I was in Malawi in early May to visit the 26 students on our scholarship program. It was a relatively quick trip – just seven days – but I traveled about a thousand miles in all. The main M1 north south artery is a fairly fast road that one can take all the way to Tanzania. By the side of the road are countless crippled vehicles: large trucks laden with tobacco or mini vans stuffed with people and luggage, less a wheel, an axle, or steam billowing out of the engine. No AAA here. Hours or days may pass while a new part is procured. Once we turn off the main road though, then driving becomes more interesting between the potholes, chickens, goats that dash out in front of the car, bicycles, oxon, small children by the side of the road and women bearing heavy loads on their heads.
We are using six boarding schools in Malawi. In the north, in the Rumphi district, are Phwezi School for Boys and Phwezi School for Girls, about an hour north of Mzuzu. This area of the country is green and lush, there are fewer people than the more populated south. The Phwezi schools are large – the boys boarding school has 850 pupils – and considered to be one of the best schools in Malawi with a large percentage of students going on to higher education. A little further south are two boarding schools near Lake Malawi in an area called Bandawe, close to Chintheche. There is an original church in Bandawe, built by Scottish missionary Dr Robert Laws in the 1890s, that still stands, pretty much unchanged. Further south still, between Lilongwe and Zomba, are the New Era schools for boys and for girls. The schools are adjacent to one another and our students, three boys and two girls, are now in their second year at school.
In Malawi, as in many African countries, primary (elementary) education is free to all. Classrooms are packed with children and the ratio of children to teacher can exceed 100 to one. But for the most part, secondary school/high school education requires fees and for village children even the most modest school fee is out of the question. Education at day schools is not as good as boarding schools and part of the problem is the facilities these schools offer. There is usually no snack; bathrooms are few; barely a library, and the walk to school each day is often a long one. But attending a community school is better than no school at all. This year we transferred two boys, Batboy Idani Chembezi and Laston Manda from the Chintheche Community (day) school that we use to Phwezi boarding school. It was great to meet them again this year, wearing school uniforms, carrying books and being told by the headmaster that both have settled in and are performing above expectations.
We will continue to upgrade the schools we use and to bring more and more children in on the scholarship program. When Malawi gained independence from Britain in 1964, it was reported that only 28 Malawians had gained a higher education. This was not unusual. In the 1950s, as many African countries were beginning to gain independence, the entire region of about 200 million people had produced only 8,000 secondary school graduates
and most of these came from Ghana an Nigeria. But it is just one example of the enormous odds this country faces to give its children a good education.
By Gillian Rose, President, The Rosemary Pencil Foundation