Tales from Malawi: Blog #4

Earlier in 2017, Lucy and Gussie visited Malawi. Here is Lucy's fourth blog about what they got up to on their visit:

Annie got up early this morning, to leave for Blantyre to visit her sponsored children. Gussie and I rose a little later, and after breakfast at our lodge, we were picked up by Ann and Grieve. On our way north-west to visit our school in Kabuthu, we stopped to get food for lunch, fill up with petrol, and to pick up Richard (the Build a School treasurer).

The road was very rough and we were glad for the 4WD vehicle we were in (although it broke down a few times on the road!). After about half an hour, we reached the village the school is in. We met the principal, Paul, who rallied up the girls of the school to give us a tour of where they board in order to come to school. The girls were very excited and chatted and laughed the whole time they were with us. The most extroverted of the girls grabbed our arms, patted our hair and asked us enthusiastically for our names. Paul explained who we were and where we had come from, and why we were here. We trouped through mud and over plastic waste to a small cluster of mudbrick huts.

In small groups, the girls showed us inside their rooms. We had to duck to pass through the door into each tiny hut, none of which could have been more than 2x3 meters. Each hut had the same sad sight: one grass mat, usually shared by 2 or 3 girls but in a few cases by as many as 5 girls, on which to sleep on the concrete or dirt floor. A piece of string stretched thin across the wall, where the girls had hung a blanket and a few pieces of clothing. Other than that, there was very little in each room - some girls had the ingenuity to find a way to attach their shoes to the wall; and others had found notches in the walls in which to stick their toothbrushes. I could see patches of sky through the roof, which was made of thin grass reeds and plastic sheeting.

Outside, less than 3 meters from the sleeping quarters of the girls, was a pig sty. A crumbling brick outhouse offered no privacy for going to the bathroom. There was no running water (girls would wash with a bucket of water behind a low brick wall) and the small, dark pit latrine reeked. To think that these girls pay a landlord to board in these awful tiny rooms, and run the risk of people breaking in and raping them at night (they told us they are too afraid to go outside at night to use the loo) is so horrible. I held back tears as I realised that if I had to live in such conditions in order to receive an education, it would be easy to give up on school altogether. That these girls haven't - yet - gives me enormous hope.

Then, we went back to the school and looked at the site where the hostel is being built. Since it is the rainy season, not much more has been completed in the last month or two. Furthermore, the village (and most of Malawi in fact) has been suffering a famine for the past two years. Food is at an all time low, and the impact of this has been tremendous. Where the community was to provide materials to support the construction of the hostel, they have been unable to do so, with the desperation to produce and source food an absolute priority. However, most of the walls were up, with spaces for the windows. At one end, 4 almost-completed dorms await roofing, and at the other end, the bathrooms require finishings. It was not hard to imagine the space filled with the laughter and voices of 40 girls grateful for new sleeping quarters. The rooms would be spacious and each girl would have a bunk (not a mat on the floor), and a drawer for their belongings. There would be space for cooking meals and relaxing, and a place to do laundry and hang clothes. The bathrooms attached to the hostel means that the girls would have the safety and sanitation that honestly is a basic human need. With lockable doors and a security guard, the girls should feel safe.

It would be dishonest for me to say that Gussie and I are totally happy with how far the construction has come - there have been some delays and material that was provided by the community was found to be of poor quality, so more material is needed. The project has not been all smooth sailing and we would have hoped it would be completed by now. But I must say that I was proud to see physical evidence of the efforts so many people have put in to fundraisers for this building. When it is completed, it will be a huge relief and asset to the community. The girls and the school truly appreciate the work and it's advantages will be massive. Already, Paul told us, the enrolments at the school have increased greatly, as families want their girls to be educated and with the safety the hostel can provide, many will have the opportunity to attend school when otherwise, it would have been too difficult. Girls who currently walk up to 8 kilometres one way to school (!!) will be able to board for free (apart from costs for food) and save themselves the dangers of such a daily trek.

So, it was heartwarming to see the project, despite the setbacks. There is great hope in what the hostel can provide, and it was amazing to meet the girls who will benefit from the project.

We then went around each classroom at Kabuthu Community day Secondary School, to be introduced to everyone (boys included). Paul introduced us to the students and the teachers, and explained what we were here for. We noticed as we went by each classroom, that by 4th form (our year 13 equivalent) there were barely any girls present, maybe 4 or 5 at most in a classroom of about 20-30. Paul told us the drop out rate was high for girls, because especially with the famine, families were struggling to send the girls to school as they could not afford soap to wash their uniforms, or food for their lunches. The families will pull girls out before the boys, because there is a belief that a boy needs his education more than girls, in order to get a career and support a family. But, as Paul said, "if you educate a girl, you educate a nation. Girls who are educated will educate their families and insist that their children be educated."

We had some time talking to the girls, which was really fun and valuable, before we continued on the road. Ann and Grieve took us, by way of comparison, to a private girls school that was established just 6 years ago. Atsikana school was excellent and really set the benchmark for girls education in Malawi. Very much like a high school you would find at home in New Zealand, it was inspiring to see a school of such good quality set aside just for girls in Malawi. It definitely gave us some food for thought after seeing the conditions at Kabuthu. Even more incredible was that the school has half of the 300 girls enrolled in scholarships, making education affordable and possible. The facilities and conditions at this school are great, and the success rate is very high (many graduates of the school are already teachers, nurses, engineers, and other professionals). We had the opportunity to talk to the school director about the need for girls' education, specifically here in Malawi, and the unique challenges the Malawian girl faces in receiving an education. The experience of discussing these issues with him was rewarding and enlightening, and got us thinking about potential future projects we could do in collaboration with Atsikana.

Our final stop on the way back to Lilongwe was at a centre called Chance for Change. Here, Grieve's daughter Ngale works with youth offenders to rehabilitate them back into their villages. Some of the men (aged between 14-25) had committed crimes as petty as stealing a chicken, to be sentenced with a charge of 8 years imprisonment. Again, it was incredible to be able to talk to someone who had seen so much of a failed system, and worked so hard to improve the lives of people that society has given up on. This country never ceases to stun me with its man-made catastrophes, and in turn, the abundance of people here who selflessly live to serve others.

We had a team meeting with Build a School (Ann, Richard and Grieve) before returning home to Cakes Lodge. Once again, we are exhausted after a long day, but grateful for the chance to have visited the schools and see what potential there is there. It's a constant roller coaster here in Malawi, but I don't think we will want to get off the ride on Thursday when the time comes to leave!

Lucy TothillComment