Ann is introduced: All of us here are in education and we stay in it because we want to improve in some way the lives of the people who come to us. Ann Cotton has directly improved the lives of 1.2 million students, students who were most in need of such improvement. Camfed battles poverty by giving education to young girls in rural Africa. Last year Ann was awarded the WISE prize for education.
Ann starts by telling us about the history of this area in terms of suffrage, a march that was made and stormed by the troops for challenging the status quo. This city has had a profound effect on the world.
She goes on to say that she has been fighting for justice too. When she started, education for girls was not considered a priority, especially for girls in rural Africa. She was interested in the area of gender and human rights. She visited a village in Zimbabwe, and found that the area where the Tonga people had been moved when the damn was built in 19(?6) was the poorest. They had been forcibly removed from their own land and resettled somewhere where the land was not sufficiently productive to support human life. Ann was going to do a study on girls’ exclusion from education, looking for the reasons why there were 7 boys for every girl at school.
She had not understood until that point the enormous strides that Zimbabwe had made in its education system. At the time of independence, all white children went to better resourced schools, so there was the most enormous challenge to expand education access. There were 600 places for every 1000 children in the newly desegregated system. However, Ann found a level of poverty that she had never before witnessed. The government provided food aid for two years to the Tonga people but these people had lost a way of life. They had lost access to the river, and theirs was a river culture. They used the Zambezi for trade and as a source of food. They had lived a subsistence life, but now they were under huge pressure to join the cash economy. But the colonial government was dissatisfied so they introduced a hut tax, and if the taxes weren’t paid, you went to prison. And to fish, you had to buy a fishing license.
Ann saw the connection between this history and her own history in Carmarthenshire. Her family were involved in knitting. And when factories started to produce things like socks which were more fashionable than hand-knitted socks, then her family who had earnt enough to survive by knitting by hand, they had to relocate and enter a different economy. Her grandmother was passionate about education and her four children including Ann’s mother all went into higher education. Back in Zimbabwe, she saw the desire for education that her grandmother had. She realised that everything she had read in advance of going was erroneous, as she had been expecting to find resistance to education but instead found a culture of poverty so deep that it forced very cruel choices. People were being blamed for their culture, as though that were the reason girls were not at school. But Ann heard the message from everyone she met that girls wanted to go school, that the local economics favoured the education of boys. In a community with the absence of a safety net beyond the family, this was crucial. So these people were making the only decisions they could on the basis of economics and survival. Ann found that extraordinary. She hadn’t met this idea anywhere in the literature in libraries in Cambridge and London. She thought, if this was the case here, then what about elsewhere in rural Zimbabwe and beyond?
When Ann returned home, she felt completely out of her depth emotionally, intellectually, she had never thought of raising money through an organisation, but she felt the issue needed far wider consideration, because as we still see today, there is still the impact of girls being excluded from education. We see it in high rates of mortality, maternal mortality, lack of food security, the exclusion of women from the economy. The exclusion of girls has an impact far beyond their own lives. When a girl leaves school at the age of 12 or 13, she will marry. She needs food, more clothes, so the family depend on the marriage for her security. However, the security is undermined by the likelihood of pregnancy as a teenager, in a place where difficulties in labour were not able to be dealt with. She had to be transferred elsewhere, and if she died during this journey, the cost of repatriating the body was not covered. There is always a rationale and that rationale is almost always economic. It’s about taking a bet, a risk, working out what is the best risk to take. In this case, educating sons was a better bet.
Ann felt the need to explain. She started with her supervisor, explaining that she didn’t feel she could just study. She wanted to do something with this knowledge she had happened on. She didn’t embark on her PhD as planned, kept deferring it. She didn’t know what the next would be but went around organisations explaining what she had found. From the organisations, she found complete resistance to what she said. She was angry about the closed minds she met, that what she told people about that community was being rejected. This drove her on. She had said that she would return to the chief, and after 6 months she did. He said, “ah, you’re back. I didn’t think you’d come back” and she said “But I promised. And I am ready to work with you. I have no idea what to do but we can work together to make sure more girls can go to school”. One and a half days later in the morning, she was woken by the sound of voices gathering. She hadn’t thought that all these voices were heading to the secondary school where the meeting was to take place, but they were. She arrived to find hundreds of people who had all arrived to discuss the issue of girls education. Ann was profoundly moved by this. The whole community knew about this meeting via a message from the chief. The chief is a bridge between the traditional world and the modern world, and is trusted. In this meeting they discussed how to move forward. And this is where Camfed’s model was designed.
