Changes are already apparent after five weeks of leaving Malawi. I took a group of students from Philadelphia to Jembe, a village in Malawi, for buildOn’s Trek for Knowledge* in April to start construction on one of ten schools we are building with Madonna’s Raising Malawi foundation. When we arrived in Jembe, there were four classrooms made of mud serving students from first through eighth grade. There were no doors, crude openings for windows, and terribly dusty and uneven floors. The villagers were ready for a new school; over 300 village members came out to help build the Vigando school because of the two-and-a-half mile round trip to collect sand! Each person was essential to dig the foundation by hand, mix cement and carry buckets full of sand from the river.
The school’s headmaster, Robert Kanyenda, reported that a member of the Malawian parliament has donated desks for the students to sit on. This will be the first time in history that students will be off the dirt floor and in proper desks in the village. When we broke ground on the school on April 6 there were 700 students attending the six-classroom school. Today that number has increased to 900, according to Kanyenda; and he predicts 1,200 will enroll when the new school year begins in September. An unexpected change that came out of this was unifying the community. While we were in Malawi, the students walked about 20 minutes to a nearby village to attend the funeral of an elder. This village, previously disconnected their neighbors in Jembe and unwilling to participate in any development projects, has become “part and parcel” of the school construction. They have volunteered on the worksite and their children will attend the new school. All of this came from a simple act: honoring the life an elder. Upon leaving the village, Kanyenda presented our group an axe with the words, “Cut ignorance into pieces. buildOn.”
One of our members changed, as well. Facia Sirleaf, a sophomore at Delaware Valley Charter, came to the U.S. from Liberia five years ago as a refugee through a resettlement camp in Ghana. She doesn’t think she would’ve had a chance to go to school if she would’ve stayed in Liberia because of war and her parents’ inability to pay her school fees. This trek was the first time she’s been back to Africa and it changed her overall look on life. She’s become less materialistic and has learned to appreciate luxuries such as showers and electricity. She said she also felt less self-conscious being around such a positive group of young people, and her self-confidence grew because she was out of her comfort zone in Malawi. Watch this video about Sirleaf’s reflection, which includes a poem about the power of education to lift people out of poverty.
*Trek for Knowledge takes students and teachers to one of the five buildOn project countries to live with host families and work alongside them to build a school for two weeks. It is a vital link between the youth in the U.S. and the community members in Nepal, Nicaragua, Mali, Malawi, and Haiti. There are more than 3,000 urban youth changing their communities in the United States by serving food to those who are hungry, planting trees and urban gardens, and helping kids with development disabilities. These same young leaders are realizing their incredible ability to impact the lives of others. At the same time, thousands of community members in the developing world are swinging pick-axes, carrying sand and rocks, and molding bricks to build schools in their villages. These extraordinary people are changing the course of their lives by lifting themselves out of poverty, ensuring the empowerment of women and girls, and giving future generations of people longer and healthier lives.