In our MECCA M-Powered interview series, fearless people from around the globe share their incredible stories – from overcoming adversity to following their passions and inspiring a future generation of changemakers.
If anyone knows the power of education – maths in particular – it’s Lucia Punungwe. The teacher, entrepreneur, philanthropist and mentor from rural Zimbabwe became the very first female maths teacher in her community; an achievement she never imagined possible growing up without the means to attend school.
Punungwe was 11 years of age when she received her first pair of shoes. “My mother had found them in the forest whilst looking for firewood; she had kept them for a while to look for the owner but no one claimed them,” says Punungwe.
Until then, Punungwe would walk kilometres to school barefoot only to be turned back home to collect the necessary fees, which her family could never pay in full – and often not at all. Sometimes she would exchange her lunch – a few mangoes – for stationery, but this left her hungry and unable to concentrate.
“Being sent home to collect fees constantly was so disturbing to me, both in terms of losing time to attend lessons, and the stigma attached,” recalls Punungwe. “Thorns would prick the soles of my feet before I had shoes to walk safely to school. Walking long distances also made me very tired, so I found it hard to concentrate in school. I had very few friends. I had no hope for my future.”
But despite the absence of material possessions, she was resolute in her determination to remain at school. In contrast to her struggles at home, Punungwe completed her primary school lessons with ease – even serving as head girl in her final year.
This would have been the end of her education had she not been nominated for the CAMFED program, an organisation dedicated to improving the lives of girls in impoverished districts throughout rural sub-Saharan Africa. CAMFED supported Punungwe through her secondary schooling – allowing her to graduate (as head girl) and pursue an independent future.
Punungwe’s story is not uncommon in her rural village in Zimbabwe – and across the globe – but it is one she is passionate about changing. Here, she discusses how she’s using maths to help other women and girls break free from the poverty cycle – just like her.
From school to small business owner
The power of maths
Although there’s been significant progress in female participation in higher education the world over, men continue to outnumber women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Ensuring women have equal participation in these areas is essential for achieving gender equality, which is exactly why Punungwe decided to pursue a career in maths. “I decided to fill the gap!” she says.
Today, Punungwe works as a maths teacher and mentor at the same school she attended as a child – and she uses her position as the first female maths teacher in her village to inspire other young girls. “I chose maths in order to prove to other girls that we can do it,” she says. “I am like a big sister, encouraging other girls to pass mathematics and letting them know it is not gender based. Everyone is capable of passing mathematics. This is so important, as I see a lot of ‘Lucias’ – girls just like me who are really in need.”
A connection to CAMFED
Alongside her teaching role, Punungwe is a founding member of the CAMFED Association Africa’s largest and fastest-growing leadership network of young women activists. “We started as 400, now we are 207,941 across five African countries – including Ghana, Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe,” Punungwe explains. In her position as a Business Guide with the network, Punungwe helps other women start their own businesses and ensures more children in her community have access to education – including her own four children.
Punungwe’s fellow CAMFED Association “sisters” also serve as her biggest inspiration. “Seeing others do new things makes me want to do more and encourages me that this really works – we are really leading change!”
Breaking the poverty cycle
“Educate girls and they will become role models and plough back into their communities,” Punungwe says. “They will break the cycle of poverty in their families and communities, meaning that more and more women are educated and literate.”
Punungwe describes being educated as the “master key” to unlocking opportunities and the confidence to pursue her dreams. “It raises my self-esteem greatly. Being a business lady who knows what she is doing makes me feel my best self. Seeing others going to school due to my help, mentoring others socially, psychologically, physically and even spiritually gives me confidence that I am making lasting change and giving back to my community.”