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Mary stands alone in the middle of an unfinished classroom, the cement still freshly trowelled on the walls, at the edge of the town of Iringa in Tanzania. She is shy but, even at 15, has the poise and confidence of any singer sure of her voice.

After a bashful giggle she sings, her face tilted up in concentration, one foot ­tapping.

“This world is not my home. I just be passing through.

The angels beckon me from through this open door and I can’t feel at home in this world any more.”

The purity of her voice blends with a sudden warm breeze coming through windows with no glass. There is a hush, even in the playground. Her song lasts barely a minute, yet it lingers in the room like the gust of air. The words are sombre but the depth she gives to them is beyond her years, a hint of the life she has already lived.

Mary is one of 55 girls sponsored by Camfed, a British charity that supports girls’ education in rural Africa, at this secondary school. Without support none of them (one-third of the girls at the school) would be there. The FT has chosen Camfed for its seasonal appeal for a second year.

Behind the choice is a growing body of academic research that confirms the transformative power of secondary school education for girls such as Mary.

“In the last 15 years the breadth of the impact has started to become known,” says Gene Sperling, director of the Center for Universal Education at the US Council on Foreign Relations.

“Instead of the case for education simply being that each year at school increases incomes by 10 per cent, now it is seen as the intervention that reaps some of the highest returns, especially on health, infant mortality and Aids. What shook people was the broad health impact. The academic case has grown from the late 1990s, leading people like Kofi Annan, former United Nations secretary general, to say it is the single highest returning social investment in the world today.”

Universal primary school education is a UN millennium development goal, but the most potent returns – such as later sexual activity and smaller family size – come from secondary education. Camfed has sought to address that gap, based around its conclusion that the problem for girls lies not in resistance from patriarchal societies, or cultural issues, but from poverty.

In spite of Mary’s lyrics it is not escape from the world that she aspires to but a full life in it. Only now, being back at school, can she contemplate a future different from the hardships her mother has borne. She likes studying physics and biology because “I am a human being, alive – and I like living things, not dead ones”.

Tanzania’s educational problems are immense. The legacy of colonial rule was meagre but under Julius Nyerere, the revered first president, primary school enrolment jumped to 98 per cent. In the 1980s, with the cost of war against Uganda, debt relief and the introduction of school fees, attendance fell to 48 per cent by 1997. The record was worse for secondary schooling: at 6 per cent enrolment, it was the lowest rate in the world.

Economic growth has picked up, yet Tanzania has the second lowest gross domestic product per head in Africa, at $312 (£152) in 2006 against $5,388 for South Africa and $39,686 in the UK. Education is being given attention. Primary school fees were abandoned in 2000 and enrolment levels are back to 98 per cent. In 2005, the government launched a plan for secondary schools. Enrolment has risen, but only to 13 per cent.

Camfed, the campaign for female education, began work in Tanzania in 2005. It is applying the model developed by Ann Cotton when she started Camfed in Zimbabwe in 1993. (Camfed also works in Zambia and Ghana.) Camfed aims to reduce poverty and HIV/Aids. It recognises that, while education is good for a child and the community, it is not an easy choice for a parent living in extreme poverty, for whom keeping a girl at home can reduce hardship. Early marriage for girls, means many consider educating boys as the best way to secure a family’s future. Mr Sperling cites an expression he has heard often across Africa: “Educating girls is like watering your neighbour’s garden.”

Even at school, Mary meets boys who believe girls should not be there. “Boys tease me and say, ‘Why are you studying? You’re just going to get married’ and I should take arts not science subjects. But I can study science just like them.”

To address the barriers, Camfed covers all the costs of secondary education. It gives a four-year commitment covering examination fees, uniforms, exercise books and even soap to wash clothes. No parent has ever turned the offer down.

There are other reasons for providing this certainty. Poor girls are vulnerable to men who see them as free of Aids and who exploit their desire to go to school by offering help. “It is a total package because they can’t go home and ask for more money from their parents. We want to avoid them looking for money by having paid sex or sugar-daddies,” says Mrs Cotton.

