Malawi diary – Young Ambassadors 2012

Group of children
Eilidh Naismith and Billy Davidson, travelled with ActionAid to Malawi to investigate barriers to education for children, where less than half of children finish even a basic primary education.

Eilidh and Billy, both 15 from Hutchesons Grammar School in Glasgow, won the 2012 Steve Sinnott Award to be the Young Ambassadors for the Global Campaign for Education.

They travelled with ActionAid to Malawi to investigate barriers to education for children, where less than half of children finish even a basic primary education. Malawi is ranked as one of the world’s 20 least developed countries and ¾ of the population live on less than $2 a day. Eilidh and Billy spent time with children on the streets in the capital and in the rural villages, met politicians, charity workers, and young campaigners. Here is their diary.

Day 1 – first day in Malawi

Children on the street in Lilongwe, Malawi

Children on the street in Lilongwe, Malawi. Fewer than half of Malawian children finish even primary education

After a long journey from Glasgow to Lilongwe, we finally arrived in Malawi. The drive from the airport was our first opportunity to see the country, and it was nothing like our expectations.

We were amazed by how green and lush it all looked, and one of the first things we noticed – after of course the heat – was the number of children working on the streets and not in school. We saw children carrying piles of sticks, other selling things at the side of the road and some cycling along with piles of straw on the backs of their bikes.

After dropping our bags at the hotel we headed out for a meeting at the Civil Society Coalition for Quality Basic Education (CSCQBE). There we met Benedicto Kondowe, the Executive Director of the CSCQBE and some young campaigners who told us about the barriers to education they have found in Malawi, quite a long list!

Meeting young campaigners Chipiliro and Victoria

Young campaigners Chipiliro and Victoria explain the problems facing education in Malawi

The main ones were poor education infrastructure, lack of teachers and the low standard of education. One campaigner, Kalako, said the quality of education in Malawi is “pathetic” with only 10% of children managing to read by Standard 4. We were surprised to hear that in some schools there can be as many as 221 pupils to 1 teacher.

They also talked about hidden costs involved in going to school. Although school is free in Malawi there are indirect costs set at the school level, such as paying into a ‘school quality development fund’, which can often be higher than school fees.

Malawian campaigners Chipiliro and Victoria explained some of the problems facing education in Malawi. We enjoyed meeting the young campaigners and it was interesting to see that they were intrigued about what it is like to live in the UK and what our education system is like here. Then dinner and bed early – very tired!

Day 2 – on the streets in Lilongwe

We woke up after our first night under a mosquito net, and went to visit the Chisomo Children’s club in Lilongwe, a centre for street children funded by ActionAid. There are 600,000 children either working or living on the streets in Malawi, a massive number when the total population is only about 15 million.

Eilidh with Alinafe at the Chisomo Children's Club

Eilidh with Alinafe at the Chisomo Children’s Club

We were warmly welcomed by Irene Ngomano, their senior social worker. Irene explained how they go out at night and look for children on the streets and then try to build relationships with them. They then work to integrate the children back into their families and into by school and help to provide uniform and materials. They also set up meetings with teachers to ensure that the children settle back into school.

Chisomo Children’s Club has helped Alinafe, who started begging on the streets at the age of 4. The last stage involves looking at the reasons the children ended up on the streets and trying to help the family ensure it does not happen again; this can be by Chisomo providing small loans for the families to buy a house or set up a business. We then split up and each spent time with one of the street children in the club, Eilidh with Alinafe, 14, and Billy with Stanwell, 13.

 Eilidh’s day with Alinafe

I set off with Alinafe, walking through town where she showed me the bar and restaurant in which she used to beg for food. She told me that she started begging on the streets from the early age of 4, which I was shocked at as I felt very intimidated by the amount of men on the street that were approaching Alinafe and me.

The conditions of the street were horrific; there were piles of stinking rubbish left at the side of the road, the atmosphere was hostile and thinking of Alinafe there at night at her very young age hit me hard.

