The Power of Education

LUMBIWE LULU LIMBIKANI is passionate about the issue of education, particularly that of girls. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Education and Linguistics and is currently the Head of the Training and Support at iSchool Zambia, a comprehensive online multi-media e-Learning package designed to cover the Zambian school curriculum, i.e. teacher plans and interactive learning for students. She recently created the NGO Cumacatu which carries out educational research and advocacy to support children’s access to quality education and to keep them in school. She shares her personal struggles and successes, her actions to improve the situation of girls’ education as well as her opinions about certain traditions that have an impact on children’s education.

You are passionate about the issue of education in general, that of girls in particular, and you have chosen to work in the field of education. Where does that passion stem from?
I didn’t know that I was going to be a teacher or an education expert. I’ve always dabbled in teaching here and there but my passion for education really started the first time I went into a classroom just before completing my under graduate studies. I needed to do my teacher practice so I prepared and did my lesson plan. I taught a Grade 10 English class about homonyms and when I walked out of there, I was so excited. I called my Mom and I told her, “Guess what, I’m going to be a teacher.” She said, “Yes, that’s what you studied.” I said, “No, no, no, you don’t understand. I am going to be a teacher for the rest of my life. This is what I am going to do. This is what I am meant to do.” That’s how I came to be an educationalist.

What value did your parents place on education? How was it manifested?
They placed a huge value on education. Unfortunately, they died when I was quite young. My Mom died when I was 9 and my Dad when I was 13. I grew up with my grandmother with 15 or 16 girls in the house. My grandmother hadn’t been given the opportunity when she was young to go to school. She was forced into early child marriage but she ran away from home so she wouldn’t have to go through that. She took herself to school and eventually became a banker. So she always told us that story and said, “Look, I started from here and with an education, I got to the point where I am now.” It is a song she sang every day. “Education, it will be your mother, it will be your father, really do study, go to school.” Despite that, there were still some of the girls in the house who dropped out in the 7th or 8th grade because they became pregnant, stopped going to school or were married off at a younger age. Education was of huge importance. It was always drummed into our ears.

What impact did pursuing an education have on your life? Do you mind sharing your story?
I think it had a very big impact on my life. Some of the girls I grew up with are not in a very good state right now since they did not reach secondary level or go to college. You can see that they’re struggling because they don’t have the means to get certain jobs. In my family, I would say I am one of the first females to have actually gone to university and get a good job. So I push for everyone and say, “Please get an education because look at what it has done for me.” I would have also gone the same route at some point because when I was in my first year of university, I got pregnant and everyone believed I would then have to stop school and needed to get married. My boyfriend’s family came over to talk dowry and marriage. If it wasn’t for my aunt–whom I refer to as my mother–who said I was too young to get married, I would have gotten married. Even then, she also thought I was done with school and would just sit at home.  However, I was very determined to complete my degree even though we didn’t have money for it. So I sought funding. Education has had a huge impact on my life and I would encourage anyone to get one.

What are your thoughts regarding girls around the world having to opportunity to have access to an education?
If girls get an education, they are removing themselves from a certain condition because having an education also gives you economic empowerment. We’ve seen that when women are not economically empowered, it’s very easy for them to be taken advantage of, to be marginalized and to be put in certain situations such as being trafficked for labor or domestic violence. Even understanding the basic rules and regulations, the policies that protect them, sometimes requires having an education. They can’t care for their families as well. An African proverb says that if you educate a woman, you educate a community because when girls become mothers they also want what they had for their own children. They constantly give back. Women have more of a multiplying effect. When you educate one girl, she’s constantly helping others to also progress, to get to the level where she is. I think that if you take a girl out of school, you are reducing her chances of her developing and even the community around her.

How do you motivate young girls who are not interested in pursuing their education and who, as a result, perform poorly in school or abandon their studies?
I have had the opportunity to motivate such girls. Sometimes they think that because you have a certain job or you look a certain way, it’s all been easy, it’s been rosy and down to you. Sometimes it’s the value of hard work that is not appreciated. So I talk to them and I really encourage them by saying that it looks hard now but the benefits are enormous and invaluable. What they will get when they finish with school will be great. I have had nannies—I have two children–who have dropped out of school. In Zambia you find a lot of girls who drop out of school who become maids and au pairs. I have had two of those whom I sent back to school. I told them, “If you want to come and work for me, you’ll have to go back to school to at least finish your secondary school. If you finish, you have to go to college and I will help you. If I can’t, at least I will help you find someone who will. Also, you have to have bigger dreams because you can be better than where you are today and you shouldn’t let circumstances or you not understanding the value of education hinder what progress you can make in life.” So I do encourage them that way and I encourage other girls that I meet to do the same.

