Last year, the Guardian launched an appeal to help educate Malawi’s poorest children. Jo Confino reports on its progress.
Fifteen pounds a year to send your child to secondary school may not sound a lot. But for the majority of the 530 villagers of Gumbi in
Malawi, one of the world’s poorest countries, it is far beyond their means.
Secondary schooling is not free in the sub-Saharan African country, and with the average annual salary of subsistence farmers running at around £30, the opportunities to give their children a better life are extremely limited. Add to that a drought that killed 20 people from Gumbi and left many of the children severely malnourished and it is no surprise that many in the village had given up hope.
That was two years ago, but life in the village has now been transformed thanks to better rainfall and the generosity of Guardian readers. Environment editor John Vidal wrote about the village’s troubles in a Weekend magazine article last October and asked if readers would like to support a fund to finance the children’s education. Readers responded magnificently and more than £20,000 has flooded in.
I visited the village recently with Emma Wright, the Guardian’s social and community affairs manager. The newspaper was keen to ensure the scheme was up and running, well managed and that readers’ money, all of which goes directly to the children’s education, was being effectively spent.The news is heartening: 24 children are already in their second term of a free education. Most are attending St Martin’s community secondary school in Nambuma, just 4km from Gumbi. Three have made the grade for the more prestigious Namatete secondary boarding school, two hours’ drive from the village. Here the fees are £45 a year. There is even hope that one day a Gumbi child may go to university – something that had never before been considered a possibility.Sitting with the village chief in his tiny, one-roomed mud house, as he thanks me for helping his children is a humbling experience. The appreciation is immense. A meeting of the whole village was organised so villagers could voice their thanks.Kamthemba Levson, whose son is one of the beneficiaries of the fund, spoke on their behalf: John Vidal with Kennedy
One of the reasons Vidal decided to act, rather than simply report, was a young man called Kennedy, who had had no education, but was desperate to learn and owned the village’s only book. He had sold his oxcart, the main source of his livelihood, to send his younger sister Magdelene to Namatete, even though the money raised was only enough to pay for the first term. At the time he had no idea where the next term’s funds would come from.
Magdelene is 14, and wants to be a television announcer when she grows up. The Gumbi fund will cover the rest of her education. She described how the chance to go to school had changed her life:
“ I have come here in order to be a better citizen and so that I can depend on myself. I would be a poor parent in the future if I were not at school now. If you are educated then you will be a good leader. Before, I never thought it was possible to go to school because there were no funds. Thank you for making it possible. I promise I will work hard and get good grades. Although the deputy headteacher, Hylos Msolola, describes Namatete as the third-best school in the country, it is by no means well resourced. Many of the desks are broken, few windows remain intact and the classrooms have fallen into a state of disrepair. The dormitories hold twice as many students as they were built for and Magdelene, like many other pupils, sleeps on a slatted bed with no mattress.But despite these difficulties, Namatete is better off than other schools. Its teachers are well trained and its library, while not extensive, does at least have a reasonable range of books.The same cannot be said of St Martin’s. The school’s deputy head, John Mtengavumba, reels off the list of problems. The teachers are not properly trained, there is no electricity or water, no laboratory and there can be more than 60 children to a class in the lower grades. There is not enough accommodation for the teachers, the library is virtually non-existent and there is no money for more textbooks. The blackboards are so old that it requires keen eyesight to make out what the teachers are writing.The trustees of the Gumbi fund recognise its core purpose is to support the children of the village, but are keen to ensure children in other villages in the district also benefit.The most effective way of achieving this in the short term is to support the schools themselves. We left around £400 with Sister Modesta, the nun who is managing the scheme on our behalf in Malawi. This money will be used to create a library at St Martin’s and the local primary school, but if new donations are made, more fundamental support can be given.Any further money will allow the fund to help children in other villages by paying for the poorest to attend school. Sister Modesta, who also runs a nutrition centre and a hospital, says 30 orphans are currently attending the free local primary school. But at the moment there is no hope of them going on to secondary school.
Gumbi’s troubles are mirrored across the country. Only 1% of Malawians have tertiary education, and only 10% finish secondary school. But what the fund has done is give renewed hope to a small corner of this very poor country.
This article was originally published by the Guardian on 25/05/2004.
'Your help is a gift from God'
Last year, the Guardian launched an appeal to help educate Malawi's poorest children. Jo Confino reports on its progress.