In the sunshine of a November afternoon, the Everything Has Time roadside stall just outside Samfya, a small town in north-east Zambia, is a whirl of youth and colour. Next to a red and yellow sign advertising mobile phone credit, two schoolgirls in pale blue blouses and navy skirts are listening attentively to Penelop, 20, the stall’s owner. Once a pupil at the same high school, Penelop has now swapped her uniform for a pink blouse, floral skirt and a spot by the town’s decayed main road. The talk is of the exams Penelop has just taken, leading to what she hopes will be college and a career as a teacher. Her straightforward advice, dispensed in the region’s Bemba language, is: “Work hard and study hard.”

The chat between the three young women may sound commonplace but it is the sign of an extraordinary change in circumstances. I first met Penelop almost exactly a year ago when the Financial Times launched its first seasonal appeal on behalf of Camfed, a British-based charity dedicated to educating girls from poor backgrounds in Africa. Last year, Penelop had told me how she and three other schoolgirls had worked as prostitutes. One of her friends had already died, she said, possibly from an HIV-related illness.

That Penelop now feels optimism rather than despair is in part due to the support provided by Camfed and the money donated by Financial Times readers. I returned to Samfya last month to see how the money had been spent and to catch up with Penelop, who had just completed her Camfed-funded schooling. While waiting for her exam results, she sells biscuits and flavoured milk, and plays oracle to her peers.

“I think I have a bright future,” she reflects. “But I see a lot of people, especially girls, who have no one to support them.”

Camfed’s central tenet is that educating girls is “the quickest route to alleviating poverty in Africa”. The charity cites research that links female education to rises in women’s incomes, falls in HIV infection rates, and improved family health. Above all, Camfed believes, education establishes a sustainable cycle of long-term benefits. Schoolgirls who go into business or take on a profession will become role models for the next generation of children. As well as directly funding girls through school with £75 annual grants for fees, uniforms and basic goods, Camfed also provides young women with start-up cash for small businesses.

Camfed was founded in 1993 by Ann Cotton, who was appalled by the problems of school-age girls in Zimbabwe, and is now the charity’s executive director. From Zimbabwe, Camfed has expanded into Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia. In the past two years, its global income has almost doubled from £2.06m in 2005 to a forecast £3.84m, thanks in part to last year’s FT appeal donations. Over the next five years, the charity – in association with its business partners, which include Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and Edelman – has pledged to raise $15m for projects in seven African countries. In Zambia, Camfed hopes more than 300,000 girls and vulnerable boys will benefit from its projects by 2010.

Samfya, where Camfed now funds the schooling of 946 girls aged between 14 and 20, is typical of the places in which the charity works. Clustered around the shores of the spectacular Lake Bangweulu – “where water meets sky” in Bemba – the town seems at first sight flush with fish and other fresh produce. Mangoes are so plentiful that that even the local boys – never short of an eye for a sharp deal – cannot sell them for more than three US cents each. Yet any sense of plenty is illusory. Zambia is 165th in the United Nations’ 177-country index of human development, which measures life-expectancy, literacy, education and standard of living.

Today, Samfya, a remote town in a poor country, begins an officially enforced three-month ban on fishing to allow stocks to recover. Without the fish, there will no longer be even a thin cushion against the manifestations of a hard rural African life with sub-dollar a day poverty, a dilapidated infrastructure and petrol that is near UK prices of a little more than £1 a litre. Power cuts and lack of money curtail social life after dusk to a few loud bars, chief among them Uncle Joe’s Landless Corner, where a young crowd drinks in r’n’b, Congolese Lingala music and “shake shake”, a thick sour mix of fermented maize and sorghum – an acquired taste for some locals as well as visitors. The town’s main drag is bookended by two businesses that epitomise the prevailing sense of aspiration and grit: “After Sweat Investment” and the Twesheko – “Let’s Try” – Guest House.

Penelop lives at her cousin’s house on a patch of open land crossed by dirt roads. We meet during the quiet hour before dusk and she shows me how the reed walls of the bathroom behind her house have collapsed in on themselves, probably because of the recent rains. There are few western consumer comforts to be seen.

Slim, poised and blessed with regally high cheekbones, Penelop talks about the local celebrity she has acquired as a result of a film of her life that was made last year. The feature – put together by a group of local women filmmakers set up under Camfed’s auspices – has toured the Samfya area and been shown at the Pan-African Film and Television Festival in Burkina Faso, the continent’s premier cinema showcase. Penelop’s verdict on stardom? “I am famous and I like it.” While she admits that some viewers of the film have criticised her – at times harshly – for having been a prostitute, it is far more important, she says, that she and the other members of the filmmakers’ group have aired stories about social problems that are open secrets but little talked about. “It’s better to come openly than to hide things on your own,” she says.

As Penelop waits for her exam marks, she is planning further campaigning films on early marriage and child labour. She has just entered what Barbara Chilangwa, Camfed Zambia’s executive director, describes as a “very dangerous time” for young women, when they have finished school but not yet found something else to do. A backlog of college applications can mean students have to wait up to a year before starting their studies. This can result in poverty and frustration and sometimes leads young women into prostitution or other harm. That, says Chilangwa, is why the charity has set up the Camfed Association, a network of older women who can act as mentors and financiers.

