“I Felt My Village Raising Me”: How One Pan-African, Women-Led Group Is Securing Education for Girls

Poverty is an injustice that falls most heavily on girls. I know this to be a fact. And I fully believe that the best way to address this injustice is to invest in organizations that support the education of young women.

Secondary students supported by CAMFED at a school in Zimbabwe’s Chikomba District. (Cynthia R Matonhodze / CAMFED)

When I was a young girl, I didn’t even own a pair of shoes. That did not stop me from climbing the tree near my school when I needed a safe place—a place to feel protected.

To understand why my story is important, it’s important to understand that poverty is about the lack of material things. It’s not a lack of determination, ambition or hope. My great hope was school, and that hope made me determined.

I grew up in rural Zimbabwe. I was not raised by my parents, but by distant relatives who were extremely poor. Every single day was a struggle to find money for food or shelter. Decent clothing was a luxury.

Sometimes neighbors would help with food or shelter for me. Other times, the head of our village pooled the resources of many to help feed those who had nothing. Looking back, I would say it took an entire village to raise me. That phrase has become a cliché in many countries, but that is my experience, that is the story of my early life.

Portrait of Judith Msindo with CAMFED badge. Msindo was empowered by community care to pursue her own education, and now helps thousands of girls do the same. (MacPherson Photography / CAMFED)

For me, school was a promise, a contract for a better life.  But that contract comes at a cost: It costs money to buy the things you need for primary school—money I didn’t have. When I finished those early grades, I was in debt for five years of school going costs. Yet, my village elders wrote to the school and asked for forgiveness of these costs in exchange for their work. Faced with that offer, the School Development Committee agreed to cancel my debt, and there I felt my village raising me.

I had never felt at home before school. My teachers became my family—they helped me the most. I felt that they understood me. Some had gone through similar experiences, so they knew just what it was like for me. They saw me, they believed in me, and that helped me over time to see myself and come to believe in myself.

I could not stop the power that education grew in me. I had no money for secondary school, but I had knowledge. I wrote to the headmaster of my primary school to ask if he could help. He went to work and organized support from teachers who raised the funds for my fees, a uniform, school supplies and shoes. Again, a village.

Lucia Punungwe, one of the first young women supported through school by CAMFED in Zimbabwe, and now a math teacher at her old school, helps students during class. (Cynthia R Matonhodze / CAMFED)

I pushed forward, often going to school on an empty stomach. I have heard it said that when women move forward, the world moves with them. Teachers saw my hunger and arranged for meals at school. When I needed supplies, they gave them to me. They asked for no payment for this—only that I succeed.

That collective support stayed with me. When I graduated secondary school, I was determined to help other girls in need within my community. I met an organization, The Campaign for Female Education (CAMFED) that believed, as I do, that women represent a hope for a better world. At its heart is a sisterhood of young women just like me, who had completed school against the odds. Together we match our community’s social support with material support. We engage with those in positions of authority to make sure that the most vulnerable girls have what they need to learn and succeed. And as those girls graduate, they join the committees that select other girls in their communities for CAMFED support. Because they know where to look for those most invisible—girls like me, shoeless, hiding in a tree.

Judith is working with a CAMFED Mother Support Group to grow vegetables in the school garden to feed vulnerable students. (Judith Msindo)

So as a member of the CAMFED Association, our sisterhood, I pledge not to stand by if I can help. Poverty is an injustice that falls most heavily on girls. I know this to be a fact. And I fully believe that the best way to address this injustice is to invest in organizations that support the education of young women.

Therefore, I am on a mission to bring justice to the lives of women. What my village was able to do for me as an individual, CAMFED is enabling across 6,787 school communities, with more than 177,000 young women leading programs that aim to deliver financial and social support for another 5 million girls to go to school and thrive—all in just five years.

Faith Nkala, one of the first young women supported through school by CAMFED in Zimbabwe, now National Director for CAMFED, speaks to students at a school in Chivhu, Zimbabwe. (Cynthia R Matonhodze / CAMFED)

That mission isn’t lofty or abstract to me—it is a practical pursuit that I work at every day of my life. Now, I am a mentor to girls at my local school, a fundraiser in my community, someone fighting hunger. Changing the status quo for those at the margins is like working a dry field and bringing forth a crop. It is hard work. If a girl misses a day of school, I am there bringing her back to school. If there isn’t enough money for a girl to pay for school, I will talk to anyone, go anywhere to find the money. If a girl is faced with early marriage or abuse, I step in. If she lacks belief in herself, I ask her to look at me. To see what is possible.

And one more thing: I wear shoes almost every day now. But, sometimes, I run in my bare feet. Because I cannot forget that the race is long and must be run every day.

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Judith Msindo, from Gokwe North, Zimbabwe, joined the CAMFED Association of women leaders in 2006, and has held several leadership positions within the network, which had 68,037 members in Zimbabwe by the beginning of 2021, and 177,899 across sub-Saharan Africa. Judith trained as a CAMFED Learner Guide, and an Agriculture Guide, and is currently working with 15 community trainers to reach 80 “forgotten” smallholder farmers with climate-smart agriculture techniques to address food insecurity, which pushes children out of school. Judith is a successful entrepreneur, who uses the profits from her businesses to support more vulnerable children in her community, as well as to fund her family’s education, including her own degree in English and Communications (Zimbabwe Open University, June 2020). Judith is a known advocate for girls’ and women’s rights, determined to support her community in fighting hunger, abuse and gender-based violence.