This past week was a busy one for us here in Malawi! As you might know, part of our job entails setting up after schools clubs in primary schools in the Malikha school district of Lilongwe. “Why afterschool clubs,” you ask? In Malawi there is a serious lack of extra curricular programming in the public schools. The teachers are so worn down from teaching 100+ students in a class (or under a tree if there isn’t enough classrooms) that planning extracurricular activities sometimes gets lots in the list of things to do. The teachers and administrators generally use extra time to lobby to the government to provide them with more classrooms, desks, books, and chairs that they desperately need. When these kids don’t have anything constructive to do after school, they often engage in activities that aren’t exactly age appropriate. Children here start having sex very young (often involuntarily) which is a huge problem, but an even bigger one considering the HIV/AIDS epidemic in sub-Saharan Africa. Alcohol abuse is also a huge problem in some of the villages. So, in our clubs we offer something constructive to do afterschool! We focus on creative writing, which helps develop their language and writing skills, with an added benefit of psychosocial support, as journaling is often very therapeutic. We do many workshops on HIV awareness, which helps the kids to learn how to identify behaviors that could lead to getting or spreading the disease, and how to cope with stigma. We teach them to create s.m.a.r.t. (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, timely) goals for different projects that they decide to take on as a club. Some clubs decide to make a goal of growing a small garden, while other projects range from planting trees to visiting the elderly in the community. It also is a great opportunity for the kids to take leadership positions that they otherwise would not be able to get in school.
After traveling on some seriously bumpy dirt roads, we were able to visit all 11 of the schools we are working in and it was a joy to see all of the little ones at school! The first you notice when pulling up at a school in Africa, is just the overhelming number of children. 40% of Malawi’s population is under the age of 14. Being in the schools truly brings this statistic to life. Some of the schools are much more involved in the club than others. It seems to me that the main difference between the schools that are very involved and those that are not is simply leadership within the school. The schools that lack strong leadership have a hard time pulling together to support the students in the clubs. To help encourage leadership and accountability, we have a matron and patron in every club, who are generally teachers at the schools and work as club advisors. Our first club meetings were mainly meeting with the matron, patron, head teacher (principal), PTA members, and the school management committee. It is so important to have all of these people on board so that the students get the most out of this experience.
Something that Andrew and I kept noticing is how some schools were much poorer than the others. The children’s clothes were more tattered and the school was in disrepair. The children in these schools also seemed more lethargic than others. However, when we arrived at one of the schools, Chata, we couldn’t help but notice how lively all the kids were. They all seemed so happy and excited to be at school! The difference in Chata is that it has a feeding program sponsored by another NGO. It is such a simple concept, feeding children breakfast before school and lunch during school, but it makes such a huge difference. Many students walk many miles to get to school every day, often on an empty stomach and only after fetching water for their families and completing their chores. This makes it extremely hard for children to concentrate, let alone excel at their studies. I was so happy to see these kids looking so vibrant and also so sad that there aren’t feeding programs in every school. Recently in Malawi, a huge scandal has come to light involving government officials stealing tax money. I can’t help but feel more than disgusted when you think about all the wasted money within their government when there are hungry children everywhere.
It is so easy to get in our routines and forget to be thankful for something as simple as a nutritious meal. We are so privileged to get to work with these resilient kids. These children were a wonderful reminder to me of how blessed I am, and I hope they can serve as a reminder to you as well.