Did these two nannies pursue their education? What are they doing today?
One is a teacher in one of the rural areas in Zambia. She came to stay with me when she had just completed her Grade 12 but she didn’t have money for college. She wanted to do preschool teaching so she did stay with me for 2 ½ years and completed her degree. She is married now and has a baby. She is a teacher and is a very happy woman. The second one is still with me. She’s gone back to school and is in 11th Grade. She will be done next year. She wants to be a lawyer. She is a very ambitious girl. I’m pushing her dreams and giving her as much support as possible.

So what do they tell you about you motivating them to pursue their studies?
The nanny who lives with me currently has been more open to talk about it. She says, “I thank you very much for what you’ve done. I had given up on school and on life because I didn’t see the value. I was thinking that if I was getting a little bit of money now, that was okay.” She comes from a family where her mother and her sisters had to stop school and she was falling into that cycle. Now she says that she wants to do better, help her sisters and parents and give back as well. She was part of a mentoring walk I organized in March and one of the objectives was to talk to other girls and to give back.

Do you think that education alone is sufficient to empower girls to become leaders of their lives and in society? Why or why not?
I think that girls should be taught to speak up more. We should speak up more for what we believe in and what we want to get. I am much more of an introvert so although I say that, I know I’m usually quiet. I can talk to you right now but I don’t do very well in a group of 100 women. So I know how difficult that is but we should speak up more. We have traditions that say that we should be quiet so sometimes even when we see an injustice, we remain quiet because if we speak up, it will be seen as if we’re not respecting our culture. Despite that, we should speak up more. This issue is definitely also related to self-confidence. Personally, the more I speak up, the more confident I become. If I didn’t, I believe I would remain timid in my corner and think there’s nothing I can do about a situation. When I do talk about it, it sometimes creates a chain reaction and somewhere, somehow, something gets done about it.

I also believe that to become leaders, girls need role models to look up to and mentors as a complement to the conventional education system. I think it is only now that most successful women are coming out and speaking. They don’t come out in the public as much as most men do. Girls need to see that. They need to see that it’s okay for them to stand up for what they believe in. If you see someone speaking up for things you believe in as well, it gives you the confidence to do the same.

You are a big advocate against the tradition of child marriage that forces young girls in several ethnic groups around the world to interrupt their studies to get married. In your opinion, what measures should be taken to allow those girls to have the opportunity to pursue their education instead of getting married at such an early age?
I think in as much as you give boys the choice, give girls the choice. Let them choose what they want. At the end of the day, it should be a choice. I will mention again the initiation ceremonies we have in Zambia that happen mainly in rural areas. Girls are taken out of school for a month and they basically learn how to take care of a family, how to please a man, how to keep themselves clean. After the month of initiation, the girls don’t usually go back to school. They are married off just there and then. They either become a second or third wife to a man who is much older than them. At that young age–some girls are 10, 13–they get pregnant and have children. I witnessed this first hand when I was younger. I went back home and then I returned to school but the girl who came out of the initiation house with me didn’t. She was married off. I don’t mind learning. Learning is a big thing for me. It’s great to learn. But can it not be done while you are still going to school? Can you not learn how to cook and clean while you still go to school? Why do we have to take them out of school?

Are these traditions mainly perpetuated by women, men, or both?
They are perpetuated by women. They say that it’s our tradition. But when I talk to women who have been to school and have been educated, they are sometimes shocked  at realizing what happens to the other girls who haven’t gone to school. Personally, it is only this year that I started thinking about what happens to all these girls who don’t go to school. I’ve been living in that system all this time and it never hit me. Most people don’t realize that it’s wrong until you outline it to them. So there is a lot of sensitization that needs to be done by outlining to people how wrong this is and what it is doing to the societies.

I did a podcast on initiation ceremonies and sent it to a lot of my friends and peers. Even amongst those I believed would be minded to say that initiation ceremonies are wrong, the response was, “We never thought about it that way.” It’s actually true. This is bad but we didn’t believe it was because we thought that since we don’t do genital mutilation in Zambia, maybe our initiation ceremony is not so bad. Then we complain there are no educated people to make the economy better, there is no human resource. Well, we’ve taken out the human resource out of school. So even for a country as a whole, the more you have an educated population, the better you are economically. Since women make 50% of most populations, it makes economic sense to keep them in school.

