Hidden in a rural and poverty stricken area 30 kilometres north west of Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, is a Canadian sponsored secondary school, which is transforming the lives of orphans and other vulnerable girls. Atsikana Pa Ulendo Girls Secondary School started humbly in 2008 with makeshift structures. It is slowly but surely becoming an “Eton” of Malawi.
At inception students used to attend classes seated on the floor. There was no running water, electricity and no science laboratory.
Today, the school boasts picturesque classrooms, hostels and a multi-purpose hall, replete with running water and electricity. There is a well-stocked library and laboratory.
“Atsikana Pa Ulendo has really transformed my life,” says Blandina Fransisco, one of the girls that has completed secondary education there. “Some of my age mates have two children. Others have three. But education is the only best thing for me,” adds Blandina, whose parents could not afford to send her to a paying secondary school.
Parents or relatives of the students show commitment by contributing a portion of maize and beans for meals. The school provides the other necessities including uniform. Christie Johnson, a Canadian who once worked as a volunteer teacher in Malawi 12 years ago, raises funds in her country to subsidize the girls’ education.
The school’s mission is “to provide high quality education to girls from the rural areas of Malawi who would be otherwise unable to continue with their education beyond primary school, due to a lack of financial support.”
Christie, who has undoubtedly shown passion for a Malawian girl child, first met the school’s director Memory Mdyetseni 12 years ago. Memory had just completed her secondary education and volunteered to teach the local language and Bible Knowledge at the school Christie was. She could not pursue tertiary education because she had lost both parents.
The school, which offered free education to needy girls, eventually closed down because of lack of funding.
“Both of us had the same desire of opening a secondary school to offer Malawian needy girls high quality education,” says Christie.
She raised money in Canada for Memory’s university education and soon after her graduation with a Bachelor’s degree in education Memory convinced her benefactor it was time they achieved their dream.
In January 2008 a Canadian and Malawi flag were raised to mark the official opening of the school, targeting intelligent orphans and other vulnerable girls.
Playing a model, the school’s director has been able to convince the girls that they are capable of becoming what they desire, if only they set goals and seriously work towards achieving them. This explains why the school has not had cases of vandalism as is the case at many schools in the country.
It also came as no surprise a few months ago that the school managed to achieve a 94 percent pass rate in the 2011 Malawi School Certificate Examinations (MSCE). The national pass rate was at 54 percent. The school expects that some of its students would make it to the University of Malawi.
“It is even more remarkable when you take in to account the fact that in general, girls in Malawi, particularly those attending rural schools, have a much lower pass rate than boys. Most of our students come from a background of extreme poverty and many of them are orphans,” reads the schools newsletter.
The board of trustees, mindful of the fact that qualified teachers are scarce in rural schools, has ambitions to increase the number of teachers’ houses on campus and improve their working environment.
There are four hostels. Another one is expected to be completed this year alongside a teachers’ training college.
“This is a brick by brick project so we are still very much in need of funds for constructions of the additional buildings,” says Christie adding that the teachers’ training college would provide an opportunity for tertiary education to deserving girls who fail to enter the University of Malawi.
Three girls from the first intake are in Canada pursuing a two year diploma course in early childhood education, courtesy of Canadian well wishers.
Christie give talks to students, members of Rotary Clubs and other charity organizations in Canada to highlight the plight of Malawian girls, most of whom are unable to pursue education to secondary school level, let alone university. The money she raises pays for the girls’ tuition and boarding fees.
“Working hand in hand with Memory I have come to understand how hard girls in Malawi have to work to overcome the many obstacles that keep them from completing their education. Poverty, famine, pressure to enter into early marriages, teasing from boys in class and sometimes even abuse from their own teachers, keeps them from reaching their full potential and having a bright future,” said Christie during the official opening of the school in 2008.
Also known as Girls on the Move, the school has created space for few fee paying students as a way of reducing its dependence on donations.