Providing Education for the Future of Malawi

If you're a person of a certain age, as I am, you may remember sitting in a classroom with all your friends. Mine was a Catholic school, and until we matriculated to junior high, each grade had only one classroom. I recently came across a class picture from fourth grade -- the ones where we all had our mugshots for the year lined up. There were fifty students in the class! Fifty! God bless Sister Ann Louise, SNDdeN. While I don't remember any of us as "troublemakers," I couldn't imagine keeping that many children engaged for a whole school day, every day.

And yet, somehow, the good Sisters managed.

Even they may have blanched at what a teacher at Saint John School in Lilongwe, Malawi faces every day.

Our team from The Pontifical Mission Societies USA (TPMS USA), hosted by Father Vincent Mwakhwawa, National Director of TPMS Malawi, had driven a short - in mission terms - forty-five minutes from our lodging in the city to reach the school. The city was pretty much what you would expect, with a twist-- there was morning traffic, road construction, and some roadside shops. That local twist was that most of the stores were not owned by Malawians. They were the people sitting on the roadside, selling whatever they had grown, bought, or scavenged to support their families.

As we left the city, some roads were paved, some were not. A dirt road brought us to the gate of Saint John's School, their sign proudly proclaiming that "Education is Our Future!"

Hard-packed dirt courtyards surrounding the buildings of the sprawling campus. Signs were in English and Chichewa, the local language (pronounced Cha-CHEE-wah). It was quiet, as most of the students were in class. We were led to an empty schoolroom where the head of school waited for us. We heard from her about the needs of the school as well as met some teachers and the "Head Boy" and "Head Girl" of the school. They were all grateful for the support given by TPMS.

What we learned was that there are 5,000 students at Saint John's instructed by less than fifty teachers; on average, that puts over 100 students in some classes! Kindergarten instructors got a break -- there were only sixty little ones in their care, all sitting on the floor. Their only tool with which to teach? Chalk and a blackboard.

Yet, in all the classrooms we visited, the students -- some sitting three to a desk -- were attentive and polite. They showed they truly believe their motto, knowing that education is their future, and the way forward for Malawi.

- Maureen Crowley Heil is Director of Programs and Development for the Pontifical Mission Societies, Boston.