Alinafe shows Eilidh the area where she used to beg

Alinafe shows Eilidh the area where she started begging at the age of 4

Luckily the Chisomo club found Alinafe working on the streets and helped her get back into education. However it was very upsetting to learn that Alinafe would go straight from primary school to this filthy street and beg till the early hours of the morning. She explained that this made her very tired and demotivated for the next day of learning at school. On the average evening she would make about 600 kwachas (about £2.50).

Sadly at 13 Alinafe became pregnant and had to drop out of school. Her partner didn’t support her either and tragically the baby died at birth.

I found it very hard to comprehend her experience and the fact that there weren’t many people to support her at this time was upsetting to hear. However, it was encouraging to see that the Chisomo Club has really changed Alinafe’s life; they were there to support her through all her tough experiences and helped out with costs for her family to move into a small house. They have also helped Alinafe get back into education; she now she attends a night class.

Billy’s day with Stanwell

I went out onto the streets with Stanwell, who is 13. Stanwell collects scrap metal and sells it to make money in order to feed himself and his family. He showed me the huge stinking piles of rubbish at the side of the road, which he picks through to find small pieces of metal.

I found the conditions in which he works particularly upsetting. It was really sad to witness him going through this with his bare hands. He then took me to a sewage canal, which he also picks through to find scrap metal.

Stanwell, 13, says, “I don’t like this life of collecting scrap metal and I would like to be in school. If I don’t go to school I am worried I will end up being a useless person.” I became emotional at that point, as it just felt so wrong that a young boy of 13, who should be in school, has to pick through the squalor and rubbish in this disgusting sewage canal.

We then went to see where he sells the metal and he told me that often when he gets paid older boys and men approach him and take his money. This made me very distressed, I just felt as though the world was so cruel to this boy.

Billy visits Stanwell at his home

Stanwell, 13, collects scrap metal from rubbish tips to earn money to help his family

Stanwell then took me to see his house. His living conditions are very poor; his house consists of two small, dark rooms and a cooking, living area that consisted of a grass roof and pieces of plastic. I found this hard, after seeing what he has to go through every day.

Going to Stanwell’s house gave me an opportunity to ask him some questions about his life. He told me that he wants nothing more than to go to school and he doesn’t enjoy working on the streets. He also told me that he feels that he has more hope in his life since being found by the Chisomo Club and aims with their help to return to school one day.

I was also encouraged when I returned to the club with Stanwell and we observed one of their circle sessions. Stanwell was much more relaxed there; he was playing with his friends and having fun. Chisomo brings some happiness and a sense of security into the lives of street children whilst trying to get them back into education.

My day with Stanwell was an emotional experience. It allowed me to get a sense of the extreme poverty that some people are in but it was also encouraging to see that there is hope for children in these circumstances. Back at the club we got the chance to meet some of the other children and even played some football which was good fun. (Not one of our strengths though!)

Day 3 – a visit to the rural villages

We stayed overnight in the rural area of Salima, and learnt that 90% of the population live in rural areas like this. Serious droughts are a constant threat to the lives of these communities who are mainly small scale farmers.

As a landlocked country Malawi has no access to sea trade routes. The country has also suffered from HIV and AIDS, which has left many children orphaned or living with extended families.

After a night of torrential rain we arrived in Mdewele village and learnt that if it wasn’t for our visit the whole village would be working in the fields, thankful for the rain after waiting for it for weeks. But they all turned out excited to see us and gave us the warmest of welcomes; the children surrounded the cars singing, dancing and clapping.

We visited the Madalisto Children’s Club (which means Blessing), a group that meets every Saturday, so that both children who go to school and those who don’t can attend.

Children holding up flipchart paper and talking together

Discussing the barriers to education at the Madalisto Children’s Club

The aim of the Club is for local children to meet to discuss issues and problems that affect them and for them to find solutions to these problems. The topic of the discussion today was why some children are not going to school. They split into groups and decided on the main reasons why children in their community do not go to school.

