BAGAMOYO, TANZANIA—Fatima* sat quietly in the classroom as her more outgoing and eager female classmates told us about their school lives—walking to school, how much housework they have to do when they get home at night and, for those who lived in the dorms near their school on the outskirts of the coastal city of Bagamoyo, what their evenings were like after they were done studying. But there was something about 14-year-old Fatima, with her ebony skin and her large soulful eyes, which drew me in.
Maybe it was her silence and her awkwardness—tugging on her white headscarf repeatedly throughout the session and frequently wringing her hands— that made me hone in on her a bit more than the others. I was visiting the school as a guest of Camfed (Campaign for Female Education), an NGO that helps support some of the most underprivileged girls in over 5300 government-run schools across Tanzania, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi, and I was asking the girls—all Camfed scholars who that day had received their provisions that included solar lights, sanitary napkins and shoes—about their education.
Fatima told us that her favorite classes were biology and physics. She added that she loved to play football. She then said something that truly caught my attention: when I asked about her morning routine, she explained that she got up each day at 5am and she would do housework before she would wake up her younger sister, feed her and send her off to school. After school she would walk the 15 minutes home to start preparing dinner and getting her sister to do her homework. “Sounds like you do a lot at home—do your parents work early or late so that they have to leave home before you are awake,” I asked her.
She shyly looked at her feet, re-adjusted her headscarf and said in a powerful voice, “No, we live alone, though we have aunties who come to check on us.” I asked her what happened to her parents. She told me that her parents split up, her father works several hours away in the south and that her mother had remarried and moved to the capital in order to make a living.
So Fatima was raising herself and her nine-year-old sister, though they do have a phone to keep in touch with their parents and other relatives. (Fatima, like many other girls in similar situations, is in regular contact with Camfed-trained teacher mentors, who are often surrogate mothers for orphans or children whose parents must move away to support the family financially). Though this is something that happens with frequency across the developing world, I was still dumbstruck by not only her perseverance to stay in school but also that she understood that education was her only chance for a better life. I asked her if we could speak one-on-one later in the day and she agreed. These are her words through a translator. EXCERPTS:
BROWNELL MITIC How long have you been responsible for taking care of your sister on your own?
FATIMA—My mother left when I was in Standard Five [around the age of 12] and now I am in Form One. For me, it was okay because it is the one way my parents can get money.
That is a lot of responsibility for a 14-year-old.
It is okay for me and I don’t think it is a big responsibility. I am able to handle all the work at home and also in school.
Does your sister listen well to you or do you have to reprimand her?
Sometimes I have to but she always tells me later that she understands why I had to discipline her. I have to be the person who makes her study. She knows that she has to stay in school and right now she is the best in her class.
Take me through your daily routine.
I get up at 5 a.m. and then we start to get ready for school. By 6 a.m. we leave home—my sister has a long walk to her primary school—maybe 30 minutes. I also have to get water in the morning before I leave for school. We have a well near our house so I don’t have to go very far. I finish school about 3:30. When I get home, I change my clothes, then I prepare some food and then I clean the house. And then I wait for my sister to get home. I like to cook rice in the evening and so that if we have leftovers, we can use that for breakfast. I am a good cook.
Does your sister help around the house?
Because my sister has been in school all day and has a long walk home after school as well, when she gets home she just eats her food and then does homework. I allow her [to] play after that.
When do you get to play and have some fun?
On the weekend, once the chores are all done. I look forward to weekends. Saturday is my favorite day. Because on Friday I leave school early, I get all the work done at home. So on Saturday, we cook, we can go around the village to play. And then we come home, then I do my homework, so that is a perfect day for me.
How often do you speak to your parents?
We have a phone so we can reach them. We live in a village. My mother does not come back to the village but she often will send her sisters to visit us and check on us. So I can show them and tell them if something is going on. And if there is something, they can take care of it. There is also a neighbor, so if we have problems, she can help us.
You said you see your mom on school holidays—do you get to see your dad very much?
Our mom will send us bus fare so we can go to Dar to visit her. She works in a shop. Our dad comes home every two months so we see him during those times.
How do you have the motivation and energy to study after very long days?
It makes it hard but because I live with my sister, I know I have to show her that I study hard. And also I know if I study hard, later I can help my sister and my parents as well.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
My uncle is a soldier, so I think I want to be either a soldier or a doctor.
When I was a child, one of my favorite things to do was to sit in the grass, look at the clouds and see what kinds of shapes they made. Do you ever do that or just have some quiet time to yourself without any responsibility?
No, I have no time to watch the clouds.
*Her name has been changed
Photos 1 and 4, courtesy Eliza Powell/Camfed; photos 2 and 3 courtesy Ginanne Brownell Mitic