When I returned from a two week trip to Malawi in July I knew I wanted to do more than simply watch and support others. I’d learnt so much I wanted others to learn from my experiences and potentially be able to experience and learn from their own adventures.
The effect on me has been profound and I think the last 6 months have been challenging me to listen not only to my heart but the hearts of those I met in the village of Sitima. I was given so much by people who have, (by the measures the western world uses), so little. The love and interest and care and attention was life affirming. There was no need for an exchange of any kind. As my friend Marian had told me, simply being there and taking an interest was enough for this community to want to share their love with you.
So if I could learn so much in a short space of time, what could others learn?
How could I encourage the love and care shown to me to others so that the ripples of love could go further?
Education in Malawi
While I’m not familiar with all the details, I learnt that education is a priority to the country, yet is poorly resourced to achieve everything they want as a nation.
Primary education is free to all. The system works on achievement rather than age, so it’s not a linear way through for many children and young people. There’s eight years in primary education with a varied curriculum including English, Maths, Expressive Arts, Life Skills, Agriculture and Science. Exams are completed in English so this a fundamental part of the education system.
The government target ratio is 1 teacher to 60 pupils, but in the area I visited it was more like 1 to 100 in most schools. If you’re a teacher, can you imagine teaching 100 students at a time? The pupils have to pass the test for that year so they can progress to the next year. Wow! That’s quite an undertaking!
Many of the pupils went to school with no food, with some of the schools having charity or government feeding programmes. A couple of schools have volunteers who run their own feeding programmes as adults are well aware that nutrition is crucial to learning. It was a fascinating time for me seeing how dedicated people are committed to making their community a better place and encouraging their children to learn so that they may have more opportunities than their parents.
Education is not just a key sustainable development goal, it really is at the heart of these communities who are keen to encourage children and young people to learn so that all communities can improve.
This has to paid for by families wanting children to continue in the 4 years of education offered by secondary schools. It may only be (to us), £10 a term to attend, plus uniforms, plus books, and potentially travel too, but many in the community I visited weren’t able to save this from their limited income.
To give you an idea of income in this area, ladies working on a gardening scheme are growing food for their families and then selling the rest. They may earn about 50p a day from their sales of produce. A local worker told me that it would cost about £4 a week to feed a family of 6 even with their own food stocks. The biggest employer in the area is a tobacco farm which pays about 70p a day. So it’s not easy to save pennies from this to grow a pot of £10 for each term for one child.
Have you seen the film The Boy who Harnessed the Wind? The film based on a true life book of the same name shows exactly how hard it is for people who live in rural communities with the land as their means of earning an income. Watch it or read it and let me know what you think.
For those children who live too far to travel to school everyday there are boarding schools they can attend. These cost about £90 a term. So can you see how difficult it can be for families to help their children achieve the national certificate which is the standard for getting better paid jobs? You can see the cycle can’t you – low wages = poor education.
How do we break the education poverty cycle?
Investment certainly and support to those families who need help when a crop fails, or a breadwinner dies.
My family now support a family who without our support wouldn’t be able to take up the opportunity of secondary education. My boys earn more from their paper round in a week than it costs per term. We all committed to this which is a small gesture yet will make a massive difference to the whole family we support.
Sitima Summer School 2020
Were your children occupied during their long summer holidays with all sorts of activities, trips, and fun things? Mine were. We took it for granted that they’d spend time with grandparents. We made it a part of what we supported for them to try different sports, or attend craft days. They went on scout camp and have had some brilliant memories of all they did during their “out of school” time.
This community near Zomba in south Malawi have nothing different for their children to do whilst school isn’t on. The teachers need their breaks, as do the children. But what do they do? I was there during term time so I’m not totally clear. However, from what I picked up, children will help with the family crops. They will roam around the area with their friends. They don’t have playing fields or playgrounds or balls to amuse them. Many of this community have no single toy to play with.
With families focusing on their crops there is no time to spend with children developing new skills, trying new things, or going to new places. What if we could make a small change by offering something different to these children? Will it make a difference? You betcha!
Sewing in Sitima
During my two weeks I helped about 20 children learn some basic sewing stitches and create a simple school bag for themselves. It was amazing the effect this had on these young people. They not only learnt a new skill and made something which was there’s to own and look after. But they saw that the skill could be used for other things. The first group I worked with wanted to make a t-shirt next. That was in the four days they spent doing about an hours sewing in the training room at Network for a Better World house. My friend Marian who I travelled with is currently back in the village helping these young people to make tops using just the couple of stitches we taught them two months ago.
So that got me thinking. What skills and activities could we help children to do in their out of school time, (we’d run the sewing club after school each day for four days each week)? They love playing and borrowed skipping ropes, frisbees and small car toys each day. What more could we offer if we dedicated some time to day time activities in what we may call a Summer Activity week?
After speaking with the charity about my ideas, they are fully supporting me to organise a 3 week trip for a group of up to six young people from England. The group will work with a similar size group of School Leavers from the village to work together to plan and deliver about 3-4 hours of activities each day for a 5 day period. It’ll be hot and there’s no idea how many children will turn up each day. But that’s not the point is it? We can’t use models that work in the UK for this as Malawi is very different. That’s why the two groups of young people working together will learn from each other the best way to do things for this community.
At the moment four young people have committed to raising the money they need to be able to go next summer. They have such enthusiasm to learn new skills and ideas from their counterparts in Sitima. They have their plans for what they’d like to share in the Summer School – music, drama, sports, science, English, sewing, health education. It was a joy to listen to them talk about their passions and what they’d each like to share.
There’s a long way to go to get on the plane (which is the most expensive part of the experience), but their determination to make a small difference to this community and a massive difference to themselves from the adventure is incredible. I know they’ll make a success of trip. I’m simply there as a guide and encourager.
Just like William, the Boy who Harnessed the Wind, young people have such imagination and the talent to make change. Let’s support them and make a difference to the education of one village in Malawi.
Can you help? Join the Sitima Supporters group and get to know the young people’s ideas.
I’d be happy to come to your group and talk about my experience as well as the plans for the Summer School and how you can get involved. Get in touch and let’s chat.