By Lulutani Tembo, UNICEF Malawi
Rita is a bright 16-year-old who usually finishes in the top five of her class. She’s confident and outgoing, and laughs easily. Rita is approaching her final exams, and expected to do well. Sitting on a bench outside her classroom with a group of friends at break time, it is easy to imagine her having a bright future. But for Rita, her obvious potential was not always sure to be achieved. She comes from a very poor family, and without a scholarship, might not have finished school at all.
Namwera Community Day Secondary School is one of many government secondary schools that has girls on UNICEF scholarships, supported by the US-based KIND Fund. Located in a mountainous area of Mangochi, close to the border with Mozambique, the school has 30 girls who are on UNICEF scholarships, including Rita.
Now in Form 4, Rita Ngwira lives in Chiwina village., Her home is 4km away from the school, so she walks about 20 minutes to class every day.
Rita comes from a large family of five children with a single mother, Mercy Chinyumba. With two of Rita’s siblings also in secondary school, Mercy struggles to pay school fees for her children. Luckily, primary school education is free in Malawi, so Mercy doesn’t yet have to worry about paying the younger children’s schools fees.
Rita’s parents divorced when she was very young and her father moved to South Africa for work, a common practice in the area. Rita’s father does not provide any support to the family and her mother cannot afford to take care of all the children. Rita’s uncle (her mother’s brother) occasionally sends them money for food and clothes.
“Sometimes I go to school with an empty stomach, and I go back home after class without having eaten anything. There are times my family only has one meal a day,” says Rita.
A helping hand
With these challenges at home, Mercy struggled to pay school fees for Rita in her first year of secondary school. Initially, Rita’s teacher helped pay the fees for her first term. In her second term, Rita managed to pay school fees herself by taking a part-time job translating dictionaries from English to the local language, Yao.
Rita was determined to stay in school and the job allowed her to do this, but it also took up most of her free time, leaving her with little left to do homework or help her mother. Inevitably, her grades started to slip.
In her third term, UNICEF and the KIND Fund stepped in to pay Rita’s fees, allowing her to complete Form 1 and continue her studies.
“I am happy that I am on a scholarship, and it makes me feel good”, Rita says. “I felt a bit sorry for myself when I had to earn money for my own school fees. Life is also much easier now as I am better able to concentrate in class because resources for my education are available.”
UNICEF has provided scholarships to girls at secondary schools throughout Malawi since 2013. These are funded by the KIND Fund, a charity that was set up by American TV host Lawrence O’Donnell. Girls from poor backgrounds are supported with tuition fees, learning materials, school bags, uniforms and shoes. The charity also provides desks for primary schools in Malawi.
UNICEF is now working to expand the scholarships project into a National Trust Fund that the government, private sector companies and other donors can contribute to.
“Malawi is a developing country and over half the population are children, so they are the future of this country” UNICEF Education Specialist Kimanzi Muthengi says. “If they are well educated, this offers tremendous hope to lift millions of Malawians out of poverty. But if we fail this generation, the cycle of poverty will continue and worsen.”
Rita continues to thrive in school and in Form 3 finished fourth out of a class of 52. Her favourite subject is English and she aspires to be a doctor so she can help people who are sick.
Rita is also a participant in UNICEF’s youth media programme, Youth Out Loud. “I enjoy being a part of the youth media project because it has given me more confidence to speak publicly and an opportunity to express my feelings about the youth”, she says with passion. “When I get the chance to produce a radio show, I will speak about the challenges and solutions to the problems facing my community. These challenges include girls dropping out of school and marrying early, often due to teenage pregnancy”.
Rita’s mom is very proud of her daughter, who stands out from most of the girls in their community. Even though her daughter sometimes goes to school hungry, she continues to work hard and do well in school. Mercy was delighted when her daughter got the scholarship and she hopes that Rita has the chance to go to university.
“Once Rita is well educated, she will live a good life and can help improve her family’s life too,” Mercy says. “It is good that she continues to perform well and is headed on the right path, especially for a girl living in an area like this.”
On top of encouraging her daughter to work hard in school, Mercy celebrates when Rita finishes in the top 5 in her class. “I try to set an example for other girls in my community. I am a role model in my village, and some parents encourage their daughters to be like me because I work hard,” Rita explains enthusiastically.