By Sue Mbaya and Memory Mushawenyoka
NAIROBI--When I was asked recently to reflect on this year's Day of the African Child as a policy advisor and a humanitarian advocate, my thoughts turned to the millions of young people across the continent who are working hard alongside their supporters to ensure they have better opportunities and a full future.
Beyond the poverty that oppresses their communities, they contend with additional difficulties because of their youth: the absence of parents; lack of a predictable, secure home environment; the challenge of governance systems failing to serve young people as citizens with real needs, and so on. Yet the children of Africa press on daily.
One such young person is Memory Mushawenyoka. As you meet her here--in her story as told to World Vision in Zimbabwe--I think you'll find what this day, and our work, are all about:
My name is Memory. My friends call me "Memo." So maybe the Day of the African Child is a good time for me to record the story of many Zimbabwean children by telling my own.
My childhood fits the narrative that makes so many people despair for young people in my country today. But my story, and that of millions like me in Zimbabwe and across sub-Saharan Africa, doesn't stop there. We are determined to beat poverty.
This year I will complete my honors degree at the University of Zimbabwe -- something that didn't look likely a few years ago. It would have been easier to fail. I really don't enjoy looking back at the bleak years, but if one child hears and gets inspired from them, it's worthwhile.
We were poor. My father eked out a small wage as a security guard living far away from our village in Mbare, an old and run-down suburb of Harare. It was not easy for him, and Mum was forced to fill the gaps for her four children at our rural home. It's a common way of life here. Families are routinely separated as industrialization draws men to the city in search of jobs, while women remain in the village taking care of the fields and animals.
Coming up with money for school fees and supplies often seemed a losing struggle. While primary education in Zimbabwe is supposed to be free, in reality many schools require levies that are a challenge for poor families, so most children drop out of school after the seventh grade. My Mum wasn't having this for her children. She tried farming to make ends meet so we could keep learning. She was a strong woman. Still, there were times we would be turned away from school until the fees were paid - or until the end of the term, to take exams without having attended class.
I do not have many memories of my dad. He died in the city after a long illness when I was 10 years old. Mum died five years later. I then became one of the 1.2 million children orphaned or made vulnerable in Zimbabwe as the AIDS pandemic and other poverty-related diseases took thousands of adult lives monthly during the past two decades.
Many Zimbabwean children have similar stories - but mine changed in a way that has made everything since possible. Staff from the aid agency World Vision were looking for orphans and vulnerable children to assist, and they found me. In their program, funded by Swiss and other private donors, 11,000 of us were selected for scholarships to continue our educations.
Getting school fee support allowed me to shift my focus to schoolwork and excel as a student. It also introduced me to a new fear, that I would have to stop after secondary school, and then what? I was terrified I would rot at home, stuck in the village and with no option but to marry young and face a life like my mother's and so many others.
When l finished my secondary school exams, l got really scared because in the whole village l could not find anyone who was doing fine, who was a proper role model for the future I wanted. When l looked at my elder sisters who were married, l got more scared about my own prospects.
I just wanted more out of life, despite being an orphan.
For me and some of my peers, the next door opened - again with help. Aid staff chose to sponsor us for further education. This meant we could take college entry exams, the "A" levels, and pass them. We were pioneers at our school in wanting to pursue an advanced degree and didn't even have books or qualified teachers to prepare us. We were just trying.
And it worked! I passed, and enrolled at university to study Administration. If not for the disturbances and frequent closures at the university amid the turmoil my country has endured in the past year, I would be graduating this month.
The future for me starts when l finish my degree. Maybe l will find it working with the agency that helped me -- but if not, I am sure to find it in communities where I can help orphans like me to achieve more in life. This is my work as an assistant now, in my home community, where I can become the role model I was looking for just a few years ago.
When l look back, l cannot stop thanking God, because without him sending people my way l would have accomplished none of this. This is true of my mother, too -- even with her gone, l can still hear her encouraging me to push ahead, toward the better life she wanted for us.
Now, at 23 years old, I am about to take my next step as a university-educated, independent woman prepared to support herself and help others.
I am a child of Africa. And today is my day.
Sue Mbaya is Advocacy Director for Africa, World Vision International