The children walk to the school with two things: a branch of wood and a plastic cup—no backpacks, no school supplies. The wood is for the fire stove. The plastic cup is for the oatmeal breakfast they will be served once it is warmed on the fire stove.
This is the daily occurrence at many schools in the area of Malawi I visited with my boyfriend and a group of volunteers in early April. A food program has been put into place by Fisherman’s Rest to bring children to school; many would not come otherwise, as they would be more valuable to their families working in the fields or holding a job in the village. But these days, they come: a consistent meal is the draw. Going to school is no easy feat. There is no bus system. Children of all ages walk to school crossing rivers without bridges risking their safety in the rainy season. Yet, they come and are eager to learn. First, they wait in line for their meal and then they scatter into the classrooms.
And then there are the teachers, or rather no teachers. My group was scheduled to teach a whole-day class on drinking water pumps: how to take them apart, how to fix them. We came to the school and were surrounded by hundreds of children. And no teachers. Apparently, qualified teachers are often posted to rural communities against their wishes and their motivation and attendance suffers (and it is often not monitored by local government). Hence, they don’t show up. After many phone calls, the school principal came in and we started our day of teaching.
The water shortage in Malawi has been dealt with as something we need to react to rather than something we can consistently and systematically learn about and fix. NGOs from all over the world have been coming to the country installing drinking water pumps called AfriDev. There are thousands of them. Yet, many are broken, and the locals have never been trained on how to maintain or fix them. Fisherman’s Rest, the organization we worked with during our stay, is designing a program to teach school children about water pumps so that in a few years, there are hundreds and thousands of young adults fully in charge of water pumps and water safety in their villages.
Once we got into the classrooms, the children (mostly students in grades 8 through 10) peppered us with questions, eager to learn about the pumps and to get their certificates of completion at the end of the day. They lined up their chairs to see, to be able to quickly stand up and go to the front of the class to point out a water pump part or to answer a question. Girls, on many occasions, were the first to raise their hand. Water pumps matter to them. They are the ones carrying the water; it is their job to walk often long distances and to carry 20 to 30-liter buckets back to their homes. If they know how to fix the pump, they can hold a more significant role on the water pump committee and decide on important next steps.
Discussing water and water pumps with the children, it became clear that most of us don’t have issues like these in our lives. Certainly, water matters, to me but when it does not come out of the faucet in my home, I just call the water company. I don’t have anxiety around water. Here, water means so much to the children and their families. If there is water, they have food. If there is water, they can go to school because they don’t have to skip the day because they have to walk to another village to use their pump. Again, this experience is loaded with mixed feelings and experiences. I am hopeful that Fisherman’s Rest’s efforts to educate school children will lead to confidence in the locals to fix and maintain the pumps and thus be in full control of their livelihood.
UPDATE to blog as of June 1, 2017: Fisherman’s Rest confirmed that the schools we visited on our trip now have clubs teaching water pump maintenance and repair. Each club has between 19 to 30 regular students.
Martina Sestakova has a B.A. in communication from the University of Maryland. She has more than 7 years of experience in intercultural communications, in particular in multinational clinical trials. An avid traveler, Martina documents her experiences in writing. She is a textile/fashion designer who runs RADOST, LLC and an artist featured at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C.
Disclaimer: This blog is a personal observation and all opinions are based on a 2-week stay in Malawi. The author, in no way, aims to make general statements about the activities of water-focused agencies in Malawi.