Updated: Jan 31
The expected norm in Canada and The United States is a dream for many families in Africa: Sending your children to school, seeing them graduate, and go on to university degrees and professional jobs. What we take for granted in the West is for many in Africa a lottery of luck, especially where young girls are concerned. While governments in Southern Africa warn against and frown down upon underage marriages, they happen with startling frequency, especially in the villages. Most young girls don’t have the opportunity to start school, and those that do, may only make it to grade eight or nine with any luck. It’s the rarer exception for a young woman from the village to matriculate grade 12; rarer still, to go on to college or university, graduate, and take their place in white collar society.
This has to change, not only for each individual caught in a cycle of poverty and early reproduction, in societies where women are essentially material property to be owned, but also for the rest of the world, since raising the floor for African girls raises the floor for families and creates new opportunities through which new generations can break the cycle of marginal economics and traditions that force them into subservience. It’s been said by many that the easiest and best way to change the conditions of life for African girls and women is to give them a few seeds and some land from which to plant; women, the reasoning goes, would become more self-sufficient, be able to provide more for their families, and at least be a small part of the economy with their own money and the things money can buy. To me, this is too simple. It’s not just about providing the seeds of opportunity, it’s about changing the way entire societies think about the role and potential of girls and young women in society.
Machey, 8, preparing for school. Lusaka, Zambia. 2022. Photo: Michael Donovan
Machey is an eight-year-old girl living in Lusaka, Zambia; she now goes to school in Lusaka in a classroom of 150 other eight-year-olds. Today she rises at 6 am, washes the dishes before breakfast, prepares her own breakfast and that of her two-year-old brother, and then dresses herself and her younger brother for the day before she leaves for school. She speaks Tonga and Nyanja already, and is learning English, which she finds exciting as she masters new words and concepts. She loves to learn and is a very bright and curious child. But it wasn’t always this way, not even a year ago. Machey was born in the village 10 or so hours outside of Lusaka, to farming parents; she has worked on the farm from the time she could walk or carry anything, until she was seven years old. Her older sisters, 14 and 16, are already married to men older than them, traded for in goats and cattle or eloping, and made to move with their new husbands to wash for them, cook for them, carry and plow. There was no time for school past grade three or four for most in her family, and not even that much for the girls.
For seven-year-old Machey, there was an opportunity to take her away from village life and into Lusaka, which is a three million people (or so) city, the Capital of Zambia. She had some older family there that were willing and able to take her in and provide for her needs and school fees, and who understood that young Machey had the chance to do more than what the usual fate allows.
The thing is, Machey didn’t want to go to school, not in the city or anywhere else. She was happy to be in the village with her family, living as she was since it was all she’d known. She cried the day they took her from the village to the city for school. She cried at night for days and weeks and wanted to go back; she said so every day in Tonga. This continued for a long time until one day it stopped. One day she said she liked school, she had friends there, and being a smart and curious girl, she was taking pleasure in learning and her own accomplishments. She was smiling and not crying, smiling even more than before she left the village, excited to tell what she’d learned that day, excited to show what she’d learned. She would write her A,B,C’s in the sand near the house for others to see what she was learning. She was proud of herself. Her experience expanded. For the first time other people told her she was smart, that she should go to a private school, that she could go on to university if she wanted. Her eyes sparkle and her face beams when she hears this. Before, no one told her any of these things, and she had no idea what a university or college even was. Her concept of post-secondary education is still fuzzy, but she knows smart girls go there, and that she has that same potential. Her sense of herself is growing, and for now that’s enough.
Today, Machey’s mother and father still farm in the village; Machey herself, though doesn’t want to go back there to live, even though she misses her parents. Not even for Christmas break did she want to visit, though she eventually did. Reports are she wanted to leave a week before she was meant to return to school in the city; she was eager to get back, to see her teacher, her friends, her books and her backpack and pencils.
On the one hand you could say she’s just become used to her setting in the city, like prisoners gets used to being jailed, like she’d gotten use to her previous life in the village. On the other hand, you could say she sees the difference in comparison, what it’s doing to change her sense of self and increase her personal pride and courage, and she likes it. She walks around singing her A,B,C’s and feels intelligent and rewarded by what she’s learning, seeing and doing. She knows she has something that her elder sisters never experienced, and she wants more.
The point to me here isn’t that education is the answer, though it is part of the answer. Nor is the answer only about money since there are some large and wealthy farmers to whom young Machey could be married. It’s not about seeds and lands, either, though if there was more of that it would be a good thing. The basic fact to me is that empowerment is self confidence, seeing yourself with abilities you never thought you had, and being able to use your own powers of mind and will to change your life, maybe with a little help. Entire societies don’t change overnight or even quickly, and some traditions are so entrenched that they may never go away. But for young girls like Machey, the opportunity to see the world differently, through fresh eyes, and experience life beyond what was available to her sisters, grows her understanding and her inner-powers like sun and rain grow tall, strong corn. Being around others who value her God-given abilities and encourage her growth is the harvest the world needs, so that the Machey’s of the world become our next generation leaders, themselves proving to others like themselves that change is possible for them, too. And this, itself, might just be enough.