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Chasing her dream

Vera Mlia’s story

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Vera holds the Malawi flag

Trevor Noah Foundation recently came out to recognise the country’s artist and educator Vera Mlia Sheriff, who is set to use her grant to develop the Toon Notebook.

The Toon Notebook, inspired by 3D gaming and cartoons, is a captivating, fun and culturally relatable learning material for Early Childhood Development (ECD).

Like other countries, Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted import activity in the country thereby creating challenges in publishing Vera’s book.

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However, Vera has innovatively spent the past few months designing and creating low-cost ECD toys for children in her community. Her new Community ECD Toy Library will complement her Toon Notebook when published – this is surely innovation at its best.

Winning the heart of Trevor Noah Foundation especially with her Toon Notebook tells it all that this is something innovative worth appreciating.

Vera was part of Young African Leaders Initiative 2020, the first cohort of Education Changemakers sponsored

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by Yali and Trevor Noah Foundation in Midrand, South Africa from February to March 6.

“While there, we learnt we were going to design any project of our choice, perfect it and pitch to funders, the best pitches would be adopted and funded. So 42 of us competed for 10 slots. By God’s grace, my project was picked and became one Trevor’s favourite projects,” Vera said.

Upon their return, the team continued drilling them in their projects and now they are finalizing the paperwork for the funds to arrive.

“I chose to pitch a project that I have personally build over years with a friend and partner Patience Khembo, founder of Ladder to Learning and it is based on Sustainable Development Goal (SDG4) target two which looks at equal access to quality pre-primary education.

Vera said target 4.2 says by 2030, “all girls and boys should have access to quality early childhood development, care and pre-primary education so that they are ready for primary education”.

For Vera, she has always felt that local children do not get the right preparation for standard one as their counterparts from well to do families hence her efforts

to improve Early Childhood Development education with local games and cartoons.

But the talk of cartoons and games only comes in when one is passionate about it and Vera has been into it since her childhood before pursuing arts studies at tertiary level.

Born Vera Veronica Chipatso Mlia in 1988 to Mary Mlia and the late Professor Justus Mlia – who was a civil servant and University lecturer in Zomba, she is a last born in a family of five.

She hails from M’baluku Village in Mangochi and Ntaja in Machinga.

“I grew up in Zomba and that meant doing all my school there,” Vera said.

She did her primary at Mponda and then Likangala before proceeding to Chancellor College where she pursued an arts degree majoring in fine art and for her minor she went for drama learning subjects such as script writing, theatre for development, acting and directing.

Having worked for Indebank for four years, Vera resigned to pursue what she describes as her dream.

“I have always wanted to create an African and Educational version of Disney. I had to take baby steps by concentrating on illustrations and comics first, then gradually build up with games, books and finally animation,” Vera, a musician and visual artist, said.

So far, Vera has made strides to create a studio – Studio4humanity which he said survives on illustrations and sale of games and other fun educational things.

“This is all for the love of art and also chasing my dream. One of our children’s books is also selling on Amazon,” she said.

Chasing this dream for Vera has been a long journey but she is where she is because she worked hard.

“I happened to have been priviledged to start my educational journey at a high end nursery in Zomba that time. But somehow, I found myself starting standard one at a public free primary school. It was a puzzling experience for me but also an eye opener. I could write, count, do some simple additions, shape recognition and all that kindergarten mathematics while almost the entire class could not,” Vera recalls.

She adds that she wondered why the teacher was telling them to write in the air or on the ground when they could just use pen and paper or paint.

“I later realised my friends and I were not starting this journey on the same level. Most of them struggled to balance learning how to hold a pencil for the first time in their lives and handling standard one content. I saw some giving up and dropping out of school. All this stuck with me as I grew up, the government makes effort and that was the birth of Studio4humanity,” Vera said.

But while a lot of women or girls do not fancy art as a career, Vera, has always hoped for it.

“It has been my dream to do art because I remember the exciting times we all had when we played with clay soil (dongo) and scribbled our drawings in big people’s books but I got a shocker, in secondary school I found myself still drawing and writing short novels during preparation time. It was who I was meant to be,” Vera said.

So after battling with it, finally Vera accepted it and began to develop her life around art.

“As I said earlier, I grew up in an environment where one could be anything whether they are girls or boys and incorporate that message in my children’s books too. So, it has never been impossible for me,” she said.

Vera said being recognized by Trevor Noah Foundation Partnership was huge for her.

“I think for me, the journey has just begun. I want to do more to show what art is all about. This is one huge achievement for me but I am also happy that last year I had time to represent the country at the Oscar of Africa Creativity Awards in Egypt having impressed with her artwork,” she said.

Vera said art is a way of living and that one has all the freedom to create stories.

She has tried competing in other art platforms but has missed out.

“But that has not put me off as I have gone on to do more. Apart from doing music, the other achievements for me include being picked for voice acting for a United Kingdom based animation last year – The Curly Hair project,” Vera said.

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