I took a gap year after leaving school to earn money and go travelling. After working at a bar and supermarket for 4 months I had earned enough money to go to Australia and New Zealand. I explored both countries for a total of 2 months and on returning to England in February felt I had achieved my travelling fix, but something was missing.
My friend, Jess, had been out in Malawi since January volunteering in a hospital. She was living with another volunteer in a house in the village, Mtunthama, Kasungu. The other girl had found volunteering too difficult and so decided to leave. Jess was living by herself and started to get lonely. So, one of the local girls moved in with her. However, there was now a voluntary spot vacant at the local primary school. So, Jess asked if I would like to fly out and take the teaching position.
I quickly found myself a job at the local pub in Limehouse, London, to pay for the ticket there, apart from that, living expenses, I was told, would be ‘very cheap’.
Jess was right. We spent about £8 per week on groceries between us. With our spare pocket money, we bought chitenges (large pieces of colourful, traditional East African material that are wrapped around your clothes) so that we would blend into the community as much as possible. This way we also made sure our skin was covered, both for modesty and for protection against the hot sun.
Image: chitenges on sale at the local market in Mtunthama.
We also bought alcohol. This was one of the ways we bonded with local people our own age. We usually drank Chibuku (locally brewed beer) and shared it with Michael and his friends. Michael became Jess’ boyfriend and I have interviewed him, nearly three years since our trip to Malawi, to ask him about his experiences with education.
Image: Me (dressed in a hand-made, traditional dress made of chitenge) and Michael, about to attend a local birthday party.
Do you believe that access to education is a human right? If so, why?
‘Everyone should have a right to education. That means we have access to university. Education is the key to success. If you get it, then you are able to get jobs. Then we are free with this world. Because this world needs those people. Without education you can’t be a good leader. That’s what we want in Malawi.’
Do you think donations are helping education flourish in Malawi?
‘Yes, a lot. There are lots of organisations in Malawi that are sponsoring education, without that from other countries we will not have good education. I remember, the time Jess was asking me about school, she was asking me what my goal was, what I want to do in life, all I said was I want education. That was because I know education is good. The sponsorship we have from people and organisations, without that we cannot afford education, because our country is poor. Those people that are poor are not going to pay for their children to go to school.’
What else do you think countries like Britain could do to help countries like Malawi improve education?
‘Firstly, they should enforce our laws and change our systems. America is leading us, they should force our government to change our laws. There is a quota System, which means we have government investors in Malawi, and they can only choose a few people to go to university. They only take a few students that have done well from each and every region in Malawi. For example, in Kasungu, we have lots of Sunday schools, they would only take 30 people. We have lots of children that have done well. But what about the others? They only take 30. The problem is we only have a few universities. I have seen lots of friends in Mtunthama that have nothing to do because they didn’t get into university. They end up doing bad things. They smoke Marijuana. In Malawi, smoking weed is not good behaviour. In Britain it is different. If you smoke Marijuana in Malawi is shows you are uneducated. We are told it is not good for your body. Even people that are educated smoke, but they are not addicted like people not at university.
‘People on the streets here are lacking education. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in Africa. Why? Because of education. People aren’t told they can do something new, because they can’t get education. There is a big gap between rich and poor people. Even if people did well at school, they are unable to go to university because of lack of money. So, they only take a few people. What about other people that have done well? They can’t take other people that have done well. They force our government to enforce laws on our students. We should have loans from the government that we pay back later. We don’t have loans yet. Only a few people can get loans. It’s not full on. They only sponsor a few people. That’s a problem. They should bring more sponsors from Britain! They should bring in more organisations for education.’
Do you think people in Malawi appreciate education?
‘There are only a few people that appreciate it are rich. But people who are not rich, it is a problem for them. There are only a few universities, we need more. It would be easier to get into university if there were more universities.’
How expensive is university in Malawi?
‘At my college, including accommodation, food, books, and everything it can get to 1 million kwacha per semester [approximately £1,000]. But I am a day scholar, so it is not as expensive. It reaches 1 million when you are boarding there. I have seen people chased away from university because they haven’t got the money. They say, “don’t come again because you don’t have the money.” If they don’t get sponsorship they stay with their parents and then they are forced to leave and get married. Then they find jobs in farms. In Kasungu it is Tobacco. There are also tea farms or maize. Even now they end up being thieves because they have nothing to do. I remember some guys at the orphanage, they didn’t get a sponsorship, so two of them got married and just stayed with their family on farms and going around trying to find a job so they can help their family. In town here, some guys ask jobs for landscaping, like a gardener. It’s not a lot of money. But you can’t even help your family for that amount of money. They just get like 20,000 kwacha, that’s £2 per month. What if you are staying with your wife and two children? That can’t be enough.’
What do you study at university? How long have you been studying there for? How long have you got left at university?
‘I study journalism as a minor and my major Christian education. I want to be a teacher. Africa Bible College is my college. We have poor education in Malawi, so I want to motivate lots of people to go to school. 3 years I have been studying at college. It’s nice, I didn’t expect that, but it’s a lot of work. I think after this I will be able to find a job, that’s what I’m happy for. It’s not just finding a job being a teacher, college has opened my mind. Maybe I can do business, I can do anything. Before I wasn’t funded, I was limited. Now, I feel I can manage these things because of college. Lack of employment means even after college some people struggle to find jobs. But at least, you are open minded. You know what you can next. You feel you can do anything. You wouldn’t have that feeling without college. College has opened my mind. I can start a business or anything. Maybe I’ll be a businessman!
