Against the odds, Sarah achieves her dream of finishing secondary school
By Lulutani Tembo, UNICEF Malawi
Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi is the hub of government business, embassies and international organisations. Yet as you drive further out of the city, you come across rural areas where families are struggling to make ends meet. The challenges for people living in those areas are many, including insufficient food and no money to finance their children’s education.
In Malawi, only 58.5 % of school going children finish the first four years of school, while the average national dropout rate is around 10.5%. Across the country and at all levels girls are at higher risk of dropping out of school than boys.
The statistics are daunting but there are stories of hope. Seventeen year old Sarah Mvula is one of many Malawian girls who stumbled upon obstacles in completing her secondary school education. Fortunately for her, she was able to finish school and attain her Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) because of a scholarship she received from UNICEF, supported by the KIND Fund.
The scholarship was given to her when she started Form 4, and she went on to achieve an outstanding 6 points, the highest score a student can receive in their MCSE examinations. Sarah’s achievements are even greater when she tells her story and what she had to overcome to be so successful in school.
Sarah is the first of her mother’s three children. While Sarah was in primary school, life for her family was comfortable as her father had a fairly decent job at the National Statistics Office in the south eastern city of Zomba. This all changed in 2008 when he had to quit his job due to mental illness. Sarah’s mother then had to take up the responsibility of caring for the family.
They moved to her maternal grandparent’s home in Nchenzi village on Salima road in the outskirts of Lilongwe. Moving to her grandparents’ home may have been a blessing in disguise. Sarah successfully completed primary school and got selected to St. Michael’s Girls Secondary School in Mangochi. Her grandfather who is a pastor at their community church, stepped in to help with the little money he could give to make sure his granddaughter continued her secondary education.
A turbulent journey
While Sarah started Form One at St. Michaels, the financial assistance from her grandparents and uncle only managed to get her through the first term. Her mother, who sold sweet potatoes for a living, wanted to help but her sales were not enough to support Sarah through school. With no money to pay school fees, Sarah informed the head mistress of the school that she could not continue the school year.
“Since I was getting good grades in class the headmistress told me to continue my studies even though my family could not pay my fees,” Sarah explains. “The headmistress encouraged me and told me that she will find a bursary for me to help me stay in school.”
Sarah continued her studies through the kindness of the head teacher. Her mother was sometimes embarrassed by the situation and felt ashamed to send Sarah to school with nothing.
“I sometimes felt embarrassed that the only thing I could do was put my daughter on a bus to go to school,” her mother explains. Similarly, regardless of Sarah’s hard work and good grades, there were times her situation would negatively affect her. “I used to worry a lot and sometimes my performance in class would decline,” describes Sarah. “I felt hopeless every time my family could not pay my fees.”
Light at the end of the tunnel
With the support of her headmaster, Sarah made it to Form 4 and it was in this crucial academic year when she finally received the much anticipated scholarship from UNICEF, sponsored by the KIND Fund. Sarah and her mother were ecstatic.
“When my daughter got the scholarship I was so happy because I thought my daughter would end up with the same fate as me, not being able to complete secondary school because of financial problems”, says Sarah’s mother with a broad smile on her face”.
For Sarah the scholarship was a massive motivator. During the academic year when she was set to write her MSCE exams she worked even harder and finished first in her class every term since receiving the scholarship. She was dead set on achieving her goals. “I put together a study timetable and had late nights studying until 11pm, and woke up at 4am to study some more,” Sarah explains.
In the end she was able to enjoy the fruits of the hard work because the outcome of her Form 4 MSCE examinations was an exceptional six distinctions. Her mother was so overcome with joy that her blood pressure shot up and she was admitted in hospital for two days!
UNICEF offers scholarships to girls in Malawi, with support from the KIND Fund. The KIND Fund is a charity that was set up by an American TV host, Lawrence O’Donnell. KIND provides desks for primary schools in Malawi as well as scholarships for adolescent girls. In addition to covering tuition fees, the scholarship provides school supplies for the students, such as uniforms, school shoes, notebooks, stationery and school bags, which ultimately lifts the burden off parents who in most cases struggle to provide these school necessities.
Optimism for the future
Sarah was the first St. Michael’s student in 7 years to achieve six points. “I feel proud about my results and I am optimistic about my future,” she reveals with enthusiasm.
While this is a remarkable achievement, Sarah knows that going to university is the next big step she has to take, especially if she wants to realise her dream of becoming a doctor. “I would like to study at the College of Medicine (University of Malawi) with ambitions of being a doctor specialising in surgery”, Sarah explains.
The University of Malawi, is one of the tertiary institutions that Sarah has applied to, though she also has plans to apply for scholarships in countries such as Canada and the United States. The seventeen-year-old is hopeful that some financial assistance will come through to pay for her tertiary education.
For the time being Sarah is not letting the lack of finances for university get to her. The St. Michael’s alumna is working part time at a primary school in Area 36 in Lilongwe, where she now resides with her aunt. “Instead of just sitting at home, I teach Chichewa, English and Maths to young students at Blessings Primary School,” Sarah says. “I earn 17,000 kwacha per month from the part-time teaching that I do.”
Sarah’s advice to other children and youth in Malawi is to always remember that anything in life is possible. She is extremely grateful to the KIND Fund for their support in helping her complete her studies and hopes their support will continue to benefit girls in Malawi.
“I want the KIND Fund to continue to help girls and children in Malawi, especially girls at Community Day Secondary Schools (CDSS’s) who are facing lots of challenges,” Sarah appeals. “Many of these girls are capable of getting six points like I did.”
You can also watch a video of Sarah on YouTube: https://youtu.be/SukztggKLts