From 32 girls they have gone on to support 1.2 million girls in countries across Africa. The idea was the child is at the centre of everything, the child is their client. How often in education does the child have to fit the system rather than the system working for the child? The question is, how do you build a community around this issue? How do you build a culture that is accountable first and foremost to the child? The document they produced describes that and that is how they designed their work. They think about the different forms of capital available. In that first meeting, Ann learnt that she had to abandon everything she had learnt from the literature. So often we think of written language of the expression of intelligence because that is the measurement system that we have, but here in the community, she found a depth of intelligence that she continues to find profound.
So the model is a system for drawing capital together. But not only financial capital. If we negotiate every action, every initiative through the lens of financial capital, all we will do is remind people of what they don’t have. So we turn to social capital, which is vast. Every community, however poor, runs because of its social capital. So the fact that the chief brought the community together is a form of social capital. Of course this was a patriarchal society, the educators were almost all men, the chief, the clinic staff. This was an area where men were making it through the education system so women were not in positions of authority. So Ann raised her voice.
Ann describes the intense arrogance of thinking the poor are a set of data and that we are entitled to know details about them (e.g. number of sexual partners) that we ourselves would not be willing to give. And what happens to the data once it is collected? It moves upwards. It doesn’t go back to the community. The power of data, however, is huge. The power of data to change behaviour, to acknowledge behaviour. Camfed works with grandmothers because many of the parental generation have died. However, the intelligence is there. They are ready to find out how they can change the educational outcomes of their grandchildren. So they have meetings and discuss the collection of data and what it can tell them. E.g. chores. Girls do the domestic chores, boys might take the animals to the field. Girls have to do more, and therefore have less space and time to study, which impacts on results. So they looked at this and worked on what to do. Later on, showing the improvements (in a graph), generated celebration.
Coming out of the system, girls were still vulnerable. Now they had the most enormous capital available in their lives, communities and future families, but they needed protection in order to be able to make significant change. So they established an alumni organisation, a powerful network. Some of the members are now in their mid-30s. And now they themselves are taking initiatives outside their own families, supporting the education of children outside their family, to the tune of upwards of 63,000 children.
Ann introduces us to a few of them. E.g. Ruka from Ghana who set up a chicken farm, which is growing now. Her community is celebrating her. It’s not only the fact of their progression but they understand the context of poverty, the psychology of it, the material impact of it. So their change-making is way beyond the change-making possible if a child without this background went into this context. If we want change, if we are serious about the eradication of poverty, we need to educate every child. We need to educate every girl and make sure that within the system they are valued and respected. Then they can emerge as pillars of society, able to fight for others like them.
Ann goes on to explain that children in this context face not only a language barrier but the barrier of metaphors and examples that they are expected to negotiate and understand. They do not see themselves in their learning materials. They enter into an educational environment that feels somehow detached and remote. So, Camfed are now working with Pearson to create materials that are more relevant to the students’ lives in their contexts, so that their experience is reflected back at them. Names and places are those with which children are familiar. So they don’t find themselves with a train timetable that looks at the distance between London and Manchester, which means nothing to them. Ann tells us about an exam question she faced that was all about cricket runs: she remembers looking at this question and being confused by it because she didn’t understand the basis of the question. In their partnership with ministries of education and with Pearson, is develop a curriculum precisely targeted at the children and these have been very successful. CAMNA (The alumni) have worked with consultants at Pearson in this development.
Camfed have also established the learner guide programme, where secondary school graduates go into schools and work alongside the teachers, most of whom won’t be from the local area. This works on several levels: teachers feel supported in their classes of 50 or 60 children; there is this fantastic language bridge; for the children, the learner guides are a friendly face (known) and role models, representing something these children can do; parents are delighted as they can see their daughters are moving forward and respected in their communities. Finally it is a bridge to teacher training college for the young women.
Ann finished with the words of Mark Twain: When everybody thinks the way you do, then it’s time to think differently. As a community of educators, she says we all have such creativity and such great ideas and she wishes us all the best for the conference and moving forward.
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I hadn’t even planned to attend this plenary and yet I left it in tears!
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