Naja, 15, an orphan and one of the girls at Mary’s school supported by Camfed, says she is often harassed on her way to school. “Men say, ‘You are a student – I can help you’. They say they will marry you but I don’t think you should be married at this age. I don’t need to take money from anyone. I have money from my own sweat.”

Iringa was selected as it has one of the highest rates of HIV in Tanzania; 13 per cent of those aged 15-24 are infected. In one of the primary schools in which Camfed works, 198 of the 916 pupils have lost at least one parent. Mary also sings in Swahili of Aids.

“I’m crying. Who is going to save us from this disease?

It is killing millions and causing lots of suffering and orphans.”

Another reason for choosing Iringa is that many rural girls leave to become “housegirls” in the cities. These live-in domestic workers typically work long hours and can be vulnerable to abuse. A Unicef study in 2000 found that one-third of sex workers in Tanzania were previously housegirls. One hand-drawn image reproduced in that report is more evocative than any statistics. It shows houses in one village, with a cross showing how many of the housegirls had died: of the 68, there are 20 crosses.

Naja narrowly avoided that fate. “Lots of people came to my guardian and said they wanted to take me. I learnt from another girl who was sent away by her stepmother at 14 and got forced into marriage. When they came I refused and said, ‘Let me not become like that one’,” she says. “She has Aids. Her condition is pitiful.”

The government has tried to help poor girls but in Iringa it offers just 100 bursaries. Camfed is already sponsoring 1,002 girls there. “Everyone can see these children who dropped out to become housegirls and they are back at school. That is a motivation to people to say that it is possible,” says Kabiru Mbawala, the district education officer.

Changing grassroots attitudes is critical. Camfed’s aid is overseen by local officials and the village government. That keeps costs low (89 per cent of its budget goes directly to aid) and gives those on the ground a stake. “Before we just spoke about female education; now we are doing it,” says Mary Mwakajwanga, a Camfed district committee member.

There are flaws in Tanzania’s push for education. The number of secondary schools has expanded fast in Iringa, from six to 26 in a few years. Quality suffers. That is evident in Mary’s school. It is a kilometre from the main road, past mud-brick houses and a landscape of drying maize plants. Just two classrooms have been completed.

The most damaging legacy from the decades of erosion in funding lies not in the physical but the mental landscape – in the way many pupils at primary school, even boys, answer a simple question: “What do you want to be?” Shadrack, a 15-year-old orphan with a solemn, ageless face, answers mutely. His painful, extended silence is more ­eloquent than any words. He is fourth in his class of 231 and wants to go to secondary school. “There is no one who could pay for that.”

He looks at the ground and scrutinises his feet – not as Mary after her song, from a shy inability to accept praise, but from an acute sense of frustrated ambition. “It pains me in my heart that I am just going to stay at home,” he says.

Mary has not forgotten what that feels like. Half an hour before she sings we see another side of her. It is a small moment, when stoicism collapses and she reveals a hint of the pain that lies behind the surface of her beaming smiles. She is crying, telling her life story to a school mentor. An arm around her strokes her bowed back. She hurries to class. In one movement she grabs the front of her jumper, wiping away her tears. There, gone.

She speaks of how she is the youngest of seven children. Her father is dead. Her home burnt down in 2003 and they lost everything. Her mother works as a farm labourer from 5am to 8pm, earning little and leaving her to do all the chores and cooking. Her brother was funded by a charity to secondary school, but not her. “The date I had to report to school I had no uniform, or exercise books, and the teacher said I needed to pay school contributions.”

The other 54 girls have similarly tough stories. Yet seeing them together it is easy to forget that. They are awkward adolescents, wary of visitors. None of the uniforms match. Many have holes in their sweaters. Yet their optimism is palpable.

Penina Mlama, director of Camfed Tanzania, encourages them, like a rousing pastor inspiring her parish. “Here we have girls who have confidence in themselves.” Ndiyo (yes), they reply. “Here we have Camfed girls who will go all the way to university. Is that right?” A more assertive Ndiyo.

