The importance of hope in Malawi

This guest blog is written by Daisy, the incredibly hard working Managing Director of Rare Charity.

It’s February, it’s grey, it’s post-Brexit and it rains harder than your neighbour’s broken drainpipe. Why don’t we leave for a moment and go to Malawi? It’s the ‘Warm Heart of Africa’, known for its endless skies, friendly people and jaw-dropping sunsets. I’m going there in this blog post. Fancy a trip?

In Malawi, it’s still raining. In fact the rainy season is in full swing. I want to take you back in time, to 2015, when the country saw unprecedented levels of rain. Recent years have seen more erratic, less predictable levels of rainfall thanks to global warming. But 2015’s floods were catastrophic.

It rained heavily, unremittingly, for a week – the sort of torrent which looks like someone has just tipped a bucket over you if you step outside for a second. I didn’t leave the house for 7 days in a row. When the deluge finally stopped, I emerged blinking into the daylight, relieved to get some fresh air. Only then did I realise the full scale of the damage. Houses were stripped of their outer walls or roofs, revealing gaping poverty behind. Possessions were destroyed, either exposed to the rain or crushed by a falling roof. Maize-flour meant to feed the household for a month was destroyed. Investments held in crops were decimated. People who were on the edge before were now surviving on nothing more than a neighbour’s floor.

The remains of a house near Jacaranda
Hopeson, a student from Jacaranda School for Orphans on the remains of the house his late grandfather left him

I was a teacher at Jacaranda School for Orphans at the time. We questioned any students who managed to come into school: how much of your guardian’s house is down, where are you sleeping now, when did you last eat. We coordinated emergency relief packages to as many homes as we could: maize-flour, blankets and soap.

Essential blankets for the students.
Richard and his brother, Jacaranda students with emergency maize and blankets. Richard's walk to school each day was 9km. After we visited he couldn't go to school, but he still walked the distance with a bag of mangoes to say thank you.
Essential blankets for the students.
Emergency Relief for the Patricks, a family headed by the eldest child, Agnes (far left).

When school re-opened two weeks later, I greeted a classroom of changed children. I didn’t know how to start. Trying to normalise things, I asked students to get out their books. Idiot! I realised – too late - of course the books would have gone. But then the students slowly, in silence, began to bend down. Without exception, every single student brought out a bundle. I recognised the plastic bags –supermarket carrier bags and bread wrappers I’d left in the classroom and subsequently forgotten about - and wrapped inside, there were their exercise books. Students who were not wearing shoes, who might not have eaten for several days, who did not know where they would sleep that night – all said that they had made a decision when their houses fell. They’d all run to save their school books.

Books & blankets
- Tawina, a Jacaranda student, on the remains of his Aunt's house. His shoes were stolen after the house collapsed, but he managed to save his History textbook.

It is very difficult to convey the value that most Malawian children ascribe to education. We could do a lap of the NGO sector’s favourite statistics:

Malawi ranks in the top 5 poorest nations globally; 74% of its population lives on less than $1.90 per day; 31% of young Malawian women have given birth by 18 years old.

The UN hails education as a key stepping stone towards pulling the country out of poverty. But all of this fails to convey the importance that education represents to people on a personal level. It fails to take into account the life-changing value of education – that it is the one thing which a child would save from a falling home.

This was why, when I was planning to leave Malawi and got a rather unexpected phone call from Primrose Hill, London, I fell for Henrietta Lovell. From what I could hear of her ideas about international development – Nick Cave was playing deafeningly in the background, and she kept getting distracted by stories about tea – her approach was simultaneously utterly inspirational and bloody weird.

Henrietta is rare in the charity sector because she believes in treating people as people. She has not decided that she knows what is best for a country, nor has she concocted development strategies for someone else’s country from a swanky London office, nor will she dream of wasting donor’s money on business flights for ‘on-the-ground implementation’. The international development sector often points towards all of this, so, naturally, Henrietta goes in bang the opposite direction.

Henrietta Lovell, ever the contrarian.
"Your white cousins are constantly trying to give me advice and say I can’t survive without their expertise.  Oh please!"
'Dearest Child' by Kimba Mutanda

Henrietta started Rare Charity because of conversations she had had with real people, tea-pluckers on Satemwa Tea Estate. She got to know Malawi as a country first. She visited the tea estate and worked with the tea-pluckers, side by side picking and sifting tea. She saw the need, but had the humility to know that it wasn’t her who could see the solution. She asked the tea-pluckers instead. And they gave a unanimous answer: education for our children.

So this is what Rare Charity provides. We fund tertiary educational scholarships for the Satemwa community.

In our 3 years of operation, we have funded 19 full (including food and accommodation alongside college course fess) scholarships. Our aim is to enable young people from tea-plucking families to pursue further ambitions, and to return to their communities as qualified professionals, ready to implement social change in their own ways and on their own terms. But there are hundreds more young people waiting – capable of becoming doctors, lawyers, politicians, scientists, teachers. We have to keep moving. We cannot stand still.

We have a support officer, Esnarth, herself on a Rare Scholarship, who is also helping us to identify girls under pressure to drop out from secondary school. Many face pressures to support their family domestically, or to get married and take the financial burden off their family. The young women we sponsor through higher education are the ones who’ve already overcome these battles. Now we want to find more fighters.

For every young person we sponsor, we do more than change one horizon. We are creating a movement. We are enabling social mobility, we are shaping a community, and ultimately we are equipping a new generation to change their country - in their own ways and on their own terms.

Rare Charity Scholar, Wongani
Rare Charity Scholar, Wongani

After the devastation of the rains, the crops begin to grow again, the land gets greener, the tea bushes flourish. But it takes time.

It keeps getting darker
Rains pour and winds blow
And the darkness stays unmoved
And he wonders:
Was I born for the dark?

Listen carefully
From deep within
The light keeps knocking
Open up
And you will know
You were born for the light.
Wezi Msukwa

Rare Charity Logo

P.S. A hopeful final punctuation point for Malawi as they recently celebrated the annulment of last year’s general elections. The constitutional court ruled that the "tip-ex elections" (for that was what was used to alter the results) were illegal, so making Malawi only the second nation on the African continent to call out a corrupt election. When the ruling was announced, the country had been primed for riots; instead a nation took to the street to dance in celebration. Even the army danced.