Listening to the Children of the Missions

While visiting Saint John's School in Lilongwe, Malawi last December, there were many impressive things. One, of course, was the size of their classes; on average, a teacher had at least one hundred students in front of them. Another was the behavior of the students we saw as we toured the facilities. While one might assume this was because they were expecting visitors to walk in, we were told that the children knew in advance which classes we would stop by. This was an ordinary school day for most and their teachers had their full attention, without the use of fancy smartboards or computers.

Along with lessons on large sheets of paper, tacked to the wall, a blackboard and instruction chalked on it had their rapt attention.

Now, don't get me wrong, as students were released for recess outside, it was as raucous and rowdy as any playground can get! And when they saw our cameras? Well, what child doesn't love to ham it up for pictures? Between the five of us, we literally have thousands of photos!

It is the only local school. Five thousand children from thirteen surrounding villages attend Saint John's in two sessions. In a partnership between the government and the Church, the state pays the teachers' salaries, and the Church provides the facilities, the teaching materials, and uniforms.

Why spend the funds on uniforms? It's so students feel equal to the peers in other villages and schools. Every government school student in Malawi must wear a uniform. If their parents cannot afford one, (or the school fees, the textbooks, the pencils, etc.) their children are denied entrance. Students in Malawi look forward to wearing a uniform -- it shows others that they go to school and are getting an education. A school uniform is a great source of pride.

Our Church, through the Missionary Childhood Association -- one of our four Pontifical Mission Societies -- is helping children get an education and helping them understand the intrinsic value of it. The little ones know not everyone is as blessed.

Two students really stood out -- Lawrence and Florence. They represented the student body to us as "Best Boy and Best Girl." Not only do they model great behavior to their peers but top grades as well. In their comments to us, we heard about leaky roofs and cracked walls that scare them in the rainy season -- they fear the walls collapsing. We heard about substandard housing for teachers, a lack of textbooks and exercise books.

They finished with a polite plea: "We'll be glad if these things could be put into people's consideration. Thank you for listening."

Show them you're listening. Give to the missions.

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