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Whatever Happened To ... The Woman Whose Mission Is To Get African Girls In School?

Angeline Murimirwa, executive director of the girls' education group CAMFED in Africa, at a pub in Oxford, England, in 2018. In August, CAMFED was awarded the $2.5 million 2021 Hilton Humanitarian Prize.
Marc Silver/NPR
Angeline Murimirwa, executive director of the girls' education group CAMFED in Africa, at a pub in Oxford, England, in 2018. In August, CAMFED was awarded the $2.5 million 2021 Hilton Humanitarian Prize.

Back in 2018, I interviewed Angeline Murimirwa about her remarkable journey from poverty to power. She is the executive director of CAMFED in Africa – a group that has given scholarships and additional academic support to 4.8 million girls in the five countries where it works. She herself was one of the first scholarship recipients at a time when it looked as if she'd be unable to continue her education because her family couldn't afford school fees.

When the news came out last month that CAMFED is the recipient of the $2.5 million 2021 Hilton Humanitarian Prize, I wanted to catch up to see how CAMFED – and Murimirwa – are faring in this pandemic.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I wanted to bring up a story you told me back in 2018. When you first went to boarding school in Zimbabwe, you said June was a very cold month and "water froze into icicles." You said you were so depressed by the cold weather that you felt like giving up. But one teacher told you that you had to get through four cold Junes so you could "go back to your village and transform the lives of your family."

Seems like the whole world is going through a long, cold June now.

You can say that. The only difference is there was a clock, there was a time limit. I knew that four years would go by. With COVID it's so fluid. We have to live with it. We need to do the best we can.

Did we even think even in our wildest dreams that we would be dealing with this?

How has the pandemic affected CAMFED's efforts?

It's not been easy. We work with girls in communities that even pre-COVID were remote and not sufficiently served. COVID exacerbated that, particularly for technology. Governments responded to the pandemic by turning to online learning, but that's not a readily available solution in communities we work with. Most people do not have the hardware to do that.

So what has CAMFED been doing?

Our response is led by the young women who've gone through CAMFED – the 178,000 members of our association CAMA [the CAMFED Alumnae Association]. And they go back and work with local schools to support children. It can be something as simple as printing out content for village study groups that are socially distant.

And they do this as volunteers?

They've got jobs, run businesses, some are in higher education. Some now run schools. But if you've walked this path, you know that even if you can give a packet of pens, that helps support the next generation.

Prince Harry, right, speaks to Murimirwa during his visit to the Nalikule College of Education in Malawi in 2019. The Prince visited the school to learn how the group is supporting young women.
Dominic Lipinski / Getty Images
Getty Images
Prince Harry, right, speaks to Murimirwa during his visit to the Nalikule College of Education in Malawi in 2019. The Prince visited the school to learn how the group is supporting young women.

Has CAMFED done any work to address the pandemic itself?

When COVID hit, most of the information was online, on social media, on Facebook. And most of that information was in English. There were a lot of myths coming in as well. The CAMFED young women made sure communities understood what COVID is, what it's not, what you can do to protect yourself and your family.

What kind of myths?

Some people say COVID is just a white person's disease or just for cold climates – or that the pandemic is signaling the end of the world so there's no need for school anymore.

How do you respond to the "end of the world" belief?

When a CAMFED member visits a family or a girl who is facing that pressure [to drop out], they say, "This is not the end of the world." And [these CAMFED alumni are] a living demonstration that it's possible for girls to be educated and successful. That counts for a lot. They're not just strangers, they're coming and saying, "Do you remember me? Do you know where I come from? Let me tell you about my life."

Are there any new programs you are working on?

We are looking at supporting 50,000 young women in entrepreneurial, profitable businesses that are sensitive to issues of climate change.

Like what?

Climate-smart agriculture.

Can you explain?

You know we face food security issues — people are going hungry more and more. How do you produce more from the same piece of land? People tried to use more artificial fertilizer. That feeds you today but not in the future, it damages your soil and the environment.

So you're advocating ... ?

Organic farming to improve the yield without ruining the capacity to produce in the future.

Does food connect to your mission of educating girls?

When a person doesn't have enough food, there are pressures to offload children. When someone says, "I want to marry your daughter," there's less resistance from the parents because it means one less mouth to feed.

We're looking at the child holistically — just saying that issues of food can prevent girls from participating in and succeeding in school.

You've told me about your own struggles to stay in school. Are things any different for today's girls in the communities served by CAMFED?

This generation of girls is lucky. They have seen what happens when you get a chance to go to school. [Many of the CAMFED alumni] were the first in our generation to go this far. Young women are now teachers in their community. In the past, it could be all men teaching. [Today's girls] see the possibilities. There's hope.

We talked last time about how you fulfilled your mom's dreams of the education she was never able to obtain. How's your mom doing?

She's fantastic. I am fighting with her throughout COVID. You know how it is, there are new etiquette rules for COVID. You cannot be greeting someone with a handshake or a hug. In Africa, in Zimbabwe, when somebody has lost a family member, we go to their house and we shake hands. The very act of saying condolences is to shake hands literally, to touch their hands, feel their hands.

Now we're saying with COVID you can't do that. My mum always asks, "Are you sure?"

And she asks, "So it means I just can't be coming and seeing my grandchildren?"

No, you can't.

And don't go and gather without social distance and without a mask. Life is a cruel teacher at times. When people started dying, the message came through.

Does your mom always listen to you?

I don't think she always listens to me. She'll say, "I just visited your aunty who's sick." Seriously? But she told me, "I've gone and been vaccinated." That's good.

Has this pandemic made you pessimistic?

If anything, COVID deepens the fault lines that expose the inequities across communities – but also reminds the world that we are very connected, more connected than we really thought. A lesson from COVID is that we should move forward together collectively and continue to put education at the center of what we do.

Take care and stay safe.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marc Silver
Marc Silver, who edits NPR's global health blog, has been a reporter and editor for the Baltimore Jewish Times, U.S. News & World Report and National Geographic. He is the author of Breast Cancer Husband: How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) During Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond and co-author, with his daughter, Maya Silver, of My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice From Real-Life Teens. The NPR story he co-wrote with Rebecca Davis and Viola Kosome -- 'No Sex For Fish' — won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists.