Angeline Murimirwa grew up in the small village of Denhere in rural Zimbabwe, where families often cannot afford to send their children to secondary school. Camfed, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eradicating poverty in Africa through girls’ education, paid for her school-going costs through a bursary for her entire secondary education, which she completed in 1998.
After becoming one of the first girls the organization supported, she helped pioneer its alumnae network, CAMA, which now has more than 84,000 members, and she serves as Camfed’s regional executive director for Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. CAMA members call her “Ancestor.”
Today, CAMA members are taking on responsibility throughout society, running schools, elected to district councils, joining youth parliaments and realizing they can have an influence on how aid is distributed and implemented in their communities. Women & Girls spoke to Murimirwa to understand how she came to trust the organization that has now become a movement, and how she builds trust herself among the communities she helps.
Women & Girls: You were one of the first girls Camfed helped to attend secondary school. What made you trust the help that you were receiving?
Angeline Murimirwa: I didn’t trust it at first. I didn’t trust it because it was too good to be true. It was unprecedented for me. I come from the most marginalized family, and getting somebody to say that they’re going to support me through school, that I would really get a new uniform and new shoes? It was unimaginable.
Particularly for the first few months I thought, “I’m going to wake up from this dream. This can’t be it.” I had actually gotten to the point where I said, “You know what? I’m going to do the best that I can, but I think my fate is sealed. I’m going to end up as a maid, but at least I’m going to be an educated maid.”
The reason why I ended up trusting the organization was because they did everything they promised. The team never made me feel like I was [not] deserving of support. I never felt like a charity case.
When I completed high school, there were some three hundred [of us] in Zimbabwe who came together and I was surprised at how many we were. I had only known the girls who went to my school. But what was even more surprising was the uniformity of our narrative. That’s when we decided to form CAMA [which stands for “Camfed Association”]. Now there are more than 84,000 of us.
Women & Girls: How was the the trust process for your family?
Murimirwa: A lot of people gave my mother and my father warnings about these “white people.” “You know what they will do, they will take your child away from you. And the child will take all the things that you have to give.”
But I have a very strong mom. She is stubborn. She had her own difficult childhood, and I think she was focused on breaking the cycle. Her mom had left school when she was grade six. She had left school when she was grade seven, and I was supposed to leave school at the same time. So my mom focused more on what that opportunity was, than on whatever risks or challenges it could present. She kept saying, “You know what? While it lasts, you give it [your] best shot.”
Women & Girls: What is the most appropriate way to set expectations of investment in education?
Murimirwa: As an organization, we look at the impact education has on a young woman’s income, on the choices she has, on the choices she exercises, on her agency as a young person. We also ensure that such metrics make sense within the context that they’re coming from, so we don’t compare apples with oranges.
Over and above all those metrics, technical as they are, we ensure that there is a human element, because we know that data and metrics on their own are often intimidating to communities and even to governments.
How do you convince, for example, the government of Zimbabwe that investing in education increases income? Of course using the traditional metrics, but also making sure that there is somebody who explains it to an illiterate mother in a village, so that she too can manage her own expectations about her own investment.
Women & Girls: Is it easier to build trust in communities after setting up CAMA, or still challenging?
Murimirwa: It’s different. I will tell you how we introduced the program in Malawi. We approached the ministry and they were happy for us to work in the community. We could have easily gone to communities and said, “We have got a memorandum of understanding here. Everybody get in line, we’re gonna work together.” But that’s not how we work.
You know how word travels in rural areas? Everybody was aware that there was this organization that was coming to serve the girls in the community. So, when we got there, everybody was curious. They asked, “How much money will you bring?” I said, “That’s not why we are here. We’re just here to know what exactly your aspirations for your own daughters, for your children, are. And how are you building towards that?”
In the Chimukwenzule school community in Machinga, they challenged me to a traditional task, pounding maize, because when I spoke to them, some of them said, “You don’t know how difficult things are here. It won’t work.” I told them I was sent through school by this organization. But they said, “Maybe your circumstances were better – you don’t look like a rural girl anymore.”
So that’s when they challenged me to pounding, saying, “You have to prove your word, because what you are saying sounds too good to be true.”
That’s how we build trust. By solid results, by engaging real people, by real life examples. By being prepared to fail. You make the mistake, you learn, you start all over again and don’t give up. And never blame the child for their own poverty.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.