She leads them in a pasha, a form of engineered applause. “Pasha, pasha” (make it hot). They rub their hands together. On the command, “Kwege. Kwege”, they lean back, extending their arms and losing themselves in this moment of collective empowerment. Finally with “Choma!” (light up the fire), the tension ends in the climax of a giant clap.

None of the girls answers the question of her future with silence. They want to become teachers or nurses. They do not take education for granted, Mary says: “We tell each other that we are making history. We will be able to tell people how difficult it was.”

Mary is more ambitious than her peers. She is fourth in her class of 53 students. She wants to be an eye doctor. “Or, if I take arts, I want to be a lawyer. I want to fight for people’s rights, like girls who don’t get a chance to go to school.”

Her mother, Ambwene, a woman with a weathered face but a broad smile, says she prays Mary will succeed. She herself went only to primary school. “I want her to study so that she has a better life than mine.”

As Camfed recognises in its model, not all the girls will succeed. Yet the impact of their going to school on Aids, family size and the next generation will still apply. Mary, though, has a message for her donors. “I promise to work really hard to be successful and fulfil my goals so you can see me at university.”

In next Saturday’s FT: the difference made by last year’s donations

ESTHER TURNS INVESTOR IN PINEAPPLES AND PIGS

Esther’s house in Matamba is reached via a steep muddy slope. Over the door are the words “God Bless This Family”. One of her relatives climbs a tree to give an ancient call across the valley, to bring her children home. A goat chews on cardboard.

Four years ago, aged 19, Esther left secondary school having failed her final exams. Her hopes of transforming her life faded. “You lose hope, as it is so different to what you expected. I didn’t have any direction at all. I was just sitting around,” she recalls.

Esther shows us her farm. Along the route, boys throw stones at mango trees to dislodge the fruit. Faded signs warn about malaria. Women carry umbrellas with the names of western hotels or golf courses they will never see. Matamba is set in lush terrain, with sweeping vistas of mountains. But it is isolated, a three-hour drive to the nearest big town. With little work available, Esther had few choices.

That changed in 2006 when she met Tukaeje, the national chair of Cama. Cama is an important part of Camfed’s development model, created for rural women aged 18 to

30 to address the lack of post-school opportunities. It is a rural version of a social networking club, enabling them to trade advice and learn entrepreneurial skills. Cama also encourages activism on issues such as HIV/Aids. It draws on established development models of microfinance, offering small grants to help girls create businesses. In Tanzania, of the 490 Cama members, one-quarter have businesses.

Cama depends on inspirational role models such as Tukaeje. She started a clothing business with £40 ($82) of her own capital, but with the help of Cama her stock is now worth £262. Keen to share her experience, she recruited 50 members in the Matamba area. At a weekly meeting they exude a vivid cosmopolitanism: a pink T-shirt saying “Love”, alongside traditional cotton kangas. Some hold mobile phones; others babies.

Their businesses are basic: rearing chickens, pigs or selling phone vouchers. No one puts her hand up when asked whether they had expected to run a business. One girl says she joined because she saw the confidence of the others and wanted to be courageous like them. Most were inspired by Tukaeje. “She taught me that the principle of Cama is that you shouldn’t be dependent, you should be doing something,” says the elegant Esther, with large silver earrings and nail polish.

In early 2006, Esther started a grocery and made 2,500 shillings (£1, $2) a week selling salt, kerosene and dried fish. Then she joined Cama and received business training. “It helped solve some of the problems I was having. It helped me [to learn] not to sell on credit to people until they pay me back and to look at how to set prices.”

Even with such basic lessons she doubled profits. She then bought land for a pineapple farm. “I got the idea from someone doing it in another area. Cama made me more confident. I am more entrepreneurial as I can assess profit and loss.”

With the pineapple profits, she diversified again and bought a pig. When she sells that, she will reinvest in another. She is also applying for a Cama grant of $25. Her business plan will be scrutinised by members. The grants are small, yet the impact can be significant, especially for those with no access to bank loans. Esther will use it to expand into uniforms and exercise books and buy kerosene. She forecasts profits of 10,000 shillings a week. With Cama’s help, she says her self-image has changed. “I now call myself a businesswoman.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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