‘All the time I think of buying crops and selling them to different companies, like tobacco and maize. Buy from the villagers and sell to the companies. All the time I think about business. There are people in Malawi doing good, and those are business people. I didn’t expect college to be the way I find it. They want to train us to be a good teacher or businessman but with Christianity inside us. That way, people will trust us. Because people are religious in Malawi. Then, people will trust us, and we will do work in the correct way.’
Where are you living at the moment?
‘I am renting a small house. I live alone in Lilongwe. I pay 30,000 kwacha. My college is located in a place where people have lots of money. The houses here are big. The houses are beautiful, and things are very expensive here. Even the MP and ministers are living in these areas. This is where I am living now.’
You don’t want to be an MP?
‘No, I don’t want to get in politics. There is so much corruption. I don’t want to be involved in that.’
Where do charitable donations to Malawi go? Do they get seized by the government at customs or do they go where they are supposed to?
‘It’s a very big problem. Most of the donations are being seized by the government. Our government is very corrupt. The government are wasting donations from different countries.’
Do you feel you have learnt things at university that you couldn’t have learnt anywhere else? If so, has university been fulfilling for you?
‘Today, I was learning about human resources and management. They teach about business admin. They explain how to manage children as a teacher, how you can be a good teacher. Seriously, I have learnt a lot. I now have a lot of things in my mind, there are lots of things I can do. Yes, I have to start working then I can manage it. I just know things, but I have to practise them. Lots of people know things but they can’t manage them.’
If you didn’t have help from Jess do you think you would have been able to attend university in Malawi?
‘100% no. She is helping me a lot. I could not have gone further with my education without her. Many times I think… I am speechless. I am so grateful. That I have that opportunity. So, I can proceed with my education.’
To put this into context, Jess lent Michael some money to buy some bails of Tobacco to sell at market. From the profit he was able to pay for his first term of tuition. After this, Jess sold donated electronics at car boot sales and did other fund raisers to send money over to him to help him pay for his tuition. This was done with the intention to not simply give him the money with charity in mind, but rather inspire industriousness and treat him as a friend. In the future, when Michael gets a job, he hopes to pay Jess back for her kindness over the years.
Image: Michael, Jess, and I at the Culture Club, Kasungu.
When you finish university, where do you hope to go? Do you want to stay in Malawi, or find work elsewhere?
‘I want to stay in Malawi. I want to help people. I want people to understand the importance of education and more children go to school. That way, we can have our own companies in Malawi. We will have things that mean people from other countries come and think wow.’
Do you not want to move to South Africa anymore?
‘That was because of lack of education. What about Malawi? Who is going to live in Malawi? Who is going to improve education in Malawi? That’s what I want to do. If you are moving away from Malawi after you are educated, who is going to help Malawi?’
It seems like you know what you want now?
‘After this college, I know I think I could have missed a lot if I didn’t go ahead with my education. There are lots of people that have money. The village is poor, but the money I see in the place I live now has shown me that if I work hard I will have money to buy a house like this. I have seen what is available to me because of education. I want to go back to the village and tell them about my journey, so more people are suffering for the education I want to sponsor them when I have money to support them to get an education too. I want to help people like I was helped. I want to tell them that it happened for me, so I can be an example for them. In Malawi, there is a problem because the people with money just think about themselves. But, people in the villages don’t have money. What if you can improve education in the villages then we can see a way forward? That is what I want. One day, maybe I can have my own schools. Then people to come to these schools and sponsor lots of people in these schools.’
Do you think will ever come to England?
‘Only if I have money. I would love to do my master’s degree in England. I will try to apply. There are some people in my school that have gone to America. They have gone there for their master’s degree. There are lots of universities that sponsor people.’
What would you want people in England to know about your experiences? How can people help you?
‘University is better in England. Maybe they just think about their own education. But maybe they should think about children in Malawi that can’t get education. If they do get education, they can be good citizens. People should consider Malawi. It’s a poor country and it needs their help.’
Do you think if you came to England for education it would help you?
‘If I went to England then I would be able to upgrade my education. If I can help Malawi, then I can teach at universities. If I upgrade my education in England, then I will be able to teach at universities in Malawi.’
How often do you go home to visit Mtunthama?
‘In the holidays. The next time is in April. I will practise teaching Sunday School in June or July. I don’t know if I want to teach in my village, because I will end up teaching my friends. Lots of people my age are in Sunday school. Sunday school is like a normal school. If I go there I will teach English and history.’
Of course, I recognise that this interview does not represent all people in Malawi. Furthermore, it was undertaken between friends. Therefore, Michael might not have wished to reveal certain opinions about volunteers in Malawi, because I was once one, or perhaps about his education at college, because he may not wish me to worry about him. Nonetheless, I believe this interview to provide insight into the appreciation and real privilege of education in countries like Malawi, where access to university is reserved for a lucky few.