What do the men say? Have you spoken to any men about this tradition?
Yes, I have. Some of my male friends again said the same thing. They had never thought about initiation ceremonies in that way because they’ve been to lots of them. They’re fun places. It’s where families meet. You have a traditional party. You have lots of drums and great food. People come from all sorts of places. A girl is taken out of the house and put on a little stage where she dances for you and you all appreciate her, her dance moves. Then somebody marries her off and you all walk back to your houses and you continue your lives. You don’t really think about what happens to her. You went to an event and had fun.

Are there any other causes related to girls’ education that you defend? If so, why?
The other cause I defend is allowing girls back into school after they’ve fallen pregnant. I mentioned earlier that I fell pregnant when I was at university but it wasn’t that bad because I had completed secondary school. There is a policy in Zambia where girls who have fallen pregnant can go back to school after they have given birth to complete their secondary or primary education, depending on their level. Recently, in the media, an elected politician said we should get rid of the law because it’s encouraging immorality since girls are getting pregnant because they know they can go back to school. It was very upsetting for me to read that. He says it’s not benefitting anyone so to say. Pregnancy does not happen with one person only. It’s so unfair that you would take out one person from school, the person who is carrying the child, who is bringing life and reduce the chances of her having the means to take care of the child she brought to life. It’s so unfair to say that because you have fallen pregnant, you are immoral. What happens to the guy? We should not look at just one side of the equation.

In my situation, when I fell pregnant the guy stayed in school and got his degree. I stayed home for a whole year nursing and then I had to start school all over again. So I was about two years behind everyone else in my class. I think this issue shouldn’t be seen from only one angle because it’s a two-way thing. I speak on that a lot. With a friend of mine, I tried to do a study to find out how many girls in the area where we work have actually gone back to school after they had children and what barriers they had to face. Just gathering that information was challenging. We don’t have exact figures on the number of girls in school who fall pregnant. We are still compiling that. After speaking to a number of people though, we realized that the fact that girls don’t return to school comes back to the initiation issue. It’s attitude, knowledge and practices. If people don’t think it’s wrong because they don’t know it’s wrong, they won’t condemn it and will carry on doing it, even the girls’ parents.

Are there any preventive measures that are taken regarding girls falling pregnant or is it a  taboo subject?
It’s kind of taboo. You can’t have teenage girls for example on contraception. You cannot talk about condoms in schools. It’s only recently, maybe the last three years, that we’ve had it on television. We’re seen as a Christian nation. It’s not something people want to talk about but more and more, people are using contraceptives. I think it is helping but again, you can’t go to the hospital because they say you are too young. There is a lot of cultural bias to getting that service.

What is your major dream regarding improving the situation of girls’ education in your country, in the world? What actions, if any, have you taken to achieve it?
I want to constantly advocate keeping not only girls in school but also boys because we have a situation in Zambia where boys don’t go to school. They have to take care of the cattle and when they reach a certain age, they marry an underage girl when she’s been through the initiation ceremony. So I am very much interested in girls and boys going to school. I do it a lot through social media such as Facebook. I’ve also been talking to people about this issue just to get their feelings about it.

Recently, I started an NGO with a friend of mine. We’re going to conduct a lot of research to identify people’s ideas on what keeps girls from going to school,  what traditions they think are normal that are actually a barrier to girls going to school. We are also going to link NGOs and corporate partners. We are targeting urban areas in Zambia because we realize that the fact that girls  don’t go to school or drop out due to early pregnancies is also a very big issue in such areas.

Is there anything else you wish to add I have not asked you about?
I would like to talk about my Vital Voices* fellowship and how it has helped me build my confidence. As I said earlier, I am more of an introvert. With Vital Voices, an international women’s organization, I have had the support of women who always push for you to do better and who help you with your cause as much as you help them with theirs. To see that there are women out there who are also supporting women and girls around the world and who speak out about inequalities and injustices, has helped me grow my confidence. That shows that at all stages of our lives, mentorship is necessary, positive and empowering.

What message would you like to share with the girls and the women around the world?
I would say, fight for your education. Stand up. Speak out against inequalities. Believe in what you want and go for it.

Click on the following links to find out more about Lulu Lumbiwe Limbikani and the organizations she is involved in:
iSchool Zambia:
Vital Voices:
Twitter: @lulu3lumbiwe


Interviewed by Aïda