Patience Mkandawire, 27, grew up in Zimbabwe’s rural Nkayi District and has gone on to study IT and software engineering– now she is helping girls from Nkayi do the same and to get the education resources they need during Zimbabwe’s pandemic-induced school closures.
Mkandawire says the Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare the vast digital gap amongst children in urban areas and those in rural areas. School closures mean learners in Zimbabwe’s rural communities have little or no access to initiatives from the government such as radio lessons, online learning platforms and online tutorials.
“In rural areas there are various factors that fuel this gap such as poor network access, poor access to gadgets to use, lack of money to buy airtime, lack of information on availability of these platforms, and lack of knowledge on the use of available gadgets,” she said.
Mkandawire is now working to bridge this gap through to ensure that learners in the rural communities also access these learning materials. For example, she is working with a core team of young women who have access to the internet, to download and share available educational content with the learners in the communities through offline data sharing.
Mkandawire, who is currently studying Bachelor’s Degree in Information Technology and software engineering, says she once dropped out of school because her mother could not afford to pay for examination fees.
She says Campaign for Female Education (CAMFED), an NGO that aims to help women and girls through-out Africa to accelerate their transition to livelihoods and leadership, helped out by raising funds for her to register for 9 subjects.
Mkandawire is now an active member of the CAMFED Association and currently works as a Core trainer of CAMFED Learner Guides: life skills mentors who deliver a curriculum aimed at supporting marginalized children at their local schools.
“I ventured into studying IT and software engineering to provide evidence to girls that it is possible and attainable,” she said, adding that becoming part of the CAMFED Association provided her with peer support and the courage, and opened up new possibilities.
“Many of my Association sisters share the same passion and have taken up various STEM related pathways: now we have medical practitioners, forensic scientists, pharmacists and engineers, just to name a few,” she said.
Mkandawire says that working with CAMFED became a stepping stone for her to become an agent of change and help other young girls from her community to step up and become self reliant, defy the odds and break free from “stereotypically-inclined” careers and find opportunities in STEM.
“So far, under my mentorship, three other girls who have taken up IT-related pathways and this brings me satisfaction as my success in my quest is defined by seeing a ripple effect kind of change among girls in my community,” she said.
She says myths and misconceptions about women in STEM subjects have made it difficult to break through to some girls and encourage them to take up these usually male-dominated spheres.
“People are still in awe when they hear of a female software engineer or a female medical doctor! – role models like me are so important in communities to prove that gender and marginality have no stronghold over one’s aspirations and passion,” she said.
Patience is far from the only woman from Zimbabwe blazing a trail for others.
Emmie Chiyindiko grew up in Zimbabwe dreaming of superheroes and watching Captain Planet and the Planeteers, but now she’s a chemist exploring green chemistry: reducing the carbon footprint by making industrial processes more efficient.
The 26-year-old, now a chemistry PhD student at South Africa’s University of Free State, says she studies catalysts (materials that speed up chemical reactions) in order to find better, cheaper and less toxic versions.