Later that evening, at the Everything Has Time stall in a darkness clicking with cicadas, I hear perhaps the most striking testimony to what Penelop and other girls supported by Camfed in Samfya have achieved. Penelop’s older brother, George, 34, is manning the counter. As car headlights pick out small birds darting across the road like miniature lightning bolts, George speaks of how Penelop’s education and the stall are helping him and other relatives. “She has brought the family back to life,” he says.

Many Camfed-funded schoolgirls talk of the ripple effect that the support they receive has had on their relatives and wider communities. Abigail, 19, one of Zambia’s estimated 750,000 Aids orphans, was helped by Camfed to finish high school last year. She is now working for the state insurance company as a cleaner and general administrator. It pays only about $100 a month but the money is a lifeline for a family ravaged by HIV. In contrast to Abigail’s progress, her younger sister this year dropped out of school when she became pregnant. Abigail’s grandmother Bernadette – who sells snuff at a few pennies a time – gives a sense of how, for many Camfed girls, receiving help creates formidable future family obligations. Abigail has been “strong enough and intelligent enough” to finish school, meaning she is now in a position to assist the six younger children in the immediate family. “She is going to look after the young ones who are coming,” Bernadette says.

Later, I learn another example of the burdens that charity has created for Abigail. She tells me she works a four-hour drive away and has travelled hundreds of kilometres to spend three days in Samfya to coincide with my visit. She has done it with grace but it is a sign of extraordinary need and grotesque inequality that she should feel she has to make the effort.

Abigail’s family problems are echoed in many of the stories I am told as I visit three local schools with Camfed officials. We are received like visiting potentates. At Chisokone Basic School, for example, scores of students assemble on a Sunday morning to serenade us to the classrooms, where the community chairman presents me with gifts, including a drinking cup made from a gourd, a basket of cassavas and four live chickens.

Away from the pomp, the new Camfed girls talk with a troubling facility about terrible events, ranging from the loss of babies to persecution for witchcraft. Each is grabbing desperately at the unexpected opportunity offered by education. As one pupil, Evelyn, puts it: “If you are not educated, you are nothing.”

Seated in her headmaster’s study, where a sign on the wall behind her lists the school’s “stubborn boys”, Mary, 14, describes how she inherited HIV from her late parents. She lived with an aunt who segregated her from the rest of the family, preventing her from touching the other children and making her use separate dishes and water. Despite the persecution, Mary is determined not to view HIV as either a pariah mark or a death sentence. “People have been advising me that having the virus is not the end of the world,” she says. “But when I heard it, I thought I would die.” Mary has been taking antiretroviral drugs each morning for two years, although they sometimes make her feel sick. She has to take them on an empty stomach because the family cannot afford to eat breakfast. “I just eat once, at lunchtime,” she says.

After we have chatted a while, we are joined by Matilda, 54, another aunt, with whom Mary now lives. Within minutes, Matilda is in tears as she talks of her guilt about sending her own children to work selling dough fritters and other goods. It has brought in much-needed money but denied the children the chance of a proper schooling. Now Matilda has a new husband, bringing more children and more financial pressures. “I am really frustrated, looking at my life,” she weeps, confiding all to a stranger. Mary sits watching, wide-eyed and silent.

Against this background of suffering, Camfed’s great challenge is to distribute unsentimentally what help it can provide to those who need it most. Executive director Chilangwa, who used to work in Zambia’s education ministry, says the charity has set up a system under which elected community representatives decide on how to allocate funds, allowing any disputes to be settled at a local level.

Camfed staff in Zambia – all nationals – don’t shy from the harder questions about how they make sure donors’ money is well-used. In fact, as communities come to expect money to arrive every January, they have started asking awkward questions of those who control the funds when it doesn’t turn up. In the rare cases where cash is misappropriated by schools for other uses, such as to buy fuel or books, it tends to be the fault of over-dominant headteachers, says Joseph Yondela, Camfed Zambia’s finance manager.

Another tricky task for Camfed is how both to raise pupils’ expectations and to manage them in a society in which good jobs are rare. Mentors encourage girls to think of careers that their situations have never previously allowed them to imagine. Most younger girls have the worthy but narrow ambition of being teachers or nurses. In a society of mass unemployment, these may be the only working adult role models they have known.

The Zambian education system itself presents a range of difficulties that Camfed hopes to help alleviate. While schools are banned from using corporal punishment, it clearly still goes on. An apparently mild-mannered young woman funded by Camfed in a Samfya school tells me she wants to be a teacher so she can then cane other children in the same way she has been caned.

According to Chilangwa, one of the worst problems is the number of girls who disappear from school. Some drop out between junior and high school because there are not enough places to accommodate them. Others are pulled back into rural households where they are expected to do the heavy lifting, fetching and carrying. Some become pregnant and don’t return to school after maternity leave, though Camfed says its drop-out rates due to pregnancy are much lower than the national average. “You need a thick skin to work on this programme,” Chilangwa says. “Because these stories I hear everywhere I go.”

Back at the Everything Has Time stand, Penelop’s two friends have wandered off, leaving her alone on the hillside watching the road, like a guard in a sentry box on some remote border. For her, provided her exams have gone well, the stand will be a springboard for the rest of her life, rather than a lonely endpoint. A few years after being a teenage prostitute, she is now a figure of some authority, respected by other young women. Surrounded by boxes of glinting golden packets of biscuit, she reflects on what other schoolgirls should make of her experiences. Her conclusion is as economical as it is assured. “They have to listen to me,” she says.

Some people’s names have been changed to protect their identities

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