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It takes a village: How Gumbi Village got a school

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The great hope of Gumbi at that time was a 13-year-old girl, Margaradena Njewa. She had come top of her class in the nearby Nambuma girls’ primary school, and had passed a national exam giving her entry to one of Malawi’s better, boarding secondary schools. By any standards in rural Malawi, this was an achievement, but for a young Gumbi girl it was a triumph.

The reality, though, was that it would cost the family about £80 a year to send her to the school. There were no scholarships and no money. Instead, she had been helped by the extraordinary sacrifice of her elder brother, Kennedy. So important did he consider his baby sister’s education for the future of the family and the village that he had sold his ox cart, his only means of earning money. It raised about £35, enough to pay for Margaradena’s first two terms.

Kennedy had no idea how he would pay for the rest of her schooling, but he reasoned that even a few months’ secondary teaching would give her a chance. Some people thought him wrong, even stupid, but a couple of weeks before I visited Gumbi for the last time in 2002, he waved Margaradena off. Kennedy’s own dream, he said, was to learn English and expand his and the village’s horizons. He deeply regretted that he had never been to secondary school. He owned the only book in the village, a tatty English-Chichewa dictionary.

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Margaradena was far too shy to speak to me then, but Kennedy told me, “She is very intelligent. She will learn. If this village is to change, then we need education. Without it we cannot survive. If we do not have education, then we will be like slaves.”

I wrote a piece for this magazine about Margaradena and the village’s plight, and added a note asking readers if they would contribute to an education fund. Within days we had raised around £20,000. A fund was set up, to be overseen by Sister Modesta, a Teresian nun from the church in Nambuma, and Patrick Kamzitu, the government health worker who had taken me to the village. Any child from Gumbi (or nearby schools) who passed their government entry exams became eligible for a free secondary education. Orphans and girls were to be given priority.

It sounded easy enough. The families would be given the money, the children would be educated and everyone would prosper. Sadly, it proved much more complicated.

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There was immediate progress: in that first year, 30 children had their school fees paid and a local builder was employed to construct a smart new classroom block at the primary school, and an office for the teachers. But no one had foreseen just how derelict Malawi’s rural schools were. The roof of the boys’ primary school in Nambuma had fallen in five years previously, and the whole school in the nearby village of Mguwata was a pile of bricks.

Classes of 100 or more were being taught under trees. There was no money for books, blackboards or materials, and no secondary school had light. It was impossible to attract professionals to live in derelict huts without windows or water, and few who came had any qualifications. We realised that it wasn’t just money holding children back, but cultural suspicion, deep necessity and ignorance.

The full disaster revealed itself slowly in the maths. In any group of 100 children in rural Malawi, it emerged, fewer than 60 could expect more than a year’s primary education, and just 10 might qualify to go on to secondary education. Of those 10, nine could be expected to drop out within a year or two, because their parents could not afford the fees or uniforms. Primary education was free, but secondary schooling cost £20 or more a year. In Gumbi, that could be 30 percent of a family’s income.

Only a handful of Gumbi children had ever got into the local secondary school, St Martin’s, and no one had finished more than a year there. Effectively, the village children ended their school days at age 10, unable to read, write, speak English or do much more than hoe the fields and cook nsima, the national maize dish. Children and parents may have said they wanted education, but they were denied it by absolute poverty.

And while parents wanted to give their children the best chance in life, the reality was that, even with an offer to pay the school fees, they needed their children in the fields or at home.

Nevertheless, with cash from Weekend readers, Margaradena had her education paid in an all-girls boarding school at Namitete, near the border with Zambia, and Kennedy was able to buy back his ox cart. Three other children who had qualified for secondary school that year were sent to other boarding schools; a village committee chose three children for boarding scholarships and others to go to day secondary schools.

The fund developed independently of the Guardian, and each year raised about £5,000, largely from a small group of readers, many of them ex-teachers. Every year, the Gumbi education committee was told how much money was available and someone from Britain visited, at their own expense. There were no administrative costs except a small stipend for Kamzitu. We made a commitment to Gumbi that we would stick with it for the long term; this was not just a quick fundraiser.

By 2007, classroom blocks in several schools had been rebuilt and 55 children were having their fees paid at secondary level.

