By Andrew Brown, UNICEF Malawi
The town of Mangochi sits at the southern tip of Lake Malawi. A bridge arches over the wide river that runs south from the lake. On the Mangochi side is a roundabout that circles a square brick clock tower from the colonial era, next to the white walls and colourful garden of the former governor’s mansion, now a hotel.
It’s mid-morning and the bridge and roundabout are busy with traffic. People push bicycles loaded up with goods coming from the border with Mozambique. Vendors line the roadside, shouting out the prices of their food and merchandise.
With a notepad in hand, 17-year-old Rehema Ahmad walks confidently into this mayhem. Together with her friend Rita and a cameraman, she approaches people in the street and asks them to record short ‘vox pop’ interviews for local radio about education.
“My name is Rehema and I’m from Youth Out Loud. Can I chat with you?” she asks an office worker, Prisca Mazinga. “Why do you think that education is important?”
“It’s important because you need to fend for yourself economically these days,” Prisca replies. “If you’re not educated then you can’t help yourself. You end up being in poverty. If you’re educated, you can get a good job or start a business.”
In just a few months, Rehema has grown from a quiet and softly-spoken girl, into a confident and outgoing adolescent. The change is partly due to her enrolment on a UNICEF-supported youth media programme, Youth Out Loud, which trains girls and boys from poor backgrounds in radio and print media production.
Rehema studies at Namwera Community Day Secondary School, where she is in Form 4. As well as being enrolled in Youth Out Loud, she receives a UNICEF scholarship. Rehema comes from Majuni Village in Mangochi district. The village sits on a ridge above a wide valley, alongside the main road to Mozambique. Small brick and mud houses cluster around a clearing with a large baobab tree, under which children play noisily.
Rehema’s mother passed away when she was very young. Her father moved to Mzuzu, a town in northern Malawi, for work, leaving Rehema with her grandmother Custom and a cousin. He calls her on the phone once a month and visits once a year.
In the past, Custom grew maize to provide income to the family, but she had to stop farming due to failing health and poor eyesight. The family now depends on the 5,000 kwacha (US $6.86) that Rehema’s father sends home each month.
Things got particularly bad in 2014, when Rehema was 14. The family couldn’t afford to pay for both food and school fees, so she dropped out of school. “I was staying home just because I was lacking fees,” Rehema recalls. “It was difficult for me because I really like to be educated. I felt like my goals had been blocked off and the world had ended.”
One day, Rehema was passing by school and her teacher saw her. “Mr Mugiwa called to me and asked why I wasn’t in school,” she says. “So I told him about the fees, and that I have no mother, only a father, and he does not have the money.”
Her teacher made some enquiries and later told Rehema that she had been selected for a UNICEF scholarship. “I was so very happy,” she remembers. “I was not expecting that news. I was thinking about my goals and that I will have a bright future again.”
“If I hadn’t been selected for the scholarship, it would have been hard for me. I could have ended up getting married. A lot of girls in this area from the Yao tribe are forced to get married early when they reach adolescence because of their problems. I was thinking that I could be one of them, but luckily I avoided it.”
UNICEF is working to keep children in schools, with a particular focus on adolescent girls. There are currently 27 students at Rehema’s school on UNICEF scholarships. Since 2013, these have been funded by the KIND Fund, a charity set up by American TV host Lawrence O’Donnell, which also provides desks for schools.
The scholarships provide girls from poor backgrounds with tuition fees, learning materials, school bags, uniforms and shoes. UNICEF is now working to expand the scholarships project into a National Trust Fund that the Malawi Government, private 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 acting Chief of Education 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.”
In 2017, UNICEF established the youth media programme Youth Out Loud. As part of this, UNICEF partner organisation Timveni is training 200 girls and boys from 33 schools in Mangochi District to produce radio, print and online stories about child rights issues in their communities.
“Youth media is a key way for children to use their right to a voice on issues that affect them,” Kimanzi continues. “It is not possible to claim rights without a voice. Children who are silenced cannot challenge violence and abuse. And the capacity to learn is restricted without the chance to question, challenge and debate.”
The UNICEF scholarship helped with the family’s financial problems, but Rehema still faces numerous challenges, including looking after her increasingly frail grandmother. Custom is unsure of her exact age but estimates it to be between 85 and 90.
“It’s very difficult living with my grandmother,” Rehema says. “She can’t find food for us and is too old to attend meetings at school. It’s hard for her to leave the village. It’s my responsibility to look after her because she is very old. I fetch water for her, cook for her, sweep and clean the house, and do the farming.”
Rehema also faces the challenge of travelling to school, which is several kilometres away from Majuni village. When she has money, she gets a minibus, but most days she has to walk three hours to school and back. “Sometimes I walk to school on an empty stomach,” she says. “I get to school very tired and find my friends have already started lessons.”
All of this is a big burden for a teenage girl. When Rehema talks about Youth Out Loud, her face lights up. But when she talks about home, she frowns and the stress and worry are plain to see.
Despite the challenges, Rehema is now one of the top students in her class. “My favourite subject is English,” she says. “I would like to go to University and be a nurse, so that I can be a role model for other girls who are facing challenges in my village.”
Somewhere in the world
Later, Raheema sits with her friend Rita in a small soundproofed studio at Radio Maria’s broadcasting station, in Mangochi. Speaking into an old-fashioned microphone, the two friends interview each other about the issues facing adolescents in their community.
“I joined the youth media programme because I like to inform people about what’s happening in our area,” Rehema says afterwards. “I’ve worked on stories about girls who dropped out of school because they were forced to get married. It’s really important because people will start to help our area and it will become more developed.”
For a girl weighed down with responsibilities, it’s also a chance to forget her worries and just have fun. “I really enjoyed it,” she says. “I’ve never been in a radio station before. I am very happy because people will hear my words and they will know that somewhere in the world, there is Rehema.”