Seventeen-year-old Nolita sits on a school hostel bunk and talks shyly about being given the chance to go to secondary school. "Life in the village is really hard, so I know it's important to study. At primary school I tried to study in the evenings. Sometimes I'd get kerosene for the lamp, sometimes not. My mother was farming vegetables to get the things for primary school, but she also had to look after my cousins, because her brother had died, so when I passed to go to secondary school she said: 'Oh, I can't pay! But at least I got you up to Standard Seven'."
"The headmaster said that the government might pay the fees, but then he told me they would only fund two students, not three. I was so disappointed. But then he called me and said someone else might pay. I was so happy! Those girls left at the village - they're just farming, and life is so difficult."
Mary Mwakajwanga, district school health co-ordinator, puts it much more forcefully. "Education here is salvation. We have lost so many girls. We cannot lose more."
She is talking literally. This is the Iringa region of Tanzania, seven hours south from Dar es Salaam. The HIVAids infection rate is 15 per cent, and education a matter of life and death. A girl in this area, who only finishes primary school (as do nine out of every 10) will marry young, or take the bus to the capital to get a dubious job as a "house girl". Both routes often lead to an early grave. A village near Nolita's school recently buried half a dozen young women in a week.
But research shows that completing secondary school will help a girl lift herself from poverty, delay marriage, and protect herself against infection and abuse. It means that when she does have a family, she will have fewer children, and they will be better educated and fed. "When you go to secondary school," says 15-year-old Cecelia, who is studying at a school two hours outside Iringa, "you are much more able to think: if I do this, then that will follow."
Communities benefit too. Unlike boys, educated girls tend to stay in their villages, supporting their families, rather than chasing off to the cities.
Many experts now believe that educating girls is the main weapon against poverty. Larry Summers, outgoing Harvard president and co-chair of the World Economic Forum, says: "The education of girls is the single most important investment that can be made in the developing world. Greater education of girls would pay off for its economic benefits alone, for its social benefits alone, and for its health benefits alone."
All of which adds up to why the British-based charity CAMFED (the Campaign for Female Education) International works in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Ghana and, from last year, in Tanzania, to support the education of some of the poorest girls of rural Africa. "These girls need education, and they need it now," says Tanzanian programme officer Naomi Lovett. CAMFED currently supports 600 girls in Tanzania and that number will grow fast. As in all the countries it works in, girls' names are suggested by primary school heads and scrutinised by community representatives, to ensure the neediest girls get the places. Girls are then placed in schools in groups, in order to protect them from abuse or discrimination, and guaranteed support through school. CAMFED pays for school and exam fees, and for uniforms, shoes and stationery, as well as hostel fees for the many who need a place to stay. In all, it costs about pound;75 a year to put a girl through school.
The fees go directly to schools. But the girls are also painstakingly monitored and supported, via a system that has been evolved to place responsibility for the programme in local hands. At the charity's headquarters, in Cambridge, every girl is logged on to a central database, while locally-employed officers run each national programme. Meanwhile, voluntary district committees - made up of politicians, education officers, church and school representatives - take direct charge of the girls'
welfare locally. "No one on these committees is paid anything. We make it clear that this is something that you do because it needs to be done," says Naomi Lovett. The charity supports the committees as they find their feet, and in Iringa last year the newly-formed committees were mentored by the late Judith Kumire, CAMFED's former regional director, who visited from Zimbabwe to help. "Judy taught us to be strong and do things in proper procedure, and to do it for the ones who really need it," says Mary Mwakajwanga.
Now, Tanzanian committee members take long, bumping journeys out to distant villages to check that girls have received their stationery and uniforms, ask them about their health, and deal with problems. They also pursue girls who go missing. Twenty-nine were returned to school last year.
"We see a massive change in the girls," says Mary Mwakajwanga. "Before, they were shy, like this." She folds herself over. "Now, they are so happy to see us coming."
Many CAMFED-supported girls are orphans. Sixteen-year-old Maria is in the first year of a secondary school several hours outside Iringa. Her stepfather, Lazaro Ng'Owo, says he is happy that she is there. "I took her in when she was a very small child. Her father had already died. Then her mother died in 2003. I have my own two children as well, so it helps that she has her school fees paid. She says, 'Father I will work hard to study well'."
