Saturday, 18 August 2018

It's a wonderful world

Monday morning in Malawi and the third of four weeks of the Chifundo Summer School is about to start. Eight volunteers, from schools across Ireland and England, await the arrival of some of the poorest and, at the same time, knowledge hungry children the world has to offer.

At 8.40am, 50 boys and girls clamber excitedly from their bus as it comes to a halt in the Chifundo Foundation campus. One young boy sprints clear of the others and races round the corner to where he knows an old friend is waiting. His feet barely touch the ground as he spots his favourite Irishman and launches himself into his arms. In a country littered with heart breaking scenes, this little boy’s heart is about to explode with joy. A bond built over the previous two summers has been rekindled.

His beaming smile, command of English and fearless approach to life dwarf his stunted growth and harrowing personal circumstances. Standing three foot tall, and ten years old, in front of class mates far more intimidating, he demands silence
before laying down the law, “I am very disappointed to hear children speaking Chichewa (the local language) in the Chifundo campus...”

He believes in the power of Chifundo. The power of education and English to change his future, one where the odds are stacked heavily against him.

While the individual stories may vary, a common theme prevails... Their staunch refusal to be overcome by their circumstances.

Another young fellow embodies this spirit as much as anyone. From the moment he bounds through the gates he seeks out interaction with his teachers. “Sir... Sir... look” is the initial extent of his English, grabbing our attention to show off his latest version of the press up, magic trick or skipping rope exercise.

“Sir, sir, borrow me spectacles”, his English improves as his confidence grows. He takes
my sunglasses and places them on his grinning face. His diminutive, barrel chested frame radiates happiness. A few days later, “Sir, can I have your sunglasses, please?”, we’re making progress.

One Saturday we visited his house. He stood proudly outside with his mother and siblings. Almost every member of the family, including mum, wore an item of
clothing donated to Chifundo. Their house has one room and is no bigger than a garden shed. Our eyes are drawn to the gaping hole where a roof should be. They can’t afford one and wake up sodden during the unforgiving rainy season.

Malawi is the 7th poorest country in the world. Chifundo works with their team in Malawi to identify the poorest children in the Zomba region and places them in private education. A simple idea that is changing futures.

“Sir, how are volcanoes formed?” asks one bright young man destined for university on completion of his secondary schooling. One of our geography teachers responds with an answer that covers moving plates, high pressure, extreme heat, molten lava and a lot more besides.

Some of the children are writing letters to pen pals in Irish and English schools, the same student explains his situation in flawless, written English. “I am writing to you to tell you about my life in Malawi. My mother left me when I was two, my father left me on the 20th of August 2014, when I was 8. I live with my aunt who does her best but life is not easy.” He has even mastered the understatement.

In Chifundo’s absence, the potential these children possess would lie undiscovered, uncultivated and ultimately wasted. They would exist in a primary school system that encourages class sizes of 80 pupils, early dropout is guaranteed. They would then be sent to work, the girls with the shadow of prostitution looming large.

The children of Chifundo dream big, with a private school education their futures are brighter. There’s a doctor, a dentist, plenty of nurses, some teachers and a number of bank managers.

One day they will buy a house and take their families from poverty and start a new cycle supporting the next generation of Malawians.

Who knows, their future may even include a trip to Ireland to thank you in person for playing a part in changing their lives.

Until that day, you’ll have to make do with me passing on their truly heartfelt thanks.

They are doing their utmost to make you proud.

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