Members of the Madalisto Children’s Club list out the reasons that children miss out on school. The children came up with a variety of problems such as lack of food, lack of materials, and lack of parents. 20% of the children in this village had lost their parents due to HIV/AIDS and as a result they are not able to afford the costs of going to school. It was very encouraging to see the children were also coming up with their own solutions. Despite the fact that many of the children don’t go to school they were obviously very bright and had a real passion for improving their community.

Eilidh: working in the fields with Diya

We went to meet a girl called Diya who is now 11. Diya attended school in Standard 1 but then left. She lives with her grandmother, as her parents died when she was very young and works to support her by farming on their plot growing groundnuts, maize and cotton. They use the crops for themselves and sell the surplus and sometimes Diya will work on other peoples’ plots to earn some cash.

Children weeding in a field

Working in the fields with Diya, 11

Billy and I helped Diya to weed her plot; we both found it very challenging and after just 15 minutes we felt weak and the heat made us very tired. We weeded five metres, which was very hard work, and were told that this would earn just 2p. It was tragic to learn that this young girl works for hours every day and gets paid so little.

We then visited her house where she showed us how she would sleep on a very thin mat on the hard ground. It was very dark and she explained that the room where she would usually sleep had been badly affected by the rain.

Meeting Diya was very interesting as she told us she had no intention of going back to school and just wanted to continue working on the land. However she did tell us that she envies her friends that can read and write and said, “A good farmer is a farmer that can read and write”.

While she was in school she couldn’t afford the school uniform and was laughed at by her classmates because of this, which made her feel uncomfortable and caused her to drop out. She now feels she can’t go back to school because it would be humiliating as she would be the oldest in her class, as she has missed out so many years of her education. This is a real shame as she is so young and does want to learn to read and write.

Meeting Mphatso


Mphatso, 10, would like to go to school, but his family can’t afford for him to go

We then went on to meet a boy called Mphatso aged 10. He was an inspiring little boy who was really passionate about education and knows that if he could go back to school he would have a much brighter future.

When he was younger his mother died and after that his father remarried and moved away to his new wife’s community. Mphatso was left with his grandparents and his little sister, who cannot provide financial support for him to go to school.

“I envy people that go to school but there is no one to help me with a uniform. If I go to school without it I am chased away by the teachers. When I see my friends go to school it pains me as I know they will be able to read and write.” Mphatso, 10

To earn money for his family Mphatso weaves palm leaves into large mats, which is very time-consuming. Every Thursday he walks to the market to sell them. It takes him 5 hours to walk there and 5 hours to walk back and he is lucky to make 150 kwacha per mat, which is less than 50p.

What was most upsetting about meeting Mphatso was the feeling that he had given up hope of ever going back to school, despite the fact that going back to school is all he wants to do.

Day 4 – Lake Malawi

Today we had a day off and took a boat ride on Lake Malawi. The weather was really warm and sunny and we took the boat to a small island on the lake. This day off allowed us to take stock and reflect on all of the things we had seen and all of the stories of the children that we had met.

One thing that struck us was the fact that the children we had met have absolutely nothing but all they want is to go to school. We have everything in comparison to these children. The education system in the UK may not be perfect but it’s a million miles ahead of Malawi’s education system. The fact that school is compulsory in UK means so much; if children had to go to school by law in Malawi it would mean their lives would be so much better.

Day 5 – Chikowa Primary School

Visiting the Chikowa Primary School in Salima was an eye-opening experience. It allowed us to get a sense of what it’s like to go to school in rural Malawi.

Billy – in class

We met the headmaster who informed us of some of the issues his school is facing. He told us that there are not enough classrooms for all of the pupils at his school so three classes have to be taught outside. This means that when it rains the classes have to be dismissed.

Large group of children sitting on the floor outside, with a blackboard

Shortage of space means that some classes at Chikowa Primary have to be taught outdoors

He also told us that the pupil-teacher ratio in the school is far too high; in one class there are 485 pupils enrolled in a class taught by one teacher.

The school toilet facilities were appalling; they didn’t have doors, so the girls in particular feel very uncomfortable when they are on their periods and this makes many of them miss school.

