I am writing this in Johannesburg, South Africa after an 18 hour plane ride. Tomorrow, it’s another 3 hours to Malawi, and hard to believe that I am actually almost there, because, truth be told, this has been a three, even four, year journey.
In Malawi, I will work with Dzoole CDSS, the secondary school where I taught during Peace Corps, to build a huge two-room girls hostel. When finished, it will sleep over 150 girls.
Dzoole has always wanted girls hostels. In fact, a Peace Corps Response (a PC volunteer doing a second stint of service who works with local NGOs, rather than directly with the community) submitted proposals, but the project never came to fruition. Building is extremely expensive in landlocked Malawi, and it often took the school an entire term just to save for one iron roof sheet.
Before building a hostel, with support from my friends and family at home, the school built a kitchen and began a school nutrition program. It began as just lunch, but within one term, turned into three meals a day. Kids’ schedules were freed from hours of cooking, washing pots, and searching for firewood. Teachers were happy because breakfast was before class, so normally tardy students arrived early. Each afternoon, attendance doubled from pre-lunch days, when tired students deserted for food or a nap. Then, after taking their dinner, students studied late into the night in a classroom lit by solar panel. It wasn’t unusual for me to find students studying until 2 or 3 am. National exam score soared.
The most noteworthy result of the lunch program though was the flexibility it gave the school to allow girls to sleep in the classrooms at night. Before school boarding and feeding, to avoid chores at home and 20 plus km walks to school, students slept on the floors of nearby homes and shops. This was hard on all students, but especially on girls. Each year, around 20 girls of the 150 female students became pregnant. Some years, none passed exams. The year Dzoole opened its doors to female boarders, female attendance nearly doubled and only one girl became pregnant. The next year, still fully self sustained with no outside assistance (I was back in the US), the program continued and no girls became pregnant. Exam scores were at an all time high.
Girls are still sleeping on the floors of classrooms. They have nowhere to hang there clothes to dry; they have no privacy. Also, the greatly under-resourced school looses the use of its classrooms for after school clubs. While the school would like to fund the project itself, its high test scores actually disqualify it from government assistance, despite the fact that it is one of the most poorly resourced schools in the district. Dzoole has been extremely lucky, because those who visit it keep Dzoole in their hearts. Sarah Coble is a teacher who visited Dzoole on a school trip I facilitated that saw 12 high school students and four teachers from New York visit Dzoole and Lake Malawi. Her relentless efforts at Hackley School and her Church raised needed funds. Then, her Pastor connected us to a kind couple whose generosity seems to know no limits. They stepped up to finish funding this project and get it off the ground more than six months before planned. On time in Africa is six months behind schedule, so this was amazing. We are working together with the Brick Foundation, an organization founded by Martha Pigott, another former Peace Corps Volunteer in Dzoole. The Brick Foundation has supported me greatly as I prepare, and it hopes to continue to fund Peace Corps Volunteer (and returned PCV projects) long after Dzoole’s girls have a safe place to rest their heads.
Together, we are making sure Dzoole gets its hostels and that its girls are given a chance to succeed. Over the several weeks, I will be in Dzoole working with teachers to procure materials and break ground. After I leave, building will continue and the project will be tracked on the Brick Foundation’s blog of the project.
I write this email because so many hands have played a part in shaping this project. All this began with unsolicited donations when I complained in emails home that my students played hookie due to hunger each afternoon. A kitchen was supported, now a hostel. It’s easy to look at buildings as tangible evidence of change, but much more telling to me has been the impressive teacher involvement in every step if the projects, increased enrollment, and some of the highest National Exam scores in Dowa district. Thank you so much to everyone who has supported Dzoole over these years and also those who have supported me (from my time in Peace Corps to the most hectic of last few months getting this all off the ground). For those interested, please stay in touch. I won’t have internet access in Dzoole, but I will take occasional trips to town to update you on our progress (and challenges!).