In 2009, Kamzitu wrote: “Of the 64 children who we put through secondary education last year, nine passed their exams – the best results achieved so far. But the biggest change has been the attitude of parents in Gumbi itself. This year, 29 children from the village will go to secondary school, more than twice as many as have ever been before.”

And then in 2011, thanks to Rupert Murdoch, the fund doubled in size. Following the Guardian’s long-running investigation into News International’s hacking of celebrities’ telephones, the Murdoch media empire was obliged to take out full-page advertisements in the UK national press to apologise.

The Guardian decided to give this unexpected revenue to charity, and a chunk came to the Gumbi fund. A one-room village library, provisionally called the R Murdoch Education Facility, was built and an expedition was mounted to choose books in Lilongwe. The children returned chastened. In Malawi, £400 may buy a secondary education for dozens of children a year, but it covers only a handful of books.

Most of the Murdoch money went to Gumbi’s neighbouring village Mguwata. When I visited it for the first time in 2010, it had worse facilities than most refugee camps. The school, supposedly built for 300 children, consisted of one run-down classroom block, two semi-derelict, roofless blocks and a thatched shelter. The rest was a pile of bricks, the buildings having been demolished

The six teachers had no chairs, desks, books, pencils, windows or chalkboards. Only two classes could be held indoors at the same time, so the children sat in the open and were sent home when it was too hot or it rained. Only a handful had ever gone on to secondary school and no one ever finished.

This year, more than 100 children are being educated to secondary level in the two villages Mguwata and Gumbi; there are feeding programmes when food is scarce; and all the local schools have solar lighting. The primary school in Mguwata has two brand new classroom blocks and 597 children. But government funding is pitiful. “We get 617,692 kwacha [£585] a year for pens and paper for 597 pupils. That’s less than £1 per pupil per year. That must cover repairs to the buildings, too,” says headteacher Amos Kautsa, showing me the government receipts. “Lots and lots of children drop out, especially the girls.”

The villages are still desperately poor. Gumbi has many more houses than it had in 2002, more tin roofs and bicycles, three football teams, and more people finding work outside the fields. According to some of the parents, people have moved there from neighbouring villages because of the free secondary education.

Last year, solar lighting came to all the local schools, as well as 41 houses in Gumbi and more in Mguwata, after money was left to the fund by a British family. A plaque on the small three-room Mguwata library, its bricks made by the village, reads, “The Dr David Montefiore Memorial Library”.

Chatting in the library, James Gomani and the young Gumbi-born teachers tell me how much they value education. “It means everything,” says Gomani. “I was so happy when I got to university. It was my great hope and aim. But I know that education does not end there. I was the first in my family, the first in the village, to go. But others are working now just as hard as I did. Optimism is a great motivation.”

“Without education there can be no change. With it, everything can happen. People have different aims,” says Kennedy Jimmy.

“Our family was absolutely poor. No one had anything. We had no hope for the future, no sense that there was a future. I am a different person,” agrees his elder brother Josephy.

But education divides, too, and guarantees nothing. My visit coincides with the first time Margaradena Njewa has returned to Gumbi in six years. I had seen her only once since she went off to boarding school, when I visited her school in 2005. We had talked for 30 minutes, and I had pressed soap, pens and pencils and a bit of pocket money into her hand. She had told me that she wanted to be a television presenter.

Now a beautiful young woman speaking good English, she is as shy as ever but tells me that she did not pass her national exams and go to university as so many people had wanted her to. Instead, she changed school but was not happy and, after six years of a different boarding school, moved to Lilongwe, where she met a boy and had a child, Priscilla. She is now a kindergarten teacher at a private school in the capital.

She is still in touch with her family but she had not told anyone in the village where she was and what she was doing. Returning to Gumbi last month was clearly emotional. People were glad to see her but did not quite know how to approach this young urban woman with a baby in her arms. From talking to others, I understood that she now felt awkward with her old friends. Education had taught her to speak English, and how to read and write, but life had not miraculously changed for the better.

“I think I may have disappointed people,” she tells me. “But I don’t want to come back now. What would I do? I would be bored. I want to work. I still want to be a TV presenter.” – The Guardian UK

 

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