Having travelled extensively throughout south and south eastern Asia, I was extremely curious and unsure what to expect of my first visit to Southern Africa, especially Zimbabwe.
Arriving in Harare in spring I was confronted with wide streets lined with beautiful purple jacaranda trees I was told planted from the Brazilian tree a hundred years ago, and rows of colonial style villas. This seemed quite far off the chaotic media portrayal of the city I have become familiar with, however, it must be said that I only really saw what would be deemed the nicer part of town.
I spent most of my time in Zimbabwe in rural areas, meeting with girls of varying ages and speaking to them about school, and the barriers preventing them from attending or having to drop out. I met with many different characters, such as the exuberant Faith, who was 19 and had just returned to school as part of a scholarship grant. I spoke to her about the years she had spent out of school working as a ‘house girl’ because her family could not afford to pay her school fees, and about her determination to succeed with her schooling despite being in class with girls much her junior, and despite having to walk four hours to school. She said that she had of course felt slightly strange coming back to school, especially because she was in classes with girls several years younger than herself, but the fact that she was in school outweighed any of those concerns.
I also met with Talent, a fourteen year old girl who doesn’t go to school, and walked for hours in the blistering heat across dusty fields to speak to me. She looks much younger than her fourteen years, and it is hard to believe that she has had to head her own household and look after her younger brother and sisters since she was merely eight years old, after her parents left without word of where they were going. When there is work available she works in the fields from dawn til dusk to provide for her brothers and sisters, but when she can’t find work, she and her siblings will go hungry. She seems sad and slightly distant when talking to us, and I can only begin to imagine the difficult ‘childhood’ she has had to endure. None of her siblings have ever been to school, and sadly it’s hard to imagine how this would change unless circumstances for Talent and her siblings change drastically. When asked about her future, she looks wistful and says when she sees girls her age getting married, the thought crosses her mind that she could do the same thing and escape all her overbearing responsibilities. And with that, she enjoys a brief opportunity to laugh and joke with friends before they head back into their classes, while she herself begins the long walk back home to the children she will have to cook, clean and care for, even though she herself is still only a child.
I also met with Tambo, a sixteen year old boy, who proudly showed me the very modest hut he was building for himself and his fourteen year old sister. He too lost his parents when very young, and has looked after his younger sister since then. They are extremely poor, Tambo tries to take on building work when he can get it, and his younger sister works looking for bottles etc to recycle. He was honest and frank about his worry that his sister will turn to prostitution, as it is the route many girls her age living in such extreme poverty without parental support are forced to take. However he was adamant he would do anything he could to prevent this. As I walked away from Tambo sitting on the red earth, tending to his fire in the morning sun, I was glad to have met such an inspiring and positive boy, doing the very best he can for his younger sister.
For me, as someone who sits in an office in London, and works on a global report on the state of the worlds girls and searches for statistics and evidence from developing countries almost every day, to actually hear the stories behind the statistics in the flesh was a truly unique and at points an admittedly unnerving experience. Even though many of the stories I listened to were extremely sad, and in some ways tragic, their perseverance in the face of extreme poverty was truly inspiring. I feel that I was able to gain a one-off insight into the realities of the lives of girls in rural Zimbabwe, who spoke to me freely, and whose voices will stay with me forever.
Research Assistant, Because I am a Girl Report