Cordelia married at age 14 and never had the chance to complete her education. Now, decades after she dropped out, she's back in school.
“She shaved her hair like a school girl, wore a uniform, carried a school bag, and returned to school like any regular student, to the amazement of all the villagers.”
At the age of 40, Cordelia Besingi is attending secondary school for the first time in her life. I met Cordelia through my organization Rescue Women. We have a program that provides school scholarships. Usually, we work with girls between the ages of 5 to 18—but Cordelia’s story is a special one.
When Cordelia first told me her story, her breath grew heavier and heavier, her eyes dimmed until she could hold back the tears no more. She cried as she talked about leaving school at the age of 13 because her parents did not have money to send her to secondary school.
Cordelia said she was married at the age of 14; she wasn’t in love with her husband at that age, but her family thought she was ripe for marriage. Over the years, Cordelia has had eight children in her hand-to-mouth marriage. Her last child is under 5 years old. Yet she returned to school in 2015.
“I never ever imagined that I would ever return to school in my entire life,” Cordelia told me, smiling hopefully as she arrived at this part of her story. Cordelia did not expect to go back to school because she is living in abject poverty with her husband. Her husband is a farmer, and she exploits wild onions in the forest to sustain her family.
Cordelia and her husband live in Madie, a little village in Toko Subdivision, Ndian Division, in the South West Region of Cameroon. The village has no road, no electricity, no pipe-borne water, no Internet, no TV signal, and no radio signal. More than 90% of the villagers are farmers and hunters. There are usually no more than five people in the village earning a monthly salary; they are the teachers and health center nurses.
When Cordelia was young, education of the girl child was not a priority In Madie village, but parents are now beginning to see the importance of educating girls. Still, the school fees are high and most students can’t afford a single text book.
Cordelia sent her own daughters to school, but they kept getting pregnant before completing their education. For many girls in the village, making progress in school is still a far-fetched reality. Premarital sex and incest are common. Most of the girls in the village get pregnant in school, drop out, and never return. Despite valuing education, parents like Cordelia and her husband often struggle to educate their daughters.
It is this struggle that triggered Cordelia’s return to school. She attended a Parent Teacher Association meeting at her children’s school. During the meeting, the principal urged parents to guide their girls so that they grow to value education. Then a few parents stood up to talk about their successful daughters who completed school and left the village to attend university; some were working in the towns already.
After hearing these stories, Cordelia fell to the ground and lost consciousness.
“I only realized later that I was in the principal’s office surrounded by parents, teachers, and the principal," she explained. “They told me I collapsed in the meeting.”
When Cordelia recovered, the principal asked her if she knew why she passed out. She explained that she couldn’t stand that her girls keep getting pregnant in secondary and even primary school. She said that she had even taken over care of her grandchildren to send their mothers back to school, but the young mothers became pregnant again. After hearing Cordelia’s story, the principal asked her if she would like to return to school herself.
Cordelia believed that if she had the chance to return to school, she would do what her children have failed to do. If she could get the education she needs, she could get a job that would enable her not only to earn a living, but also to help her family, help her community, and help her grandchildren. She would also inspire her girl children to take their education seriously.
“I will like to go back to school,” she told the principal. “But, I don’t have any money.”
The principal then offered to give her scholarship for one year on the agreement that she would need to make it on her own the following year. That was the deciding moment for Cordelia. The principal tested her common knowledge and placed her in form three in secondary school. She shaved her hair like a school girl, wore a uniform, carried a school bag, and returned to school like any regular student, to the amazement of all the villagers.
Cordelia spends two hours every day traveling to and from school. It is not a regular occurrence for women her age to attend school, so she faces a lot of bullying as a result. Cordelia is in the same school with two of her children and all of them are ahead of her in class.
Cordelia didn’t know how she would pay for school in the upcoming academic year and she considered dropping out. Thanks to Rescue Women, she was able to stay in school. “I knew I was going to drop out in 2016, but God sent Rescue Women organization to offer me ascholarship,” she says with a bright smile covering her face. “I am praying that they continue to sponsor me till I get my Advanced Level certificate.”
Cordelia has four years ahead of her to get her Advanced Level certificate, that is if she passes her classes and public examinations. She says she doesn’t want to go to the university because age is not on her side. Instead, Cordelia hopes to train as a midwife immediately after she completes school so that she can return to her village to rescue women who die of pregnancy and delivery-related complications. She says God will use her to save the lives of women and reverse the swell of maternal mortality rates in her community.
Cordelia says her husband is very supportive of her dream and she is determined to make him proud. She endures the negativity poured on her by other villagers as she goes to school because she knows what she can accomplish—and what she is inspiring her daughters to accomplish.
This story was published as part of the World Pulse Story Awards program. We believe everyone has a story to share, and that the world will be a better place when women are heard. Share your story with us, and you could be our next Featured Storyteller!Learn more.