Girls from the bush

7th January 2005 at 00:00
An estimated 24 million young African women don't go to school. But a charity set up 10 years ago by a British student is fighting for their right to be educated. Karen Gold reports. Photographs by Mark Read

Plenty of teachers meet fatherless children, but few will know a child whose father was killed by crocodiles. Ann Cotton met one last year: a Zambian girl living in a house of twigs and straw, built by her semi-nomadic relatives who survive by trading the fish they catch. "People are desperately poor there," says Mrs Cotton. "This little girl sent me a letter saying her father had been eaten by crocodiles while fishing."

Thirteen years ago the plight of two other young girls prompted Mrs Cotton to set up a charity to fund girls' education in Africa. She was doing field research in rural Zimbabwe, as part of her MA in education and human rights at London's Institute of Education, having taken a break from teaching in secondary schools. She found the Zimbabwean girls, Cecilia and Makarita, living in a hut they had built themselves to be near the only school they could afford to attend, 60 miles from their family home. They were living on vegetables from the school plot, and had no idea if their family could afford to keep them at school the following term.

At that time, says Mrs Cotton, international development experts insisted it was the conservative culture of rural Africa, rather than lack of money, that kept 24 million girls at home or in the fields. But in Zimbabwe, that was not the message she heard. "The chiefs were saying, 'we want our daughters to go to school'. The teachers were saying, 'we want girls at school'. I put myself at the mercy of the community. I said, 'you have told me this is about poverty; we would like to work with you to solve it. Teach me what needs to be done.' " She returned to her home in Cambridge, hired a market stall, and with friends sold second-hand clothes and home-made cakes and sandwiches. Every week they calculated how many school uniforms they could buy with the money they had made.

Six months later, Mrs Cotton had formed Camfed (the Campaign for Female Education) and was flying back to Zimbabwe with enough money to pay the annual secondary school fees of 32 girls (most schools inAfrica charge fees to cover basic overheads. Although usually low, they are beyond the means of poor families). Ten years on, Camfed has expanded and now supports 150,000 schoolgirls in Zambia and Ghana as well as Zimbabwe.

Getting girls educated is, of course, more complicated than just paying their fees. The Aids epidemic means that young girls may suddenly find themselves no longer students but breadwinners and carers. Wild animals, sexual harassment and lack of food can make travel to school hazardous. And those who do make the journey often arrive too exhausted to study.

Many girls feel cowed by predominantly male classes of 100. Some teachers may expect little of them. They may start school but lack the funds to stay. One of Ann Cotton's initial 32 students, Angeline Mugwendere, recalls washing her teacher's dishes to pay for a pencil. Other girls fared worse, she says. "A number of my friends slept with sugar daddies in return for cash to remain in school."

Camfed's solutions have been both imaginative and pragmatic: supporting whole communities so their girls attend school en bloc; building girls'

boarding hostels in school grounds; offering training to teachers; paying for girls to repeat their last year of primary education so they can catch up and qualify for secondary school. If you educate a girl, you enrich a community's future, says Mrs Cotton.

The story is told in a new book published to celebrate Camfed's 10th anniversary. I Have a Story to Tell contains first-hand accounts from some of the charity's earliest students, now in their early 20s, working as doctors, lawyers, health workers, entrepreneurs. They are full of energy and idealism, serving their communities and, through a recently formed Camfed alumni association, acting as mentors to young girls.

Governments, corporations and charities are all Camfed fans these days.

Still passionate, still determined, Ann Cotton, who was named social entrepreneur of the year for 2004 in the the Ernst Young awards, is not entirely comfortable in their company. "In the 21st century we haven't even secured primary education for all girls. I think that's a real indictment of our global priorities," she says. "When I was last in Zambia, I saw children teasing a little girl because she was an orphan. She turned to them and said, 'look at my uniform, look at my shoes. I have parents in Lusaka and in Britain who look after me'. That's what globalisation can do."

I Have a Story to Tell costs pound;25 (plus pound;2.95 pp), which is enough to pay for one girl's education in Africa for a year. Educational institutions can order for the special price of pound;12.95 plus pp.

Available by calling 01223 362648 or at

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