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FMSI and the work of the Marist Brothers in Malawi

17/03/2012: Malawi

Our recent visit to Malawi allowed us to know it a bit better. Malawi, the warm heart of Africa, is a peaceful country. Since independence from Great Britain in 1964, it has had political stability, no tribal conflicts, excellent relations with every other country. It is precisely for this that is the ideal refuge for many refugees from the surrounding peoples.

Its population is about 13 million, spread over a surface of 118.000 Km. Its per capita return is from $830   (172nd in the world) and in fact about 40% live on less than 1 dollar a day. Health problems are great, especially from the prevalence of HIV, which also affects many children. Literacy is up to 72%, with differences between males and females… But if one considers the possibility of access to secondary schooling, the percentage of those who continue studies is low, and very low for adolescent girls.

The Marist Brothers have been present in Malawi since 1946. On our brief visit, we spoke about how FMSI can sustain their work. The projects carried out have three objectives: to guarantee an education and training really useful for life; to reduce school dropouts especially among children and girls; to provide access to school for the most vulnerable boys and give another opportunity to those who have for left school for various reasons.

On their trip, Br Mario Meuti, Director of Rome’s Office, and Angela Petenzi, Project Coordinator of FMSI, were able to visit almost all the Marist educational works.

The first visit was made to the Secondary School of Likuni, near the capital, Lilongwe. It is one of five  institutes for secondary education run by the Marist Brothers; the others are: Zomba Secondary School in Zomba, Charles Lwanga School in Balaka, Mtendere Secondary School and Marist Secondary School in the district of Dedza. All these schools are part of the public system. The teachers are hired and paid by the Ministery of Education. 80% of the students are selected by the Government on the basis of marks in the National exam (PSLCE - Primary School Leaving Certificate)and are sent to schools in all the zones of the country. If, on the one hand, this “boarding schools” system favours the mingling of boys from different zones and rewards the most deserving, on the other, it causes the school to remain a closed entity with respect to the local community. Paradoxically, those who live in the villages around the school cannot benefit from it and then access is so selective that the majority of boys are left out and with very few other prospects. As well, the boarding schools are divided into male and female, but the percentage of the latter is very small. So, one of the prime concerns of the Marist Brothers has been to create a bridge with the people of the place. The first experience was at Likuni, where today there is a boarding school with 320 students and the  “open-day school”, frequented by 516 village boys and girls.

Also in the zone of Mtendere (Dedza), which is the heart of Marist activity in Malawi, the Brothers are preoccupied with overcoming the division between school and territory. Next to the Marist Secondary School has been born an “open-day school”, which the boys and girls of the area can attend in the afternoons, under the guidance of the same teachers as the M.S.School. Br Patrick Bwana, an extraordinary man of charisma and dedication, has begun to gather around the Mtendere Secondary School the boys of the village, including the handicapped and orphans… involving first some volunteer and then the entire local community. This activity today has become a third Marist training centre: the “Champagnat Center” with a secondary school composed of all the boys and girls of the area. And their boast (of Br Patrick Bwana and Mr Jibson Peter Thole, current director) is that their exam results are not inferior to those of many   boarding schools. For them, there are other rooms under construction, thanks to the joint contributions of FMSI and the Spanish agency “Manos Unidas”; the carpentry workshop is almost completed and also a little shop for supplying basic needs. Certainly, there is a lot missing: the water supply is insufficient and they cannot teach agriculture satisfactorily, the little electricity generator is inadequate, the director would like a house where he could live and act as custodian… And so many other projects which Patrick Bwana, full of youthful vitality at the age of 91, told us about together with his motto: “Forward ever, backward never!”.  FMSI will continue to be at their side, because it is very beautiful to see the happy faces of the boys and girls and the festivities they have reserved for us. They are aware of their good fortune and it does not matter if they have to walk kilometres to arrive there from the surrounding villages. At least for them, school is worth some sacrifice!

The days of our visit coincided with the lack of fuel throughout Malawi (problem continuing also in 2012), so that the idea of visiting the Marist schools in the south (Balaka and Zomba) became impracticable, but a Brother had queued up for hours to buy some fuel and take us at least to see two projects in the north of the country, also under the Marist shield. A trip of about 400 km to reach Rumphi and meet the rural community of Nkwangu. Thanks to the enterprise of this people and their chiefs, this village has started various programs, first of all a school. With the contribution of FMSI, they have built 4 classrooms, but others would be necessary, because lessons also continue to be taught under the trees… The zone is now a reference point for other villages and the activity increases: literacy for the adults, training in agriculture, promotion of women, health education and care of those ill with AIDS… And with this, a long list of requests for aid! A little before dusk, we left the village. We do not know whether to remain disturbed by the immense and urgent needs or in admiration at the dignity of the people and their great desire for improvement.

The next day, we were expected at the village of Katete (Mzimba) by the community of Sr Jasintha Mkandawire, which has created a hostel for 40 girls, otherwise excluded from school, and where FMSI has contributed towards the purchase of beds and mattresses. For our arrival they had put flowers everywhere and the girls greeted us with indescribable warmth. Their joy at being there was evident, despite the strong pressure (illustrated in a nice theatrical sketch) from their families to get married and leave their studies. A deep sadness filled us at the moment of parting. It was 5.30 and almost dark, everyone ran to eat quickly, because life stopped in a short time. There was no electric light, they could not study, they could not do anything! Dismay for a European at the people of the night…

We cannot but feel grateful for all the people encountered on this trip… How much is their work worth? The best reply seemed to us that of a refugee woman from Darfur “We had to leave everything…. The only thing we were able to carry with us was in our head: what we had learned, our instruction. Education is the only thing that cannot be taken away from us”.

For further information, see the project-schedule:

  1. LIKUNI
  2. SCHOLASTIC POLE OF MTENDERE (DEDZA)
  3. CHAMPAGNAT CENTRE
  4. MARIST SCHOOLS OF SOUTH MALAWI
  5. RUMPHI
  6. KATETE

http://www.fmsi-onlus.org

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