Self Help Africa

The education challenge of Africa's girls

Blog post   •   Feb 18, 2017 15:07 GMT

Blog by Ray Jordan, CEO of Self Help Africa

The bond between mother and daughter can be a strong one, a familial connection like no other.

In Africa, where many girls spend their formative years at the right hand of their mothers, it can be a cross-generational relationship that is both emotional and practical.

African girls are traditionally expected to help their mothers - in the fields, gathering water and fuel, with the preparation of food, and with the care of the young and the elderly.

The role played by girls in many African communities can come at some cost to their own personal development. In many households, the work done by girl children is at the expense of their education.

Happily, traditions are changing, and the numbers of girls attending school is growing by the year. However, a majority of the 100 million children not in school worldwide are girls, and at secondary school level in Africa, far fewer girls than boys complete their education. Figures from Benin, Ivory Coast and Ethiopia show that less than 60 girls per 100 boys are currently enrolled in second level education.

On a recent visit to Malawi with my organisation, Self Help Africa, I spent time with a mother and daughter whose story underlined to me both the challenges faced by mothers across Africa, and the unquenchable desire that they have to give their daughters the best chances that they can.

Vanessa Brown lives on a two-acre farm close to the town of Balaka in southern Malawi. It’s a property she inherited from her own mother and one which, alongside a small fish trading business, has allowed her to send all of her kids to school.

She’s particularly proud that her only daughter, Linda Kampira, who is 18, has gone far further in school than she ever did. “I became pregnant at the age of 17, and left school in my final year of primary,” she told me. “It defined the rest of my life.”

However, Linda faces a crisis that provides some insight into the complexities of life for rural poor people in Africa, and girls in particular.

Proud to tell me that she had been ‘best in class’ throughout her eight years at the village primary school, Linda says that she was confident that her grades would get her into second-level. Nonetheless, she describes opening her letter of acceptance as the happiest day of her life.

Vanessa says that she raised the money needed to pay Linda’s school fees, as well as the cost of her lodging with a local family within walking distance of the secondary school, and funded Linda’s education for four years. Not any more.

If Linda’s happiest day was being accepted into school, then the saddest moment for her was when she received the results of her final (fourth year) exams last summer.

“For the first time in my life, I failed. I let myself down and I let my family down”, she said. She admits that she fell into bad company at school, and that away from the watchful eye of her family, she allowed her schoolwork to slip.

As a result of that failure, Linda is now living back at home, helping her mother around the house and the farm, and biding her time, hoping against hope that her mother will find the money, and be able to send her back to school to repeat her final exams.

“In the village I am wasting my time. It can also be dangerous. Many of my friends are already married, some are pregnant, others have babies already,” she told me. “It’s not what I want. Not now.”

Linda tells me that she wants to go to university. She wants to be a journalist.

She speaks about a ‘eureka’ moment last year when she visited Malawi’s second city, Blantyre, with her mother. “I saw girls just like me going in and out of offices. It was a real surprise. I realised that there was a big world out there, and I want to see it,” she said.