MALAWI JOURNAL 2022: Pilot Project October 30, 2022

A couple of years ago, I met an inspiring woman, Lisa Spader. Along with two colleagues from Intel where Lisa used to work, she started Global Pearls, an organization that supports projects in nine countries. What ties these projects together is that they are all led by a visionary changemaker, someone with big ideas and the vision and energy to make them successful. Global Pearls provides funding and materials and expertise to support local leaders. You can check out their website here:

There are about a dozen of us who volunteer on the Global Pearls US team; several of these people, especially Lisa, visit the project sites regularly. I play a very small role proofreading publications and, in return, I’m included on Lisa’s biweekly updates. Reading details and seeing photos about what is being accomplished at GP’s projects is a fantastic way to start my day!

Last year, a Global Pearls project was selected by Together Women Rise (formerly Dining for Women) as one of its twelve featured programs for the year. (I met Lisa at a DFW meeting in New Mexico.) Nakinti Nofuru is determined to bring the horrors of rape out of the shadows in her town in Cameroon. During a summer vacation, she piloted rape camps where girls could learn about rape – what it entails, how to avoid it, how to support a friend who has been raped, and why it is important to speak up about rape to parents, to police, to the whole community. The camp girls asked if they could have a girls’ club during the school year to maintain their momentum and continue to build their personal sense of empowerment. At that point, Global Pearls stepped in with funding to expand the program. This past summer there were more rape camps for girls – as well as one for boys at boys’ request. There were also lots of radio ads and interviews; significantly, someone has recently been arrested and convicted of raping a girl, which is a first in their community.

Nakinti’s team along with Lisa and another American have created an impressive Girls Group Leaders Manual that addresses African culture, girls’ empowerment, maturation, problems such as HIV/AIDS, early marriages, rape, and finding ways to earn income and build independence. This year the manual is being piloted at several sites in Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire – and in Malawi.

When Lisa asked me if I thought there might be Malawian teachers interested in piloting the program and providing feedback, I created a What’s App group and wrote five teachers who I had known as education students at UNILIA to see if they were interested. Within four hours, I got five YES responses! They have added some additional teachers, and we now have a dozen schools starting their girls groups (the new school year opened on October 10th).

Nowadays smartphones and Wi-Fi are almost everywhere–even on this somewhat remote plateau. What’s App groups are very popular and a great way to share ideas about what works and what doesn’t – and at no cost. Our first task was to decide how to adapt the manual to Malawi culture, which involved our group members making some changes from Cameroonian ways. Our teachers are starting to post pix of their groups, and there have been useful discussions about scheduling and about finding ways to merge other programs for girls with our pilot. One school admired the manual and decided that their boys needed a club also—they’ve scheduled a day for both clubs to meet at the same time and hope to compile a boys club manual during this school year. It’s not that there aren’t already many individuals and programs working to support girls to stay in school and stay safe. This manual is designed to help formalize themes and approaches that will be most useful for girls and for their group leaders. Thanks to What’s App, I will be able to stay in touch and get feedback from our Malawi teachers.

This past week I have taken part in weekly meetings at two sites. On Thursday, I visited the group at nearby Chilumba Secondary School, located an hour from Livingstonia down the famous Gorodi Road with its 18 hairpin curves.

Each of Malawi’s 28 districts has a boarding school that students are selected to if they have excellent scores on the government’s Leaving Primary School exams. Chilumba is one of the district schools; it has about 400 students, roughly evenly girls/boys, and costs families $100 for tuition, room and board per trimester (versus $15 at a community day school). When I asked if parents were equally willing to pay tuition for girls and boys, group leader Susan Phiri told me that there are always more girls than boys who drop out partway through the first trimester because their parents can’t afford the full amount due.

Chilumba’s girls group was great fun! There were about 150 girls present, a lively group who shared lots of good ideas. The lesson’s focus was on who holds power in the community. Susan began by telling them that early African traditions considered women to be the power figures because they produced children and organized food security. Colonialism brought a shift to men as the power figures, and now the culture is moving toward gender-equal communities. The girls considered ways in which men and women hold power in the home, in the community and in the country. They offered ways to become a power figure in your community (be kind, be a role model, volunteer to help with community building and cleaning projects, help the elderly and the sick) and ways they could build their own power in class (ask questions when you aren’t clear, answer questions the teacher asks). Their assignment for next week is to come ready to talk about a strong woman they admire. Sorry that I won’t be around to hear their stories.

The next day I attended the meeting at the local Livingstonia Community Day School. Martha Mgomezulu, the deputy head, is leading this group. I used to have a Friday afterschool group for just twenty girls, but this year ALL the girls at the school get to participate. Unlike Chilumba, students at Livingstonia do not have lunch at school so, by the end of the school day, they are hungry and eager to get home and cook nsima (popular cornmeal mush served with veggies). For this reason, the group will be meeting for closer to 30 minutes rather than the full hour at Chilumba boarding school where girls have a lunch break.

At our first meeting, the girls were not as willing to share ideas as we had hoped. So this time Martha divided them into groups of 9-10 and the groups had three questions to answer: What do you want to do in the future? What do your parents want you to do? How will you achieve your goals? Lots of small group conversation and then they eagerly shared their group’s ideas with each other. They hope to become teachers, lecturers, journalists, doctors, nurses, engineers, pilots, police, soldiers, lawyers, business owners, or a bank manager. Their parents want them to be educated and independent. They need to study hard, have high esteem, choose good friends, establish realistic goals, and avoid bad behaviors, peer pressure and sexual activity. Like Chilumba’s girls, they are expected to come next week prepared to talk about a strong woman they admire.

From here the pilot groups will conclude the introductory unit by hearing about the year-end program where each girl will present something valuable in her culture. Then come units on overcoming social/financial obstacles to education, maturation, sexual activity, gender-based violence and women as changemakers. It’s a rich curriculum, and we are all eager to see how it works for girls and their teachers.

Patricia Erdmann