Pilila Jere is a natural in the classroom. As she visits primary schools in Zambia’s Eastern Province—traversing bumpy dirt roads to remote rural areas—she easily engages students, asking about the letters they’ve learned, and warmly chats with teachers about their challenges and successes.
Educating Zambia’s children, and particularly its girls, is a lifelong mission for the veteran educator.
“Education, it’s like planting a seed,” Pilila says. “You plant a seed and you see it grow and then you see the fruits at the end of it. So that’s what really motivated me to get involved in education.”
She faces an uphill battle. Zambia has one of the lowest levels of literacy among the southern African nations. The rate is even lower for girls. In rural areas, most families are subsistence farmers, and educating children often takes a backseat to harvesting crops, tending to livestock and selling products in small markets. These challenges have only made her more determined.
Pilila first started her teaching career in 1980 as an intern. She then trained to be a secondary school teacher and, after years of teaching, rose to become a provincial education officer for Eastern Province.
After years of working with the Ministry of General Education, Pilila now serves as the Eastern Province education specialist and provincial team leader for the USAID’s Read to Succeed Project, which aims to boost literacy in local Zambian languages in the early grades.*
From humble beginnings
Pilila grew up in a poor family in Lundazi, a rural town in Eastern Province. Girls were not expected to attend school. But her father, a driver for the Ministry of Education, made education a priority for her and her sister.
“He made sure that the two of us got educated,” she says.
Pilila’s father told her stories, she says. Her favorite is a fairytale about a zebra and a buffalo, who coveted the zebra’s stripes but who, in the end, learned to be proud of his own brown fur.
“You must be proud of what you are and stop being envious of that which you cannot have,” she says.
Pilila did not have much growing up—she walked shoeless 3 kilometers to school each morning—but heeding her father’s advice, she was proud and determined to get an education.
Her teachers, she says, also inspired her.
“I admired the way they dressed, I admired the way they walked, the way they talked and the way they did things,” she says. “So that kind of motivated me so much that I really wanted to be a teacher.”
A role model for all
Pilila earned her two-year teaching diploma as a young, married mother of two, which motivated other young women in Chipata, the capital of Eastern Province, to pursue their education.
“At that time there were very few ladies doing secondary teaching,” she says, noting that most women in the province had not even completed high school. “So I was one of the very few that went for that diploma, and [the other women] got motivated… at that point a lot more women decided to upgrade themselves.”
Her educational achievement did not stop there. Pilila later earned a master’s degree in education in Ireland—which caused an outbreak of “higher education fever” back home, she says.
“There was a master’s degree disease among us, both male and female teachers, because everyone else wanted to go and do a master’s just like Madame Jere,” she laughs. Others thought “Pilila Jere has done this work and we can also do it,” she says.
Pilila’s five grown children—among them a civil servant, a law student working to prevent gender-based violence, a businesswoman, a nurse and an agro-economist—have also taken her example to heart. “Each and every one of them would like to go beyond what I have done. That spirit is there and I like it, and I encourage them to continue with it so that they can go far beyond what I did myself,” she says.
A champion for girls’ education
Pilila wants to see all Zambian girls and women become educated and literate.
“If we talk about, let’s say 10 to 15 years ago, things were really bad because girls in our society were not expected to go to school,” she says. “Girls were supposed to get married and stay at home and have children and take care of their husbands.”
Though girls’ primary school enrollment and literacy is improving, serious challenges remain.
“We still have pockets in parts of the province where girls are facing challenges—more especially, with the teenage pregnancies and also getting married at an early age. So we still have a lot of work to do,” she says.
Pilila says one of her most rewarding experiences is working with pregnant adolescent girls and supporting their families’ efforts to get the girls back in school.
In her current role with USAID’s Read to Succeed project, she helps to oversee the project’s guidance and counseling outreach services for vulnerable students—including adolescent mothers—and helps out-of-school girls re-enroll.
Calling for a global education effort
Pilila takes pride in the accomplishments of Read to Succeed, which has improved early grade reading instruction in more than 1,200 primary schools.
“So many changes have come about. People may not want to believe this but the truth is there has been a lot of impact. Because now we have little children reading, something that wasn’t there for many, many years,” she says.
She is also proud of her country and its striving to improve lives and expand quality education. But she believes she can make an even bigger difference if she learns from other educators around the world.
“I would love to learn what the Kenyans are doing and for them to be aware [of what we are doing]. I would love to learn what the Americans are doing and for them to be aware there,” she says. “Things cannot improve in my country without that interaction.”
By sharing these lessons, she says Zambia can advance its educational goals. And she will be there to help make that happen.
“I am a go-getter. I don’t want to see things going back,” she says. “I always intervene to make sure that things are put right.”
By Jillian Slutzker
*UPDATE August 2016: Pilila Jere resigned from USAID’s Read to Succeed Project in June 2016 during her race for parliament. In August, she was elected as a Member of Parliament.