By Lulutani Tembo, UNICEF Malawi
Having a secondary school bursary is something that most girls in Malawi dream of. In a country where poverty rates are high, many girls fail to finish secondary school. Ellen Rajab, who studies at Mpondasi Community Day Secondary School, is one of the lucky ones. She is a confident, outgoing girl. As she sits on the white sandy beach by the side of the Shire River on a sunny afternoon, she enthusiastically explains how far she has come.
Ellen is a bright student at school. She is in Form 3 and ranked fourth in her class of 108 students. Her favourite subject is English. Last term, she was selected to take part in Youth Out Loud, a UNICEF-supported youth media programme that trains children as journalists. The students produce shows for local radio and write articles about children’s issues in their communities.
“I enjoy Youth Out Loud very much,” Ellen says. “I’ve learned how to interview people and have written stories about the reasons why kids are not going to school. Some children have to go fishing to provide for their families. They go out on the lake all night, and in the morning, they are too tired to go to school. Youth Out Loud has also inspired girls who dropped out of our school to come back to school. They want to be a part of the programme too.”
The 15-year-old comes from Mwachanda village in Mangochi. She is the third of five children. Her parents don’t have regular work. Instead, they do ‘piece work’ in people’s fields. They are not able to take care of all their children, so Ellen lives with her grandmother.
“I did well in primary school and was selected to go to secondary school. However, when I started secondary school, my family struggled to pay for my uniform and school fees,” she says. “My mother decided I should move to my grandmother’s house. We get along well and I help her out at home. At 75, my grandmother is still farming, so she’s able to assist with some of my school needs. It lifts the weight from my parents to have me at my granny’s house”.
Ellen’s school is still far from her grandmother’s home and she would walk 30-40 minutes each day when going to school. When she was in Form 1, she was sent home for not being to pay school fees. She remained at home for about three weeks.
“The situation was not good. I missed many lessons. I tried to keep up with the workload by borrowing notes from my friends. During the day, I worked in the farm fields with my mum,” Ellen explains.
With all the challenges her family faces, Ellen was happy when she was called to school by the headteacher to discuss her situation. He told her that she had been selected for UNICEF scholarship.
“I was very happy when I heard the good news because I knew it would now be easy for me to proceed with my education,” Ellen says. “My life changed from that point”.
The UNICEF scholarships are funded by 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’. Girls from poor backgrounds are supported with tuition fees, learning materials, school bags, uniforms, sanitary pads, and shoes.
To build on this, 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, over 5,500 girls were supported with UNICEF scholarships through the KIND Fund. We hope that Funo Langa will take us a step closer to affordable secondary education for all children in the country.”
Hopes of becoming a journalist
In November 2018, Ellen had the chance to meet Lawrence O’Donnell when she produced a radio show about his visit to Malawi when he delivered desks to Mchoka Primary School in Mangochi. About 250 desks were delivered and the students at the school were thrilled to receive the desks. They sang songs, clapped and danced as they took the desks down from the truck and transferred them to their classrooms.
When the desks were assembled, the younger children rushed to sit on their new desks and continued their learning for the day. After the desk delivery, Ellen sat in the radio booth at Radio Lilanguka to ask Lawrence more questions about his assistance to children in Malawi. It was also a great opportunity to practice her journalism skills.
The Youth Out Loud experience also has inspired Ellen to become a journalist when she finishes school. “I want to write more stories about children in Mangochi and about issues like teenage pregnancy and child marriage,” she says. “This is very common in this area. I don’t want that to happen to me. I want to go to university and start work before I get married. I want to be independent.”
Overall, Ellen says her life has been much better since receiving the scholarship. “The main difference is that now I can board at the school during term time,” she says. “I used to get very tired. Once I had walked home and helped my grandmother around the house, I was too tired to study. Now I have all the time I need to study.”