For Malawi girls, high school is only the first hurdle

A small group of girls funded largely by Monitor readers aims to make the most of their opportunity.

Matilda Chakaka is about to become the first girl from her village to finish high school. Her usually serious face breaks into a quick, shy smile. "I am better in biology than my parents and also better in math." She considers. "And in reading, too. Even that."

Two years ago, following a story in the Monitor about what it's like to live on $1 a day in the rural Malawian village of Bowa, readers wrote in asking how they could help. Within days, 20 readers contributed $1,500, and a small fund was soon set up to send a few of the village's girls to secondary [high] school. This fall, the first of those girls – Matilda – is scheduled to graduate.

The project spawned a small aid group unaffiliated with the Monitor that has hundreds of supporters and ambitious plans to double donations by next year. Today, the Advancement of Girls Education Fund (AGE) has a new executive director, an advisory board, four volunteers, and, with the help of a local Malawian partner group, it is sending 17 girls to school, five of them from Bowa.

"Children should be in school, they should be exploring," says Marisol Pérez, an education team leader for the US Agency for International Development in Malawi. "And whether it's USAID, large private foundations, or a small [nongovernmental organization] like AGE – they are all addressing real needs and it all helps."

In 1994, primary education in Malawi became essentially free, but secondary school tuition still costs about $200 a year, putting it out of reach of the average Malawian, who lives on less than $160 per year.

Moreover, the gender gap remains high, with those who can afford to send a child to secondary school typically choosing to send sons, who, it is believed, will later have higher earning power.

Twenty percent of Malawian boys graduate from secondary school, while only 11 percent of the country's girls do, according to the Malawian statistics office.

AGE estimates it costs about $725 a year to send a girl to secondary school, taking into account books, school and personal supplies uniforms, and pocket money.

To raise the money for these scholarships, AGE has so far relied on small independent donations – $20 here, $40 there – to keep going.

It's not an easy system to sustain, and it's unclear whether AGE will be able to take more scholars into the program come the new term.

But those involved are planning new fundraising efforts and grant applications. They are ambitious to remain independent and even expand. "We make sure to keep our overheads low," says Sarah Lamce, AGE's volunteer operations director. "And we are focused on these girls, each and every one."

Secondary school is difficult

Matilda was a top student in the Bowa village primary school – but secondary school has proved a challenge. She goes to the Lilongwe Girls Secondary School in the capital – a sprawling institution with rundown classrooms and long, dim dorm rooms in which 30 or so girls sleep side by side, doing homework, snacking and gossiping all sitting cross-legged on their beds.

"I would like to go to Bunda College of Agriculture next year," her best school friend Mercy Chaonaine, a tall, outgoing girl, says. "Me too," echoes Matilda.

But later, the C-plus student admits she is not sure she will get in anywhere and has no idea what she wants to study anyway.

"My ambition was to be a doctor but I have difficulties in mathematics and physical sciences so I have changed my ambitions," she says.

She could be a "manageress" she mumbles, "… of human resources..." Her voice trails off. "I don't know much about it."

It's quite possible that Matilda will return to Bowa, help her parents and four siblings with their small subsistence corn and tobacco farming, and get married. She is not enthused. "I don't really like going home anymore," she admits. "I don't like the hard work. And it's boring."

Matilda reflects on her future prospects and allows herself a little teenage sigh of despair. "I think my education will not help me back in Bowa," she announces. "I will not be any better than someone who has not gone to school."

The elder women of Bowa understand her sentiments – but beg to differ.

"There is no opportunity for her here, that is true," acknowledges Fanis Chakaka, Matilda's mother.

The elder Chakaka, a red woolen hat pulled down over her brow, her face, just like her daughter's, a study in seriousness, speaks slowly: "But you get other things from school. You become smarter about everything."

USAID's Ms. Pérez concurs. "Education is a means not only to further education but also to a better life," she argues. Indeed, studies find that the more education girls get, the later they marry, the fewer children they have, and the healthier their lives are.

"If you have an education you have a small chance to move ahead. If you don't, you have no chance at all," says Selina Bonefesi, the Bowa villager who was the focus of the original Monitor story. "I know clerks at the airport, and policemen and some others…. I am not sure what they do, but we see them going to offices, and that is very good," she says. All of them, she notes, have some secondary school experience.

Ms. Bonefesi, who earns a net income of about $38 a month running a home-based doughnut business, is convinced that, if she had a secondary education, she would have opened a little doughnut store by now. "All of us wish we could go backwards and go to school," she says.

That said, her own daughter Anne, one of the original AGE scholarship recipients, dropped out of school to get married. "I regret she did, but that's what happened," Bonefesi says simply.

"We were disappointed that Anne would not continue on to secondary school, yet we are not unduly discouraged," says Xanthe Scharff, AGE's founder. "No one can take away from Anne the year that she was at the center of her own universe and not on the periphery of someone else's."

'The happiest time'

Dyna Tambala is the young wife of Bowa's schoolmaster who attended – but did not graduate from – secondary school. Up until now, she has been the most educated female in the village. "They teach you so many things in school, but I did not learn enough about marriage and babies there," she explains without irony. Mrs. Tambala dropped out of school when she became pregnant at 15, and today has four kids.

"Secondary school was the happiest time of my life," says the schoolmaster's wife, putting her thin hand over her heart. "You learn about how the country works and about the world."

Her best subject was English, and although she gets no practice, Tambala remains almost fluent. "I can go to England where there are people who only speak English and be fine," she boasts.

She has not, however, even been to Blantyre, never mind Britain.

A passing dust storm whirls through the village, and Tambala – a baby tied to her back, another clutching her hand – scurries behind a hut.

She wishes someone had helped her finish school, she says, wistfully, as she takes cover. "Who knows," she says, "what could have been."

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