Runyararo was born in rural Zimbabwe into a large and loving family, with two brothers and six sisters. Though her parents encouraged education, the family’s poverty was a constant barrier. At 13 years old, Runyararo was top of her class, but the chance of finishing school seemed entirely lost.
“Village life is hard and once a girl child stops going to school there is little hope for the future. Maybe I could have ended there.”
Her father had been a teacher, but was forced to retire early due to a number of health problems. He was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and in hindsight Runyararo realises he also had epilepsy. He later died suddenly of a heart attack, leaving his wife and children to support themselves, mainly through subsistence farming. In her grief, Runyararo wished for answers about her father’s death.
Burying her dream of becoming a doctor, Runyararo pitched in on the farm to help her mother; she was good at leading the oxen during plowing season. Sometimes she would work in the fields from midnight until morning, before bathing and running to lessons. Despite this constant toil, erratic drought could ruin the maize harvest, meaning that money and food were scarce.
“I used to go to school barefooted, with my face full of hunger.”
In 1993, the year CAMFED was founded, Runyararo wrote to CAMFED founder, Ann Cotton, “If only I get the chance I will do something great.” CAMFED stepped in and covered all the costs Runyararo needed to proceed to secondary school, including a school uniform, shoes and stationery. She excelled in her studies and won a scholarship to read medicine at the University of Zimbabwe.
Runyararo’s empathy for preventable infant mortality led her to become a pediatrician. Photo: CAMFED
Runyararo (center left) in New York with Helen Licata (CAMFED USA Foundation board member - left), Dolores Dickson (CAMFED Executive Director - Canada and Global Programs - center right), and Brooke Hutchinson (Executive Director, CAMFED USA Foundation - right). Photo: CAMFED/Ricardo de Mattos
Runyararo is now a fully-qualified pediatrician, having graduated from her Master of Medicine in Pediatrics at the University of Zimbabwe in 2017. She has a deep seated empathy for the most needy and vulnerable of her patients. Runyararo relates, “When I am at the hospital and I see a nurse being unkind to a rural woman I say, “Respect her, she could be my mother.” And they are shocked because they do not think a woman in a white coat comes from such a background.”
As a practicing hospital doctor in Harare, she still encounters various challenges as a result of the poor infrastructure. There is sometimes a lack of electricity and running water, and there are shortages of essential supplies like drugs and hand sanitizer. Without all the equipment to conduct full investigations, Runyararo has developed excellent clinical judgement. Many years after her father’s death, she can fully comprehend the health problems he faced.
“CAMFED has not just empowered me but helped me to empower other people.”
Runyararo’s drive to achieve her full potential and help others has led to international support for her work. Seeing the promise in her Master’s research on the renal side-effects of HIV treatment for children, her professor encouraged her to submit a proposal to the University at Buffalo, US. In 2018, Runyararo started a course there as one of only 26 ‘Young Investigators’ from around the world at the Center for Integrated Global Biomedical Sciences.
As one of the first members of the CAMFED alumnae network, CAMA, Runyararo has been a beacon of hope for the tens of thousands of young women now part of the movement. Having seen her overcome the background of rural poverty that they all share, Runyararo’s CAMA sisters are immensely proud of her achievements as a medical doctor. And she is a firm believer in their ability to transform lives.
“With CAMA, we can conquer the world.”
Runyararo’s family has also benefited from her talent and determination. She has managed to support her siblings and members of her extended family in their education. This is enabling them to find stable employment, and together they can support their mother. Runyararo says that just by supporting her at school, “CAMFED has taken away poverty from my family.”
Along with their peers in CAMA, young women like Runyararo are changing the dialogue around the untapped potential of women and girls from rural, sub-Saharan Africa. Her achievements show that when we educate a girl, everything really does change.