Page last updated at 00:00 GMT, Friday, 26 March 2010

Zambia fights poverty with schooling

By Ashley Morris
Alvin's Guide To Good Business, BBC World News, Zambia

Street sellers

In the dark, cramped room she shares with her three younger siblings, 15-year-old Christine Makiya rises from her bed on the floor and kneels to say her prayers.

It is 0500 in Mpika, Zambia. Outside in the twilight, the wind whips dust against the family's mud hut. It won't be long before the rainy season arrives.

She wraps up warm and goes outside to sweep the yard and wash the dishes, scrubbing the pots and pans, not with water, but with sand.

For Christine, each morning begins the same way.

Christine working
Christine has many household duties

Christine's father died three years ago.

To put food on the table, her mother and grandmother are often away, working on the family's small patch of land. It is 18 kilometres from home, a full day's walk.

So, they often stay there for a week or more at a time, leaving Christine, the eldest, to look after her younger brothers and sisters.

"It's very hard to get by," says Christine. "If my mother doesn't sell anything at the market, or get something from the farm, then we have no food."

"It hurts me to think of the way we live. It makes me think that if I could finish my education it would improve things for my family."

But with all her household duties, Christine is struggling to keep up at school.

For poor families like hers, long-term goals often give way to these short term needs.

Grass-roots approach

But Christine is luckier than many. She is being helped by an organisation that strives to break this cycle by financially supporting poor young African girls through school.

At Musakanya Basic School children are keen to learn

In Zambia, basic education is paid for by the government, but only up to Grade 7, or about 13 years old.

After that, parents must pay for all school fees, uniforms and books themselves.

It's not surprising that this is when children are most likely to drop out.

Girls are most at risk. Is this because African families are opposed to educating their daughters?

That was the question Ann Cotton, founder of Camfed, wanted to answer when she visited Africa in 1991.

"All the reading I'd done led me to expect that I would find a great resistance to the education of girls on the part of families," says Ann.

Founded in 1993
Has supported 500,948 children
Raised $11 million in donations in 2008
100 paid staff and over 50,000 volunteers
Source: Camfed

"But in fact I didn't hear that. I found the primary constraint was poverty and the reality was that boys had a much better chance of paid work in future, so this was the family's security."

Back home in Cambridge, Ann started raising money by baking and selling cakes.

With the $3,000 she raised, she sponsored thirty-two girls, paying for their education.

Since then, Camfed has grown dramatically, supporting more than 500,000 children so far.

But, despite this rapid growth, the organisation retains its grass-roots approach.

They have relatively few paid staff, but more than 50,000 African volunteers who run the schemes on the ground.

Few opportunities

In the classrooms of Musakanya Basic School, children dressed in maroon uniforms listen intently to their teachers and applaud their fellow students when they produce the correct answers.

There is a real hunger for learning.

But Christine is distracted. She finds it hard to concentrate. Her results are not good.

School is only paid for by the government up to 13 years of age

But Ann says Christine has as much right as any other girl to a good education.

"Christine really hasn't had the chance yet to grow through the problems that she faces at home," she says. "She has been selected like all the other girls on the programme on the basis of need, and I have every confidence that she will grow and change over the years."

It will be a difficult process. The town of Mpika is a tough place to grow up.

It is a major junction on the Great North Road that runs from Cairo to Cape Town. Most people just want to pass through.

Of the 110 million children that don't attend school worldwide, 2 out of 3 are girls
There are 42 million fewer girls than boys in primary school education
In sub-Saharan Africa, 24 million girls cannot afford to go to school
If you educate a girl, she will earn up to 25% more and reinvest 90% in her family
Sources: UN, World Bank, Unesco, Camfed

For an uneducated girl, there are very few opportunities. Many are married off as young as 13.

Some sell what they can in the market place or at the side of the road, while others sell themselves to the truckers.

Prostitution is a major problem. One in six Zambians is HIV-positive and Mpika is one of the worst affected places in the country.

Yet the figures show that almost all these social problems can be turned round by improving the rates of female education. "When you educate a girl, everything does change," says Ann.

"You find that maternal mortality falls, that child mortality falls. You find HIV rates dropping. Everything improves with girls' education."

Doubling her money

But even well-educated girls can struggle to find jobs.

That's why Camfed set up CAMA, a self-supporting network of ex-Camfed girls, who receive training in business skills and social outreach.

CAMA, the Camfed Association
14,005 members across Africa
Supports the education of 118,384 children
Trained 1,504 members as community health activists
Source: Camfed

They start businesses, community support groups and other projects such as nurseries.

Zambia's national chairperson of CAMA, Gift Namuchimba, opens her front door with obvious pride.

She built her home, one of the best in the area, from scratch with the profits from her business.

Gift, dressed in a sharp trouser suit, explains how, with Camfed's help, she finished school and then, with a small grant, set up a stall selling shoes in the local market.

Quickly doubling her money, she has gone from strength to strength and today employs a friend to run the stall full time.

Now she provides shelter, food and clothes for her whole family.

A small miracle

Can Christine achieve as much? Six months after our first visit, Alvin and I return to see how she is getting on. It's a transformation.

Christine is participating more in class and her results are much better.

"I've improved in everything," she says proudly. "I used to lag behind, but now I'm at the top of the class."

This small miracle was achieved because Camfed paid for extra tuition and gave her mother a new bicycle.

This simple intervention allows her mother to travel between home and the farm in a single day, so she can spend more time looking after the family.

Christine can now really concentrate on her studies. And, as Alvin observes, she just seems happier in herself.

Now perhaps she can really fulfil her dreams of a better life, not just for herself, but for her whole family.

Alvin's Guide To Good Business was transmitted on BBC World News on 27 March at 0130 GMT and 0830 GMT and on 28 March at 1530 GMT and 2130 GMT.

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