Sarah aims to be Malawi’s first female brain surgeon

Sarah walking on the streets of Shangdong in China
© UNICEF China/2018/Jingie Yang

By Lulutani Tembo, UNICEF Malawi

It’s a cold day in Shandong, China. The skies are grey and the grass is far from green. Dressed in a heavy pink winter coat, Sarah Mvula walks through university campus on the way to her dormitory. She is a prospective medical student at Shandong University. It is a dream come true for her.

Just over a year ago, the 18-year-old was sat at home not knowing what her next step would be after scoring 6 points in her Malawi Secondary Certificate of Education examinations, the highest possible grade. She comes from a poor family, and their situation became worse when her father became mentally ill. Despite these challenges, Sarah still had dreams of going to study surgery at university.

“Since I was young, I wanted to study medicine. I also had hopes of studying in China, but I didn’t think it would happen,” says Sarah.

Sarah’s father had to quit his job in 2008 due to mental illness. Her mother had to take up the responsibility of caring for the family. Sarah’s grandfather, who is a pastor at a community church, stepped in to help with the little money he could give to help her continue her secondary education. Fortunately, the breakthrough for Sarah came when her headteacher at St. Michael’s Girls Secondary School surprised her with good news that she had been selected for a UNICEF scholarship. This was thanks to support from the US-based KIND Fund. MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell created the ground-breaking Fund with UNICEF in 2010 to support education in Malawi. Since then, the program has raised over $21 million for desks and girls’ scholarships thanks to TV station MSNBC and viewers of ‘The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell’.

About 50% of girls in Malawi complete primary school, but only a third of these make it to secondary school and only one in five graduates. Most students fail to access secondary education because of the associated costs of secondary education. To address this, the KIND Fund has been supporting scholarships in Malawi since 2013. Since tuition fees was removed by the government in 2018, the scholarship helps with other school related costs, accommodation costs, learning materials, school bags, uniforms, sanitary pads and school shoes. This lifts the burden off parents who struggle to provide these necessities. In 2018, the first cohort of scholars supported by the KIND Fund graduated from secondary school and some like Sarah are now at University.

 “The UNICEF scholarship took care of my school fees,” Sarah says. “I was overwhelmed because before that it was a downward spiral and I didn’t know what was going to happen to me. After hearing that they were going to pay my school fees I was extremely happy. I studied hard in school and was the best student.”

Sarah at her home Mchezi in rural Lilongwe
© UNICEF Malawi/2018/Lulutani Tembo

A new chapter in China

After a rollercoaster ride in secondary school, Sarah is now in China. Her cousin helped her to apply for a Chinese Government Scholarship that sponsors tertiary education. The embassy called her to let her know that she has been selected for the scholarship. She is now on the road to realizing her dream of becoming a brain surgeon. In the first year of studying in China, foreign students are required to study Chinese. Sarah is enjoying the challenge.

“When I was in Malawi, I thought it was difficult to study Chinese. After coming here, I realized that as long as you are working hard, and you have that passion for Chinese, it’s not that difficult,” Sarah explains. “Now the teachers only speak to us in Chinese and not English, but we can understand it”.

For Sarah, life in China is great. She is enjoying the weather and has made some new friends from different countries. Sarah is experiencing new things, though she misses the staple food in Malawi, nsima. “I also miss my family back home and the way we used to spend time together,“ she explains. “The greatest difference between China and Malawi is the weather. It’s really cold here, I have never experienced this coldness before. But it’s good.”

Now Sarah spends her days in class and working on assignments. Most days, she wakes up at 5:30 am to study for an hour. Then she goes to class at 8 am for lessons, and finish classes a 4.30 pm with short breaks in between. The classrooms are very modern, with projector screens and comfortable chairs.  It’s a big change from the basic facilities she was used to at school in Malawi. She also has a pleasant dormitory room that she shares with a roommate, also from Malawi. It has a laptop and a desk where she works hard to do her homework in the evening.

Sarah’s teacher at Shandong University, Fang Xue, says her performance is exceptional. She does well in class, in exams and completes all her homework. “Sarah is very active in class, and always helps her classmates,” says Fang Xue. “As teachers, we also know that foreign students have some challenges in their life. We help them to share their challenges through the class WeChat group, and our staff keep close contact with them to offer any assistance.”

When Sarah graduates, she wants to go back to Malawi to make use of her skills. Her biggest motivation is that the country doesn’t currently have a female brain surgeon. “When I graduate, I want to go back to Malawi to help in Malawi hospitals,” she says. “I want to do brain surgery because there is no brain  [female] surgeon in Malawi. I want to be the first one. These days a lot of people are getting brain tumors and brain cancer because of different things. They need help.”

A form 3 class in session at St. Michaels Girls Secondary School in Mangochi
© UNICEF Malawi/2017/Eldson Chagara

UNICEF’s support to secondary education in Malawi

To build on the KIND Fund programme, UNICEF has launched Funo Langa, a fundraising campaign for the newly-established Secondary Education Trust. This brings together existing bursary schemes run by UNICEF, the Government and others, and allows Malawian companies, individuals and expatriates to donate, increasing the number of scholarships for both girls and boys. 

“Malawi is a developing country and over half the population are children, so they are the future of this country,” UNICEF Chief of Education Kimanzi Muthengi says. “Last year, with funding from the KIND Fund, UNICEF supported government in supporting over 5,500 girls with scholarships. We hope that Funo Langa will take us a step closer to affordable secondary education for all children in the country. This offers tremendous hope for a brighter future for Malawi.”

Sarah is thrilled with UNICEF’s contribution to education in Malawi. “UNICEF is a good organization and is helping a lot of children in Malawi in different areas, especially with education,” she says. “They help many students at my former school. I am proud of UNICEF because it made it possible for me to come here. If they didn’t help with my fees, I could’ve dropped out of school.”

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