Nowhere is the promise and failure of Malawi‘ s continued development more apparent than in the field of education. I meet a school deputy headmistress who dreams of obtaining a Master’s degree and currently cares for her niece so that her sister can finish studies in Blantyre. I meet a widow working at a hotel on Lake Malawi who has left her young children behind in order to earn enough money to pay their school fees.
People recognize that education is valuable and they want to learn, but their success is obstructed by seemingly insurmountable barriers, including secondary school fees, lacking school resources, limited teacher training, and the very restricted number of post-secondary opportunities that are available in Malawi. Two local girls that I sit with on the shores of Lake Malawi, for example, tell me how many students from their village can’t afford secondary school fees, the total of which amount to less than my two nights’ of very cheap accommodation at the lake. It just doesn’t seem as if it should be this hard for children to get an education.
AGE’s work thus sometimes literally feels like a bit of light shining in the darkness. As Ben, AGE’s program director, and I visit the different schools to pay fees and check in with the AGE scholars at the beginning of this school year’s third term, it becomes clear how something as simple as paying school fees and providing books and pocket money for groceries, transportation, and toiletries is making the world of difference to our 21 scholars.
Providence Secondary School in the southern district of Mulanje is one of the best (non-international) secondary schools in the country and currently hosts nine AGE scholars. In comparison to the day schools I visit nearby, which have cracked or no glass for windows and no chairs or desks for the students, Providence seems like a palace, but it too could certainly use more resources. Providence is AGE’s home base and, although a bit shy at first, the girls regularly drop by to chat or check out books from the library that Ben has put together for them. Having just arrived back to school to begin the year’s third term, they are excited to see their friends again and ready to study hard to prepare for the upcoming national exams.
At Mulunguzi Secondary School in the city of Zomba, which currently hosts 10 AGE scholars, the girls speak proudly of helping their parents with the harvest during the school break. Most of their families grow crops such as maize, sorghum, ground nuts, sweet potatoes and casava. When I ask if the harvest is hard work, their reaction shows that this is clearly an understatement. Their eyes shine when they talk about what they are learning in their favorite subjects, including geometry proofs in mathematics, how to make electricity in physical science, and the process of photosynthesis in biology. Many of them say English is their favorite subject, so I ask about Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, a book on their reading list which I say I also read in secondary school. Did they like the story?
“Yes,” is the resounding answer.
Ben pretends that he doesn’t remember the story very well, and the girls get fired up as I prompt them to explain it to them. They start by saying that, at the end, everyone is dead. Ben acts shocked, and I hint that they should maybe start at the beginning and tell him about the two families. Different girls pipe in to explain the story, and they are clearly as taken with it as the teenage girls in my high school classroom were.
They also tell me about a book by a Malawian author that they have read, titled Smouldering Charcoal. It is a story of people who are being treated badly in their country and implicitly parallels Malawi’s history, something that isn’t lost on the students. It is so exciting to see them so engaged, sharing what they have read and learned with me, feeding off of and supporting each other.
St. Michael’s Secondary School currently hosts one AGE scholar, a particularly bright young woman. We chat about her holiday break and, when asked about her friends, she quietly informs us they lost a girl in her grade to malaria over the break. My eyes fill up alongside hers, but she is strong and tells us about how she also got malaria last term, but was able to use her AGE pocket money to get treatment at the local hospital. Our conversation turns to school topics, and she proudly informs us that she is doing very well in mathematics, a subject with which she had struggled previously. I try to speak a little French with her, as she shyly acknowledges she is the best in her class in that subject. She is, however, clearly better at French than I am, and ends up explaining some grammatical rules to us.
Ben and I leave the school a bit later with a literal spring in our step. There is so much more we wish we could do for these girls, but at least we are doing this. At least they can go to school and learn in a safe place with some extra support and guidance and, hopefully, fewer worries.
About the author: Annika Rigole is spending three months in Malawi supporting the work of AGE Africa’s scholarship and lifeskills programs for secondary school girls. A Belgian-American who is completing graduate studies at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy in the United States, she also has four years of experience administering international exchange programs in New York.
To learn more about AGE Africa, please visit www.ageafrica.org.