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Doctor, lawyer, teacher, soldier are familiar goals in Malawi schools

December, 2010

My research in Malawi included building profiles of the three schools near Makupo village.

I spoke to residents struggling in the midst of the AIDS epidemic, capturing their stories to bring home to Canada in the hopes of driving the Canadian government to allow for much needed AIDS medication to be sent to Africa through the ratification of Bill C393.

Water! With financial aid from Royal West Academy, a well is drilled. Photos: Alice Abracen

My first visit to the primary school was not especially productive. I spotted a small cluster of students on the grounds and ventured over. I took out my camera. From three students there were 60 in less than 10 seconds. I was mobbed, carried on a tide of smiling faces that barely reached my waist. I still managed, with the teacher’s help, to ask a few of them what they wanted to be when they grew up. I got familiar answers: doctor, lawyer, teacher, soldier…

Because fewer students reach high school than graduate from primary school, it was a bittersweet moment.

I meandered down the dirt path that ran along maize fields to the Chilanga Community Day Secondary School. I spoke to several students outside their boarding rooms. Just-washed clothes hung on lines in the vast, dusty courtyard. A small room nearby stored the day’s maize for the students. About 20 of us perched on a stone foundation and talked about their preferred subjects, their villages, their ambitions. All had different views, but each of them said they liked going to school. When I asked them why, they said the pursuit of knowledge would help secure bright futures. I doubt that if I wandered into a Quebec high school, into an eclectic group of kids, I would get the same sort of answers.

It was sobering to think of the struggles students face in Malawi when so many back home are ungrateful for that same sacred privilege.

The students asked me about Montreal and teased me about my boyfriend, or lack thereof.

We talked about respective courses of study, ambitions, and traditional dances (I was hard pressed to supply a Canadian folk dance, and eventually resorted to something very ‘70s). One girl found in me a spellbound audience for her horror stories about the national park we would visit later that week, replete with venomous snakes and rampaging elephants.


The ride to Kasungu Park, about 2 1/2 hour away, is not the most comfortable of excursions, especially with many of us in the cramped van. It’s with relief that we flooded through the doors upon arrival.

Our relief quickly turned to wonder; we were greeted by a herd of elephants at the water’s edge, across a beautiful lake whose shores swell with reeds. Faint wisps of fog spurted from the water at the elephants’ feet, alerting us to the presence of hippopotamuses. On the other side of the lake, a herd of antelope.

That night, everyone enjoyed Fanta (and beer) on the lower level of the lodge near the lake. Only those who stayed up especially late heard the strange and unnerving rumbles from the lake. Below us we could just discern giant moving shapes, from time to time a splash as several hippo slid into the water. They make noises unlike any other living creature. We’re told they like to move around at night and woe to us if we get between them and the water.

On safari the next day, we saw many more hippos, antelope and gazelles. Someone saw a warthog dart behind a tree. I saw a lion, but no one else did and they were reluctant to believe me. Leaving the centre in the van, we were 16 people and one terrified chicken.


There is another reason I journeyed to Malawi. I was to report back to Montreal on the progress of the building of two wells, the funds for which were raised by my former high school, Royal West Academy.

In Mlangali, where one of the wells will be built, I recognize several girls who I have seen in Makupo. They make me take a lot of pictures.

Engineers stake out a straight trail across the terrain in even intervals, and at each post they measure the potential to find water beneath the soil. We squatted on ridges in the fields, careful of the wickedly sharp dried maize plants. We shifted from furrow to furrow as the process continued and worried that they wouldn’t find water.

Nearby, children started singing in Chichewa. After a few refrains, I picked up the chorus, to general laughter. When the chorus next came round I sang jauntily – and alone. I snorted in indignation at the giggles.

Some days later I heard good news: Water was found and the drilling will begin. In the village, great blue government trucks pulled up, cranes descended, the drilling commenced. A machine pumped the filth from the tunnel the water will travel through to the surface; insects fled.

Someone roughly pulled me aside as a massive centipede crawled over where my foot stood not a moment before. It was highly venomous.

Suddenly, from the hole in the earth, a fountain of water spurted up, rising nearly 30 feet into the air. The crowd broke into song; someone fetched a drum. Women danced as they circled the geyser of water.

A village will have clean water for themselves and their neighbours. It was the most hopeful thing I saw. I will report this to Royal West Academy, so they know I witnessed the vivid joy of a hundred people.

There was still much to see, grassroots organizations to visit, NGOs and International Banks to visit, and Mnjale Village, the epicentre of my grandmother’s Theresa Foundation, to find, but I felt suffused for the present, enlivened by the vast spectrum of the human experience I had witnessed in only two weeks.



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