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Nsaigha Thecla, or Yah Thecla, as I fondly call her, is my maternal grandmother. From her name, Thecla, came both my English names—Theresa Claire. I always wondered how my mother managed to sail through all the traumas she had in marriage and raising her three children. As I grew up I discovered it was from this woman, her mother, that she drew strength.

My grandmother is almost in her 90s, but you would never believe it. She still stands strong, holding together her family of eight children and now 35 grandchildren. Having lost her husband over 20 years ago, she faced what every widow faces in a typical African society. Her property was seized, and she had one of two choices: remarry her husband’s brother in order to continue supporting her family or refuse and fend for herself. She chose not to remarry.

To understand the kind of person my grandmother is, you need to know my mother’s story.

My mother is the first daughter and first child of her family. Back then one would have expected my illiterate grandmother to follow the norm and keep her daughter home to prepare her for marriage. This had been the case for my grandmother when she was growing up, after all. However, not only did she encourage my mother’s schooling, she sent her to boarding school for a better education. This was not common in the community, and it set the pace for every child in the family.

When my own father died, this same value of education guided my mother. She drew from her experiences growing up and gave her all so that her children could go to school in spite of the difficulties. My mother never gave up. She invested what she had, sold all she had, and borrowed all she could to send us to school.

My mother followed in my grandmother’s footsteps, and today my mother’s children are following in hers, continuing the ripple effect. In honor of the inspiring women who came before us, my siblings and I decided to give back to our community. We recently traveled to our grandmother’s and mother’s hometown of Kisenjam to see how we could make a difference in the lives of women there.

Kisenjam is one of the villages of the Jakiri subdivision in northwest Cameroon. In this community, women are the breadwinners and almost all of them are farmers. While their husbands converge every morning to tap and drink palm wine, the women take care of the children (some have as many as nine), go to the farms, prepare food, and still see to the financial and physical needs of their husbands. Under these circumstances, I expected to meet frustrated and angry women, but instead, I met a group of vibrant, grateful, cheerful, and hard-working women who all have open hearts and are ready to move forward.

Gathered together with these women in my grandmother’s compound, I spent time getting to know them and the dreams they had. Specifically, they hoped for more financial autonomy. And they hoped for education and the chance to acquire skills.

Their tenacity and hope for the future, not only for themselves but for their children, brought tears to my eyes. Their gratitude for the little we gave—some food and financial support—made me cry more. Their strength and willingness to learn and grow humbled me.

I knew then and there why we had come back to them—because one woman in this community, my grandmother, broke with tradition and educated her first child, a girl. Because that girl, empowered by her illiterate mother, went on to educate many others.

This is where the ripple began that later brought my family the opportunities and empowerment we cherish today.

It is now our turn to empower our communities.

Change for women and girls is possible, and we are working toward it one woman, one community at a time.

My siblings and I designed the ShineALight Africa initiative, which brings together individual women to create a cooperative through which they can sell their farm produce as a group. Together they will be an influence in their community, and money made will help pay fees to keep children in schools and support the local community as well. We are also working to empower these women with other income-generating skills, and to that end are developing new projects, such as a poultry farm.

Today I honor and celebrate my grandmother Nsaigha Thecla, a woman who defied all odds to educate her daughter. The ripple effect of her investment in her girl child is still being felt and is waxing stronger today.

Leila Kigha is a contributor from Cameroon. This piece was originally published on World Pulse. Sign up to get international stories of women leading social change delivered to your inbox every month here.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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