Dora Moono Nyambe with students © Reuters
When Zambian teacher Dora Moono Nyambe started posting videos on TikTok three years ago, she had to ask her daughter’s 13-year-old friend how to use the popular social media platform.
Today, Nyambe has amassed four million TikTok followers with colourful videos of daily life in her village of Mapapa—and raised almost $500,000 to bring education to hundreds of marginalized rural children.
“I had no idea when I first started using TikTok—so I just started showing how life in the village was,” Nyambe told the Thomson Reuters Foundation via video call from the Zambian capital Lusaka.
“How we lived under the thatch roof, how we cook on open fire and how we used to teach under a tree as there was no proper school for the children. The response was overwhelming—people were so interested.”
Nyambe, 30, started a crowdfunding appeal in 2020 with the aim of building a school for the children of Mapapa—located 280 km north of Lusaka.
In three years, she has founded a charity called Footprints of Hope and built a school, which has 350 children and 24 teachers. It has 12 classrooms, a kitchen, dining hall, dormitories and a science laboratory.
The TikTok star—who has 13 adopted and 150 foster children—has also installed four water boreholes in Mapapa and hired teachers to work in schools in neighbouring villages.
While nearly 72 per cent of Zambian children complete primary school, there are considerable regional disparities that mask the lack of education in many rural areas, according to the U.N. children’s agency (UNICEF).
Girls are more disadvantaged than boys and have higher dropout rates in upper primary and secondary grades due to factors like teenage pregnancy, child marriage and a lack of menstrual hygiene facilities in schools, UNICEF adds.
Nyambe, who is not originally from Mapapa, said she visited the village in late 2019 to see a friend’s family and was shocked by the number of children who were out of school, and high rates of early marriage and teen pregnancies.
With her savings and her then five adopted children, Nyambe moved to Mapapa, bought a plot of land, and started teaching the village children under a tree in the hope that she would eventually be able to build a school.
“I just tried different things and the TikTok posts seemed to get a lot of likes and comments…people wanted to know more and wanted to help me,” said Nyambe.
Nyambe’s videos now attract tens of thousands of views—even drawing the attention of U.S. popstar Meghan Trainor, who shared one of Nyambe’s videos of the school dormitories set to Trainor’s hit song “Made You Look.”
Nyambe’s charity funds the school, and also supports rural children through food distribution, clothing drives and health assistance.
A book titled “Under a Zambian Tree” documenting her journey was released on Feb. 7, with proceeds of the first 5,000 copies going towards her charity.
The former English teacher has faced online abuse, with some accusing her of exploiting the students for personal gain.
Nyambe said much of the negativity came from people in Zambia who said she was a fraud or painting a bad image of the southern African country.
“Most comments are positive, but on almost every post, there will be a comment where I am accused of being a scammer, stealing money or exploiting the children,” she said.
“The trolling used to bother me a ton. But with everything comes growth…I know I am not using the children and if people came to Mapapa, they would see it too.”
Nyambe said she planned to grow her following on other platforms like Instagram and YouTube, and wants the school to become more financially self-sufficient through activities like raising chickens and planting kitchen gardens.
But she cannot imagine leaving TikTok behind.
“There is no way I would have been able to achieve what I have if it wasn’t for all the TikTokers who have supported me,” said Nyambe.
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