, unashamedly and unapologetically. That’s my vision for Africa. Thank you.
Text over white screen With thanks to the Skoll Foundation for its continued support for the CAMFED Association’s leadership.