The incredible tale of how – and why – Zimbabwe’s “smartest girl” became a Chartered Accountant
In 2012, Zimbabwean Maud Chifamba made headlines when she enrolled at university to study accounting at the age of 14. She was Africa’s youngest undergraduate student at that time. Chifamba’s journey is an incredible story of an orphaned girl who has defied all the odds to achieve her lifelong goal of becoming a Chartered Accountant.
By Tafadzwa Dzenga
In 2012, at just 14, Zimbabwe’s Maud Chifamba made headlines when she enrolled for a university degree.
Nine years later, she has fully qualified as a Chartered Accountant, fulfilling a life-long dream. The challenge of getting a university education in her teens was hardly Chifamba’s most difficult, however.
Chifamba, whose academic journey began at a satellite school with just three buildings accommodating seven classes, was orphaned at an early age. By the time she turned seven both her parents had died.
Circumstances saw her move from her home village of Gokwe to the town of Chegutu, just over 100km from Harare. Chifamaba’s half-brother lived in the Hunter`s Road communal area in Chegutu, in Mashonaland West. She was in Grade 2 at the time.
The community to which she relocated with her younger brother Mukundi had no school and they had to walk more than eight kilometres each way to attend Conemarra Prison School, the nearest primary school.
As this was the situation for a number of learners, the community decided to establish a satellite school. A farmer in the area donated some makeshift buildings which were converted into the primary school, which was soon housing seven classes.
The crowded three-classroom school was where her exceptional journey began.
“At our school, grades had to share the same classroom. This saw us attend classes combined. When I was in Grade 3 second term, one of our teachers erroneously gave me an examination that was meant for Grade 4, since this was a composite class. Up to date, I do not believe that it was a mistake but rather, the teacher knew what they were doing,” said Chifamba.
She passed the examination handed to her in error, scoring 100 percent.
“When the third term came, I asked to write an examination meant for Grade 5 learners, although I was still in Grade 3. Again, I passed, performing better than everyone,” she said.
It was hard for teachers to go against student learning conventions and to allow her to skip grades. So, she mounted a spirited protest which forced their hands.
“I threw a tantrum, promised never to return to school. My brother then went to speak to them and they reached common ground. I was allowed to proceed to Grade 6,” Chifamba said with a chuckle.
In 2007 Chifamba wrote her Grade 7 exams, the highest level in primary school education in Zimbabwe at the age of 10. She was two years younger than what is the average age of pupils in this class.
Her exploits, however, coincided with the 2008 economic meltdown in Zimbabwe, which crippled the education sector.
In her community, it was the norm that when a female learner wrote their Grade 7, they would proceed to get married.
But she was determined to make her own story different. Without funds to join high school at the time, she opted to teach herself.
“After Grade 7 there was no school for me to go to, the normal thing in our community was getting married. I did not like my mother`s marriage that is one of the things that motivated me to work hard,” she said.
“I was only 10, so I wanted to continue with school. The time coincided with the height of the economic meltdown, no one was going to school because teachers were on strike,” she added.
Her next goal was to complete in two years what would take most students four years of intensive secondary school education: O-levels.
“I asked the guys that could afford to go to school (for) notebooks. I also asked those who had written their O-levels to give me their old books. I studied at home and managed to write five subjects, Maths, English, Commerce, Integrated Science and Religious Studies,” she said.
In Zimbabwe one is required to have at least five ordinary level passes, with a C grade or better, to proceed to Advanced Level, the highest level in high school before university.
Her first attempt at O-levels didn’t make much of an impression.
“My first attempt, in 2008, I managed to pass two subjects, I had two Bs and three Ds,” she explained.
The chaos in the education sector in 2008 saw examinations going up to mid-year and the government directed that learners who believed they had passed to proceed to Advanced Level.
Chifamba proceeded to join high school, only to be turned back because of the poor grades.
“It was a humbling experience, but I chinned up, studied hard and wrote again the next year, in 2009. I got the requisite five subjects,” she said.
At this point, her close relatives had to dig deep into their pockets to send her to high school. She enrolled for Form 5 at Pfupajena High School, in Chegutu, some 108 km southwest of Harare.
“Our family did not have money, so I was in and out of school but sometime later, one teacher noticed me, then he asked me about it and he organized an interview with a journalist working with The Herald for a story,” she said, recalling the moment her life changed.
On the day her story was published, under the headline, “Girl, 12, Leaves Town Spellbound,” her fortunes turned for the better.
She got a scholarship to continue learning at Pfupajena High School and later transferred to Sandringham High School in Norton, some 65km southwest of Harare. Here, an improved learning environment allowed her to focus.
“I was doing Maths, Accounting and Business Studies, and I attained 12 points,” she said.
The results got her admission to the University of Zimbabwe, the country’s top learning institution, while still aged 14. At this point, due to the peculiarity of her story, she became national and international news.
“The admissions office at UZ thought there was an error because I was too young to be eligible to apply for university,” she said. That roadblock did not last long.
“The UZ Vice-Chancellor called me and told me I could enrol to any degree programme of my choice including medicine and other seemingly prestigious disciplines, but I still stuck to accounting.”
Chifamba’s choice was more informed by childhood sentiment rather than financial benefits.
“At home, we attempted to start businesses to change our circumstances. They always looked good on paper, but they failed. This is why I decided to study accounting, to understand why businesses failed,” she explained.
Within a short time, she received a scholarship from the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority Chairman’s Charity Fund, which paid her fees and upkeep throughout her studies at university.
“Although I was the youngest, school was easy for me at university because I did not have to catch up like I had done through primary and high school. Every semester had its workload which I managed with ease,” she said.
Chifamba admits that missing home was the only thing that bothered her throughout the four years at university.
On September 29, 2016, aged 18 she graduated with a BSc. Honours degree in accounting. Immediately after, she enrolled for a Masters in accounting at the same institution.
She attained her Master’s degree in 2018, at just 20 and then lectured at the University of Zimbabwe for a full year before deciding to pursue her long-standing dream of becoming a Chartered Accountant.
She joined the international accounting firm, Deloitte, for her articles which she described as a “graduation” from academic corridors to the “university of life”.
“My three years of articles becoming a chartered accountant showed me so much. It was a combination of school and real-life work experience. I can feel like I have grown so much,” she said.
“The growth that comes from doing is more tremendous at this point than anything I can get in a classroom.”
In April 2021, Chifamba was appointed on the Zimbabwe Youth Council board, ZYC is a public board that acts as a conduit between the government and youth. At 24, she is one of the youngest public board members in the country.
In July this year, Chifamba qualified as a Chartered Accountant, fulfilling her lifelong dream; one she has pursued intently from her early days in Gokwe.
Chifamba said she has not closed the door on returning to academia, but for now, she wants to put what she has learned, into practice.
“If it is not Harvard, Stanford or Columbia, or anything in the Ivy League or the top ten universities in the world, for my Masters in Business Administration, I am not going back to a classroom,” she said.
Her focus at the moment, she explains is to “transition from a celebrated academic to a celebrated finance professional.”
First Published by Bird-Africanofilter News Agency