My trip to Malawi, May 2010
By Gillian Rose, President, The Rosemary Pencil Foundation

I look out of the plane window on the approach to Lilongwe International Airport. People crowd the balcony of the terminal building, I see the open empty runway, and the smudgy brown earth below. I feel so happy to be here.

I travel light, with one carry-on, having learned my lesson on an earlier trip when my luggage failed to arrive and I had to leave the airport without it. I change $500 into kwatcha, stashing bundles of notes in my money pouch. Each time I come to Malawi, it seems there are more bills to stuff away. Inflation, no doubt. Amongst the throng of excited greeters, I spot Symon Chibaka, the new Program Coordinator of Children in the Wilderness, our local partner organization. I’m glad to see him.

It’s about 250 miles to Chintheche, where we plan to stay; my stress melts into the omnipresent perfume of brightly colored flowers. Outside the bustling airport, the atmosphere is sweet and languid. The road takes us north, skirting the western side of the lake. Crowds thin out. I luxuriate in the world flying by my window. And I notice the children. Children everywhere: skipping, running, sitting, cycling. I love seeing them. The further we get from the city, the friendlier they are, waving as the car rushes by.

There are new managers, Malawians, at the Chintheche Inn—the Australians from Melbourne have gone home. The service is warm, the beds comfortable, and the Carlsbergs cold. Couldn’t ask for anything more. And the noise—wonderful noise of the lake just yards from our rooms. The night fishermen are out—their lights twinkling on the water. They remain until dawn, hoping for a large catch to sell in local markets. Lake Malawi, third largest lake in Africa, eighth largest in the world, is overfished. How can so many people be asked to curb their livelihoods?

I am exhausted this first night. So little sleep. Too tired even to check around the room for intruders of the creepy crawly scurrying darting kind. They are there, I’m sure, but for once I don’t care.

There’s nothing like a 4:45 a.m. wake-up call. We are on the road by 5:00, fishing lights still winking from the lake. As we drive, we can sense people moving in the darkness: children making the long walk to school; men cycling with friends balanced on the saddle; women carrying piles of everything on their heads. And it is not yet dawn.

My job is to visit the 30 students on our scholarship program. We pay for their school fees, books, and uniforms. I want to talk to them, meet their teachers, find out what they plan to do when school is finished, try and understand more about their lives. I do this in my mother’s name—Rosemary—and, trite as it sounds, I know we are making a difference. Be kind, Plato said, for others suffer greatly. This is true. The suffering of some of these children is unimaginable. We help ease that pain by sending them to school.

In Malawi, primary education is free. After that, you pay. Too many—thousands—of children have to leave school by age 13 or 14. Some don’t make it that far. What’s the point when you know you won’t go on? We use several schools, both academically challenging boarding schools and regular day schools.

I have a nice surprise meeting with one student, Mercy, in the last of her four years of boarding school with us. In the past she has seemed shy, eyes cast down, very polite. I am pale, hard to understand, maybe rather daunting. But this time, she rushes into the headmaster’s room and flings her arms around me. She clutches my arm during our entire conversation with the headmaster. I am afraid I might cry. I wouldn’t be so daunting then. The boys over the road at the boarding school are cooler, more nonchalant, and occasionally curious.

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Gone are the days when they would listen eagerly to stories about my own children. I’ve been coming to see them every year. They are growing up, realizing their responsibilities. Great boys. Ambitious, determined, and now, educated.

I couldn’t do this without Symon. He drives, we talk, I question, he explains. We drive more than 1,000 miles in five days, zig-zagging the country, from north to south. He attributes some of his vast understanding of wildlife, science, astronomy, and botany to cable television, particularly National Geographic specials, watched at home in Lilongwe. I’m hoping some PBS programs are available as well. He also briefs me on the latest political shenanigans.

I’m always irritated when I’m too emotional, and show it too easily, but even after the Mercy incident, I find my eyes welling up again the next day. At another boarding school, we meet with students and along comes a willowy girl with plaits, one dyed pink, one blonde, She looks familiar and appears to know me. It’s Maria, a girl we supported through school and who had taken me to her village home several years ago, an experience I’ve never forgotten. She has morphed from skinny teenager, who wore her blue school uniform with obvious pride, to young woman. She’s working in the school science lab, the first person in her family to get a job rather than work the land. Her aim is to be a nurse and her secondary school education has enabled her to get this position. I was thrilled. It’s so hard for Malawian girls. The pressure on them to stay home, help with chores, support younger brothers and sisters, get married, and immediately begin having babies is incredible. Maria has beaten those odds.

After two nights at Chintheche we drive south to Mvuu, visiting students and teachers along the way. One headmaster proudly shows off his collection of computers. Unfortunately, because he doesn’t have a printer, he still uses a manual typewriter to type individual exam papers for each of his many students. Another headmaster shows me a large pile of red bricks: they were hoping to build a house for a teacher, bought the bricks, but can’t afford to put it up. I see Peace Corps volunteers helping out with classes, teaching large groups in the shade of trees.

The last part of the journey, south to Mvuu, is bumpy, windy, and never ending; the car dives into and struggles out of huge ruts in the road. Night falls here like a curtain. We have to stop so that I can throw up by the side of the car, but I am so nervous in that pitch-blackness, wondering what unseen animals might be plotting, that I dare not be sick again.

We ferry across the Shire River, amazed by the southern hemisphere’s night sky. There’s nothing like it: a polished ebony dome sprinkled with unnaturally brilliant stars. The night shift workers point at the constellations and Symon explains to us what they are. As always, the river is noisy. It’s like a city. Loud, exuberant, vibrant: the hippos are calling—no yelling—to one another and the birds (shouldn’t they be sleeping?) are shrieking. Or are they monkeys? Or both? What did Livingstone think, back in 1859, when he crossed the Shire? I doubt that much has changed. Did he miss Scotland? Probably not.

At Mvuu Lodge and camp I meet another former student. She has recently completed school and is now working there, not laboring in the fields and not married with babies. I love hearing about the dreams and aspirations of our boys and girls, some of whom I am meeting for the first time as they start Form One, the equivalent of their freshman year. Their interests span journalism, engineering, conservation, medicine, business, and accountancy—all the professional fields. Each wants the chance of a better life than their parents had. We play a small but crucial role in helping them get that chance.

Symon has been a wonderful companion and partner. Children in the Wilderness does great work, with an emphasis on conservation and the environment that is gathering momentum; our piece is just a small part of it. I am grateful to be delivered safe and sound for my journey home. I arrived on a Tuesday lunchtime and am leaving on a Monday lunchtime—no longer tired but looking forward, wistfully, to my next trip.

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