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Monitor readers send six African girls to high school

By Abraham McLaughlinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 7, 2006

SURROUNDED BY BOYS: Alifisina Chiembwe (c) and Alena Sekani (r) take notes in their 9th grade Bible Knowledge class.

ABRAHAM MCLAUGHLIN

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CHITUKULA, MALAWI

Leaning intently forward in the front row of a classroom, Alifisina Chilembwe is perched on the metal frame of a bench (the wooden seat was taken out and sold). But she couldn't be more grateful to be here, soaking up the day's lessons. This Malawian teenager wants to be a lawyer. And thanks to the generosity of Monitor readers, she's a step closer to becoming one. Alifisina is one of six recipients of a scholarship funded by readers. After an article ran last July about a woman in Alifisina's village, 40 readers sent in some $6,000. If not for that money, the girls would be hoeing in their parents' fields all day or hauling buckets of water on their heads.

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Instead, the scholarship is opening new worlds. "I want to go to university and be a doctor," says another beneficiary, ninth-grader Efelo Sekani. "My parents are the happiest people in the village."

But all has not gone according to plan. In one case, the effort ran headlong into the cultural and economic realities - including witchcraft - that keep so many African girls out of school.

The story of these girls' connection to Monitor readers began when the Monitor profiled Selina Bonefesi, a feisty, industrious mom in rural Malawi. Like millions in Africa, her family was surviving on just one dollar a day. She'd spend 8 cents a week on tomatoes at the market, for instance, and scrimped to save $1.25 a week - but couldn't afford to send her oldest daughter, Anne, to high school.

Readers' response was intense. Many said they wanted to help Anne and other girls go to school. A scholarship was set up to enable all seven of the girls in the village who'd completed middle school to continue studying.

Then, in mid-January, when school begins here, four girls, including Alifisina and Efelo, loaded up their uniforms, blankets, and straw mats and walked several miles along a dirt road to a "self-boarding" high school - where students must live nearby but no dorms are provided. The girls moved into a one-room, concrete-floored house that the readers' fund is renting for $20 a month. The fund also pays for their food, about $7.50 per week per girl.

Only teachers have texts

By Western standards their school is rudimentary. Only teachers have textbooks. And roughly 30 teens crowd into each of the small brick classrooms.

On a recent afternoon, the Bible Knowledge class included historical lessons on Abraham and Jacob. Alifisina and Alena Sekani, another recipient, sat side by side taking notes.

The drop out rate is high - not because of a lack of ambition, but of funds. Of the 100 who showed up on the first day of ninth grade, teachers have had to chase away about 70 for nonpayment of fees. Annual tuition is just $29. But the school is stretched too thin, teachers say, to provide educational charity. The biggest need, teachers say, is for English textbooks and scientific calculators.

They also say the four scholarship girls are well-behaved, although it's too early to judge their academic strength.

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