Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.
I’ve just returned from two weeks in a rural part of southern Malawi. I went with a friend who is doing some amazing voluntary work for the small charity Network for a Better World. They aim to support people in this area who have limited support from other charities and NGOs, and even government support.
The quote above is in the training room of the volunteer house where I stayed. I’ve heard it before, but until I saw and experienced what I did, I didn’t understand how true this is.
Before I travelled my husband read up about the work of the charity and commented, “what they do is really simple isn’t it?”. Yes, it is. And what my friend had asked me to prepare was simple too – prepare some sewing projects to share with locals.
Me being me of course thought I needed to fundraise to buy the women’s group sewing machines as they only have one available to them, which isn’t well used. I now know that being even more simple is what’s needed in this community.
Education is simple.
The community I stayed in, at Sitima near Zomba live simple lives. Their focus is on surviving day to day, and very much at the base of Maslow’s hierachy of needs – food, shelter, warmth and rest. They wake with sunrise and start their fires to cook their simple porridge breakfast. Children go to school (free for the eight stages of primary education) whilst parents work on their small plots of land where they grow food for themselves or to sell.
There’s few jobs in this area. There is a tobacco farm which employs workers. A local man I got to know who works for the charity said, “it’s slave labour”, yet they do earn and some education is provided for the children of workers. Everything they do in their day is to help them buy their next meal or wood to burn to cook the meal, or provide some basics for family needs.
Question: Once your basic needs are met for food, shelter, warmth and rest, what’s important to you?
Education is key to change
As children and teenagers in the UK we’re told, encouraged and cajoled into learning, passing exams and preparing ourselves for the next stage in life. Whatever your belief about tests and exams, we are all very aware that education is a key factor in our development, and opportunities for the future.
As children and young people we may also learn lots of skills which we either continue to use or put to one side. For example, music, sport and crafts are all skills and part of our overall education and life skills. Do we value them in our society as much as we should? Maybe that’s a topic for another day.
Back to education as it’s generally considered.
In Malawi the government aims to have a 1:60 teacher:pupil ratio . In the area I visited, it’s more like 1:100. I’m no teacher or education specialist, but that’s quite a challenge teachers and pupils alike have got to learn in that environment. Yet children are learning. There is a test at the end of each year and pupils need to pass this to move onto the next stage.
Primary education is free to all, so class sizes doubled I’m told, once this happened. There’s not enough teachers and in the area I was in a lot of schools didn’t have houses for the teachers, so they wouldn’t be able to recruit them to their school.
Question: What if we thought about education as more basic than going to school?
In my short time, (and my two weeks really did feel very short), I ran some sewing classes for children in the local villages. Sewing is not a skill that’s taught in schools as it’s one small part of the Expressive Arts curriculum. Schools don’t have the resources to teach all parts of the curriculum and certainly don’t have money to buy fabric, needles and thread.
My memories of sewing at primary school, developing my skills with my Mum and Grandmothers were of simple joyous times creating things with my own hands. Yes, sewing may be a basic skill to you and me, but to this group of people it’s not basic at all. Yet, sewing could be a skill which these young people could develop to make their own clothes, or make things to sell to others that diversifies the income of their family unit.
Whilst some of our young people dream of being professional sportsmen and women and developing their talents to earn an exceptional income, in some cases, the group I worked with wanted to learn how to make a t-shirt. It sounds so simple doesn’t it? It is achievable.
Question: What’s the one skill you’ve learnt in life that you would feel lost without?
Going back to Maslow, and basic needs, some of the work my friend Marian and her volunteer team have done is on cooking and nutrition. There is a need in the area to diversify crops grown, methods of cooking, and ensure nutrition is maintained for all family members. Each part of this is about education.
Whilst many in the western world are looking at the “best way to lose weight”, or “what supplement should I take for x”, this community, and others like it, need help with “how to maintain good nutrition when my harvest fails”. What if we started our questions in our lives the other way round, starting from our basic needs first? Instead of “what do I need to do to lose weight”, ask, “what food do I need today to keep me healthy and energised to do the activities I’m choosing to participate in”? Would we learn more if we started with basic questions and built up our blocks of knowledge again?
Education can change the world
You don’t have to think in terms of SATs, GCSEs, IBs, A Levels or degrees to help those around you change their world. I want to start thinking in more simple terms about education and what we can learn from those who are living at the very bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy for our western lifestyles. What if we responded to the requests of our children to explore something new. That’s education. What if we all took responsibility for educating ourselves and others rather than assuming it’s someone else’s job? That’s education.
Showing someone how to cook a simple meal, or clean the bathroom, or mow the lawn – that’s education. Sharing your skill or talent with someone else, that’s education. Taking an interest in someone else’s life, that’s education. We can all learn from others, and we can all teach and encourage others. I don’t believe it’s about kindness or mindset, it’s simply something we can all do in our daily lives wherever we live. The ripple effect will happen from one shared skill.
When I learnt to sew as a child, I’m sure my Mum and Grandmothers didn’t consider what ripple effect it would cause around the world. Yet it has. I’ve started something simple in a small community with 19 children who are craving to learn more, yet can already make changes in their own lives with the needle and thread I left them.
What can you do this week to help others become more educated in one small part of their life?
I will be continuing to support the work of Sewing in Sitima. Volunteers from N4BW will run sewing schools when they visit, and we’re running teacher training sessions as well. If you’d like to contribute to this work, £20 will provide materials for one class of 60 to make a simple school bag, please get in touch.