We were given the opportunity to sit in on both indoor and outdoor classes and get an insight into the learning environment that pupils in a typical school in Malawi have to cope with every day. Both highlighted how hard it would be to have to learn in those environments.

The first class we attended was Standard 4, who have a very basic classroom; consisting of just a blackboard and a floor. All of the pupils have to sit on the floor and this discomfort makes the children demotivated. There were over 100 pupils squashed together, so much so that some pupils complain that they find it hard to write as everybody’s elbows nudge.

We also experienced having to share 1 textbook between as many as 10 pupils, which is incredibly difficult.  Having so many pupils in one class means that it is difficult to hear, especially for those who are at the back.

Eilidh – chatting to the girls of Standard 8

I met three inspiring girls who have stayed in school and are now in Standard 8. There are 1,282 children at the Chikowa primary school, but only 6 girls and 18 boys have made it to the last class, standard 8, which highlights the enormous drop-out rate.

Overcrowded classroom, children sitting on the floor

Over 100 pupils cram into this classroom at Chikowa Primary

The girls spoke about the problems which may have stopped them going to school, but they persevered and continued with their education, which I really admired. They mainly spoke about their parents and how they weren’t encouraging them to go to school and they wanted the girls to look after siblings or work on their plots.

Determination to succeed is what kept these girls in school. One of the girls wanted to be a doctor and another wanted to be an office secretary. I feel that their high hopes will give them a bright future, as they were such clever strong-minded girls.

Billy – school facilities

long queue of adults and children in the sun

A nutritious lunch gives the children an extra reason to come to school

I went off to see more of the school and to investigate the quality of the school’s facilities. I got the opportunity to see the school’s water pump and also saw the school’s feeding programme at work.  For many this may be their only meal of the day. It was really good to see how happy the children were receiving their meals. For many of the children getting fed in school is often their only meal of the day, and the main reason they attend school.

Loveness’ story

We then set off to meet Loveness. Her story was tragic and very hard-hitting. She had to drop out of school because she fell pregnant at the age of 13; as a result she entered into an early marriage. She moved in with her husband who began to abuse her, so she returned home. Around the same time her mother remarried and abandoned her with her three younger siblings. This has left Loveness, now 14, to look after a newborn baby and three children.

She then told us of her daily struggle to feed her siblings and baby; how she has to find casual work in the morning to provide lunch and then has to go back out in the afternoon in order to provide dinner, but she says they often go hungry. It was distressing to hear that they had been forced to go hungry for four days.

Loveness worries about her future; her three younger siblings still attend school and in a year or so when the baby is older she hopes to return to school herself, but doesn’t know how possible this will be. Loveness tells her story – video

Day 6 – Deputy Minister for Education

Today we had a meeting at the Ministry of Education in Lilongwe with the Deputy Minister of Education and his colleagues. This allowed us to ask them questions about education in Malawi and also talk about some of the things we had seen. We felt as though he was telling us mostly about what had already been done with regards to education in Malawi, opposed to what needs to be done and all the problems that still exist. We told him about the enormous class sizes we had seen and the obvious need to train more teachers and reduce class sizes, and how strongly we felt that improving education should be more a top priority.

We also quizzed him about the issue that we had heard that a lot of the government’s policies that are put into place to improve access to education are not properly communicated or enforced, so have little effect.

Day 7 – return to the UK

Our experience in Malawi has been life-changing and eye-opening. We have had an opportunity that very few people ever get: to actually go into communities, villages, schools and see for ourselves programmes set up to help get more children back into schools.

Going out to Malawi has helped us to gain more knowledge about the barriers to education, which will allow us to campaign more effectively here in the UK for change. The children that we have met throughout our trip have been so passionate about education, they are aware of the problems that stop children from going to school and were even coming up with their own solutions.

It is so important that the Malawian government and governments from around the world work to make sure that every child in Malawi gets an education. This is the most powerful way to see the end of poverty, that the economy grows and families have better health. From what we heard we think that the younger generation’s positive attitude towards education will have the biggest impact on the future of Malawi.

Photos: Karen Garvin and Graeme Robertson