"Happy New Year everyone! I hope 2021 is a year in which you will be healthy and happy! I wanted to share with you some great positivity for 2021…"
In 2004, I was selling my first company. I was 29. I stood listening to speakers and hearing choirs at the World Aids Day vigil in Manchester. A BBC3 producer called Les Pratt, spoke about a trip he had just returned from to Malawi. He spoke of the HIV/Aids pandemic and the damage it was doing in Malawi, wiping out a whole generation of parents, leaving one million orphans.
He spoke about returning to Malawi in 2006 to visit the projects his first expedition was supporting. I spoke to my friends around me “if my business sale goes through before Christmas, I am going on that trip”.
The business sold, and I signed up! There was to be a cycle ride across the country, a hike up the highest mountain in Malawi, Sapitwa and a kayak across the amazing lake Malawi to a beautiful island called Mumbo.
Along the way, we were to visit orphanages and HIV counselling centres. Actually along the route – due to our trip being right at the end of the rainy season, we had a few disasters with our bikes and our support vehicles and we had lots of impromptu sing-alongs with local children, which were the highlight of my trip. After our songs and meeting our new friends, we would then have to push our support vehicles out of the ditches they had slid into, and move onto the next camp.
Another fond memory was the day I cycled 125km in blistering heat. The day I felt my body shut down becuase it had no energy left to pedal my legs on my bike. When a simple halls cough sweet and the fact that I was cycling to raise money to help impoverished orphans, gave me the strength to carry on the cycle to the end!
The trip was totally lifechanging! I was materialistic and wasteful ahead of that trip, but on my return I could no longer buy anything of any value and I sold my car and house to pay for projects in Malawi.
I have had so many great experiences with Malawians, including with many Malawian friends based here in the UK.
None better than taking my own children to Malawi in 2018. It was a dream of mine to take my kids and introduce them to the many flavours and senses of a country that has captured my heart. But also I had embarked on a new project.
One year before this trip, I had been contacted by a Malawian doing great work regarding a school in Dowa, near Lilongwe in the centre of Malawi. I got to see picutres of the terrible conditions that 5,000 children were being educated in. I wanted to visit, but I had just had my second child placed and we could not leave the UK. At the school there were roofsheets missing, meaning children were being educated in the rain or in direct sun light. There were holes in the floor and with children sitting on the floor this was uncomfortable and not condusive to a good learning experience. More worryingly for me, some of the walls were unstable and the fact that children were being educating in such unsafe environments meant that I had to act.
In 2017 we started building a new school block. We worked with local chiefs who fully supported our endeavours. By our visit in 2018, we had started the second block and some grown up orphans who I had supported to start their own joinery business were now making our school furniture.
It is not easy to build in Malawi. First you have to make bricks. Sometimes when you go to the store to buy cement, you find there is none. There is no power on site and to get water you need to make cement or clean tools, you have to use the local hand pumped water well. Often locals are using it to get water to prepare dinner or wash clothes.
Plus workers are in blistering heat and direct sun light. The team of thirty or so locals were amazed at my eldest daughter wanting to lay bricks or break bricks for floor ahead of concrete slab being poured. Sophie also helped with snagging, looking for issues that needed attention before we could hand the new building over to the headmaster for his pupils to use.
In primary school classes, often there are over 300 per class (and one teacher). As the years go on there are fewer and fewer per class as children are taken out of school to work the land. Sometimes the drop is down to 30 children per class. As high as 270 children have dropped out of education by the last year or primary, something we want to address at Dowa.
2019 brought Malawi elections. Two in fact. Political unstability affects build projects. 2020 brought the pandemic. Malawi seems relatively unaffected upto now with Covid, however, cases are rising. I had feared massive death rates and so Great Minds Property Group last year got involved training over 100 changemakers to distribute soap and good hygiene skills to rural communities. We have grumbled in the UK about testing for Covid. But I am pretty sure the efforts surpass those in Malawi. I am not sure that proper diagnosis or testing has been carried out, which could mean that figures of Covid are slightly skewed.
That said, when the schools reopened in June in Malawi, our children using the two new school blocks could sit at least one metre apart, unlike children in the old school.
Now the time is right to conitune our buildings. We have three more to do, which will complete Dowa school for all 5,000 children. Our new buildings are safe and will help the children with their education. We are also working to improve the standard of education and to retain more children by emphasising the fact that education is the way to escape poverty. I hope Dowa school has learners who become the next leaders of Malawi and become doctors, nurses and many many more skills.
Why am I telling you all this? I think anyone who had to home school in 2020 might appreciate how difficult educating children is, but also how important it is. Mine were lucky to turn my home into a classroom with tape on the floor, drawings on the walls and sports equipment adoring the garden for PE. They had a good environment for their minds to harvest. I believe building a new, safe school in Malawi will give these wonderful children a fantastic learning environment, just like my children and your children have.
From here we can work on the standard of education. Giving these children a better standard of education will help them escape a life of poverty. Allowing them to find well paid jobs in Malawi or outside of Malawi will allow them to support their own families and raise them from poverty.
If you would like to find out more, please contact me. If you would like to follow our progress, check out out instagram @dowaschool
Continue being kind to others and have a great 2021.