Zimbabwe: A heavy load for a big sister to carry

Dealing with homework and making it to school on time are typical concerns for any teenager. Fifteen-year-old Pamela Chitukire is no exception.

It’s clear she loves school. She is the captain of the netball team (think somewhat similar to basketball). Math and English are her favorite subjects.

“I want to continue learning and go to higher levels. My wish is to become a teacher,” she says.

Pamela, 15, and Monica, 8. Photo: Darcy Knoll/CARE

The conversation continues without pause as the reality of her life in Chivi district, southern Zimbabwe sets in.

“I’m not sure if I’ll be able to continue my education since I don’t have anyone who will pay my school fees, buy my uniforms and books needed.”

While her worries about school are similar to students the world over, the barriers she faces to get her homework done or keep up with her classmates are tremendous.

Her father passed away in 2009. A few years later, her mother left for South Africa to find work in 2013. She has not returned.

Pamela lives with her little sister Monica, a shy eight-year-old.

“I also like school,” Monica says softly as she looks down and fidgets with a pen. “I would also like to be a teacher.”

She leaves the talking to Pamela. It’s clear she thinks the world of her big sister. And for good reason.

With no parents or guardians, Pamela was forced to take on the household chores, including feeding her sister and finding water.

Her day would start at four in the morning when she prepared breakfast and got ready for school. When she left for school she would bring a bucket as well as her school supplies. Once classes ended at 4 pm, she would then head off to find water at a well that was never clean.

Overall, the trip would take two and a half hours. She walked alone down the dusty, red clay road. Pamela was afraid of the occasional hyena that would howl in the background of this rural landscape.

There are no streetlights here. Once the sun set, the darkness would envelope Pamela. She marched on in the blackness, one careful step after another, bucket still on her head.

Her chores were not finished when she returned home. She would then need to fetch firewood and prepare dinner for her sister.

“In most cases, we would eat food that wouldn’t be properly done because it would be late in the evening and we would be hungry,” says Pamela.

In addition to worrying about how to take care of her sister (not to mention herself), she struggled to keep up with her studies.

“I wouldn’t be able to complete my homework,” says Pamela. “I would come back to school with unfinished homework and that would get me in trouble with the teachers.”

Many mornings, Monica would be so distraught over the pains in her stomach that she would have to miss school. A nurse would tell them dirty water was responsible for diarrhea.

“It was really hard and stressful, sometimes I was forced to be absent from school. If she’s not feeling well, I could not leave her alone,” says Pamela.

Pamela, 15, and Monica, 8. Photo: Darcy Knoll/CARE

Getting clean water is a struggle for many in this province - and it goes well beyond just having something to drink.

With the support of donors, CARE’s team was able to restore a water borehole in Pamela’s community last October. Clean drinking water is now much closer for more than 500 people across five villages.

For Pamela, this isn’t just a new source of clean water, it’s time added to the day.

Rather than walking more than an hour, it now takes 12 minutes from her home for clean water. She has clearly counted the minutes.

“I’m lost for words to think of the people who assisted us in the repairing of our borehole. I thank them from the bottom of my heart because they really helped us,” says Pamela.

Today, she wakes up a little later in the morning and comes to school on time. After class, she says she can get her chores done earlier and they can take the time to cook food thoroughly. Monica’s tummy aches have ended too.

“I feel better, my experience at school has improved since I’m no longer absent many days,” she says.

Make no mistake, their life remains hard.

Without parents there to provide the usual care – mom calls occasionally, but provides little help – they worry about finding food and whether local officials will be able to cover their school fees next session.

Thankfully, something as simple as a repaired borehole has given Pamela new energy for her busy days.

Down the path from her school,  Pamela walks up to a fenced garden. She pulls keys from her pocket, unlocks a rusted metal gate and steps inside between the rows of freshly turned soil and newly-planted tomatoes.

“Here at school we have nutrition garden for orphans,” she says. “I happen to be the team leader.”

Together with her classmates, they grow vegetables and use the profits to buy school supplies.

“It makes me happy to be the leader because I command the respect of the other children I work with,” says Pamela. “I see this role as preparing me… I can be able to face other challenges that will come to me in the future.”

You can help girls like Pamela and Monica have the opportunity to learn and make a better life for themselves, their families and communities.