My childhood years were pleasant until 2005, when I lost my father. He was the sole breadwinner in our family, and even the extended family looked up to him as the provider. Losing him meant that there was no one to cover my school fees from Grade 5 up to Grade 7 (the final three years of primary school).
Like many rural African women, my mother did not have the education or opportunities to seek employment or start a business, and had no income. More often than not my siblings and I went to school barefoot, and there was not enough to eat at home. Eventually I was sent home from school after writing Grade 7, because I owed the school two years of fees. I remember the pain of having to sit at home for one full year. After some pleading and negotiating, my mother went to work at school as a way to pay off the debt.
The challenges at home suppressed any positive thoughts of having a better future. Education seemed like a distant dream, something that was not meant for people like me.
I still remember the day that I finally went to secondary school. My home is 4km (2.5 miles) from school, but this did not stop me from going! It did present challenges though, and sometimes I could not do my homework because I got home too late. The rainy season was the most difficult, and at times I was forced to miss school because of floods.
A way of hope was opened up when a female teacher took note of my potential at Form Three and helped me to secure accommodation at the teachers’ college. CAMFED took care of my fees and uniforms, and for the first time I looked smart and happy like other teenagers. When it sunk in that l could attend lessons without worrying about being sent back home for fees l was ecstatic. I was so relieved that I could learn normally like other children.
Thanks to these interventions, I completed my examinations without any hindrance and started believing in myself. The highlight of my school life was the day I was elected as the Head Girl — it was a major boost to my self esteem and helped so much when I proceeded to tertiary level to pursue teacher training.
Nothing could stop me. I had this burning desire to make something of myself, a desire to change my mother’s life.
After I graduated from school, I joined the CAMFED Association — the network women leaders educated with CAMFED's support — in January 2014. Through the network I had the opportunity to train as a Learner Guide* (a role model and mentor for marginalized children) in October 2020 and started volunteering four times a week, delivering the My Better World curriculum to 60 students. As a trained teacher, I find that being a Learner Guide gives new meaning to my role, especially the guidance and counselling component.
I work closely with the head teacher, the CAMFED-trained Teacher Mentor, and the School-based Committee, to understand in detail the day-to-day challenges that learners and teachers encounter, and what needs to be done to address them. The approach is different from that of a teacher, whose main focus is the child’s academic performance.
As Learner Guides, we take an interest in each and every child’s life as a whole. We become the friend and sister they need, creating the necessary support structure until they finish school.
If a child does drop out of school the Learner Guide is usually the first to become aware of the reason, which could be lack of funds, abuse, or another serious challenge. Sadly, child marriages are common in my community. CAMFED Association members and community stakeholders run awareness campaigns to enlighten young girls about their rights. I also refer them to the right authorities that will help them, and if they have school-related financial or material challenges I recommend them for support through our CAMFED Association philanthropy fund, or other safety nets at the school. If there are issues to do with their studies, I facilitate creation of effective study groups and link them up with subject teachers.
In exchange for volunteering as a Learner Guide I was able to apply for an interest-free loan through CAMFED and Kiva. It allowed me to shift from selling groceries from home to opening a tuck shop. I have two employees to run the business for me. I’m hoping to save money, expand my business, employ more people from my community, and support vulnerable children’s education. Even before opening the tuck shop, I was able to cover fees for a boy whose mother died and ensure he could progress to secondary school.
For me the CAMFED Association is about transformative leadership and transformative action.
Another example of our community initiatives was when the cases of coronavirus started rising. With other CAMFED Association members, l conducted group discussions with the community about the pandemic to raise awareness. I made alcohol-based sanitizers, which I then distributed to mothers in the community.
As a CAMFED Association member I have learnt a lot through various workshops and projects facilitated by my peers. My wish is to gain further leadership skills so I can empower more girls. I know that there are many other vulnerable and disadvantaged girls, who may be going through situations similar to, or worse than, mine. I want to inspire them not to despair — your background should not determine your future!
*Petronella’s training as a Learner Guide was made possible through funding from the UK government’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) under the Girls’ Education Challenge.