Monitor readers send six African girls to high school

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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

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.

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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.

Meals that include meat

The girls' quality of life has clearly improved. "Now that we're away from our parents, we have more time to study," says Efelo, who tells of having to do chores almost all the time at home. The food is better, too. At home they got only cornmeal and vegetables. "Now," she says with a wide smile, "we get meat."

About 30 miles away, in Malawi's capital of Lilongwe, a fifth girl from the village, Matilda Chakaka, attends one of the country's top all-girls boarding schools. Here many students have textbooks and most teachers have graduate degrees. Matilda attended this school last year - but was going to have to stop because her parents were out of money. Annual tuition is $89.

Even at this elite school, though, career options are limited. Last year just 12 of 100 senior girls scored high enough on national exams to go to university. Matilda is ranked 25 of 137 in her class, so she's likely to go on to a trade college where she could learn to be an electrician or bricklayer or secretary or carpet layer. Unlike many other girls her age, she doesn't want to get married, she says in a quiet but firm voice, "until I have a job and I make lots of money."

In all, $517 of readers' contributions has been spent. The plan is to budget the money to enable all the girls to complete high school. Through an arrangement made by The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston (which publishes this newspaper) and CARE, an international aid group, the project is being managed by Ulemu Chiluzi. He's a staff member in CARE's Malawi office but is volunteering his own time on this project - about 10 hours a week. The money is being held in a CARE account.

Mr. Chiluzi also consults regularly by phone with Xanthe Scharff, who wrote the original Monitor story and is a student at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, near Boston. Together, with a committee of 12 people in the village, they are managing the funds.

But it's often complicated.

One of the seven eligible girls for the scholarship, for instance, got pregnant and couldn't go to school.

Then there's the problem of hunger. Roughly 5 million of Malawi's 12 million people are hungry - and anxiously awaiting April's harvest.

None of the 12 volunteers on the village scholarship committee, for instance, has had a full meal in several months. A banana or two and a mouthful of cornmeal might be all they eat in one day. They recently asked CARE's Chiluzi for a small stipend to compensate for all their committee work. "We are not demanding a fee, it's just that we are hungry" says Vice Chairman Sofina Kasitomu, adding, "We want to thank the people in America" for what they've sent.

Chiluzi and Ms. Scharff are discussing a plan to set up a micro-loan for committee members - one that doesn't use the money readers have already sent.

Hunger alters priorities

Hunger is also probably a factor in the saga of the seventh village girl, Anne, the daughter of Mrs. Bonefesi, the subject of the original Monitor story.

Anne attended only the first day of class - and then stopped going. The reasons are not completely clear.

Anne is buoyant 15-year-old with a moon-like face and warm eyes. She has - or had - a boyfriend who showered her with presents, including a new skirt and hand-and-body lotion. The boy may also have given gifts or money to Anne's parents, who probably were willing to accept it because of their hunger. (Bonefesi says the hunger crisis has depleted her savings account to just $2.) But there was a catch: The boyfriend wanted Anne to marry him - and not go to school. She'd be tending house and bearing children.

During tough times in Africa, girls are the first to leave school. A recent UN study of eight African nations found an average of only 73 girls in school for every 100 boys. Girls are often seen as providers of manual labor - not potential breadwinners. When families are forced by limited finances to choose which child will be schooled, it's usually a boy - as he's likely to develop more earning power to help his family.

Sometimes it's about more than just economics. In Anne's case, there was witchcraft - or at least the threat of it.

Before school began, Anne's parents say, the girl's grandmother began pressuring them not to let her go to high school. The grandmother feared the boyfriend "would go have a spell" cast on Anne - and that "Anne wouldn't be able to conceive," explains Anne's father, Bonefesi Malema.

But beyond this threat, both Anne's parents and grandparents also stood to gain from Anne getting married: The boyfriend would probably continue to provide gifts or food. So Chiluzi suspects both the parents and grandparents were against Anne going to school - but the parents didn't want to admit it to this reporter. "It's our culture to beat around the bush," says Chiluzi. "This is a culture that believes in witchcraft," he explains, and people will often say anything to avoid confrontations that could lead to the casting of spells.

Eventually Anne's father persuaded the boy to let Anne go to school for now - and get married later.

So, Anne is back in the classroom. But Chiluzi isn't confident she'll stay very long. He's trying to find another school for her and the other girls - one that's farther away from the village and its family complications.

Anne, with a new pencil stuck into her afro for safekeeping, says she wants to stay in school. "If you get married, you could get divorced" and then you have no future, she says. School, she adds, "is where you make the future."

How to help To contribute materials such as textbooks, magazines, or scientific calculators to the girls' schools, send them to:

Bowa Advancement of Girls Education Project
c/o Ulemu Chiluzi
CARE Malawi
Private Bag A89
Lilongwe
Malawi

Financial contributions may be sent to:
The Monitor Readers' Bowa Fund
Treasurer's Department, A10-01
The First Church of Christ, Scientist
175 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115

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