Fifteen-year-old Aida is looked after by her frail grandmother, Suzana Lyeru. "She has a big interest in studying, even when there is a problem with the lamp," she says. "I know she will do well in life, and support her younger sister."
"At secondary school," says Mary Mwageni, head of Wasa secondary school, in the hills above Iringa, "girls start to know themselves. And when they finish they have life skills, a chance of getting employed, and they can cultivate their crops and do business better."
In all, CAMFED supports almost a quarter of a million girls in Africa, and plans to raise that to a million by the end of the decade. After 13 years of steady growth, it is suddenly a "happening" charity, drawing in big grants from people such as Jeff Skoll, the founder of eBay, winning awards, and opening its first US office in San Francisco later this year. This year it is co-chairing the United Nations Girls' Education Initiative alongside the Department for International Development. But CAMFED does more than put girls through school. It works with ministries of education, gives money to primary schools, encourages mothers' support groups, funds trainee teachers and trains teachers as mentors. "We look at the issue of women's empowerment from every angle," says Naomi Lovett. "I've worked in a number of aid organisations, but the CAMFED programme is so different, both in its extraordinarily high standards and integrity, and the way it involves everyone who has the power to change girls' lives for the better."
When CAMFED first started, in Zimbabwe, it realised it also needed to help school-leavers find their feet, and the CAMA network was born. There are now nearly 5,000 CAMFED alumnae across Africa, helping each other start businesses, volunteering in their communities, and supporting the next generation. Last year alone, the network helped more than 16,000 girls through school. In Tanzania, a ready-made group of young women existed through a government programme which had helped 4,000 disadvantaged girls complete school. Now 30 of them, in the Morogoro region, two hours outside Dar es Salaam, have been brought together to start an embryonic network which has already helped members start businesses and encouraged them to train as volunteer health educators. Two CAMA women travelled from Zimbabwe to mentor them, and two Tanzanian members have been to see CAMFED's work in Zimbabwe.
Tukaeje Habibu, 27, is thrilled to be a member. She returned to her village in the Uluguru Mountains despondent, after failing to get through to her "A-level" stage of schooling. But now life is taking off. She sells clothes in the local market and is a volunteer teacher at her village primary school. "I was really happy when I heard of the network, and that it was about helping girls be more independent. I said 'Please can I be part of this?' Now I feel I am an educated girl who can do something at last."
She is chair of her local group, which has 15 members and a bank account, and is already supporting half a dozen primary school children with basics such as uniform and stationery. "I feel for them because it is so like it was when I was at school," says Tukaeje Habibu. "I look at them and remember everything about how it felt. It hurts my heart so much when I see them."
Tanzania's education system has been in a poor state for years, but debt relief has accelerated investment. Secondary school fees have been halved and each ward has been instructed to build a secondary school, for which the government will provide teachers. This rapid growth has meant that CAMFED's arrival in the country has been warmly welcomed. Even so, the rigorous programme is challenging to implement. " We do what we do on top of other jobs," says Mary Mwakajwanga. "But it is not a burden. They are our children. I don't even have words to tell you how happy I am to be doing this work."
'It challenges you to keep on thinking "What can I do?"'
Lydia Wilbard takes four days a month off from her nursing degree studies to work for CAMFED in Tanzania, and is an inspiring role model for young girl school-leavers.
Lydia's mother died when she was 10. Seeing her suffer, she vowed to become a health care professional. But she struggled for years to get a secondary education. At one point her father cycled for six hours, with her on the back, to enrol her at school. Later, the two of them toiled all summer brewing banana beer - "I had to carry firewood, which was a shameful thing in my community, girls didn't do it" - but still they failed to scrape together the following year's fees. Then, her father died. It was only by breaking down in tears in a church organisation's offices that she got her last stage of school funded. Even so, she had to sell greeting cards to other pupils in order to survive.
Now she runs another part-time business, taking photographs, and has been able to start paying for her six orphaned half-siblings to go to secondary school and to fund her younger brother's hospital treatment. Seeing him walk again, after six years' paralysis, has been incredible, she says, although he now needs further treatment. "It challenges you to keep on thinking 'What can I do?'" Last year she travelled to the United Nations, to tell wives of the world's leaders about the importance of girls'
education. A photograph shows her talking with Laura Bush. "I couldn't believe I was there!"