Breaking the Cycle of Illiteracy in Malawi

While the tobacco fields of Kasungu have provided a consistent source of income for many rural Malawians, they have also hindered the region’s literacy rates. Nationally, nearly 40% of Malawians are illiterate but in the central region of Kasungu that number skyrockets to 70%. With few other income options and a high demand for labor, many school-age children can be found working in the fields to support their families. In an effort to break this cycle of generational illiteracy, buildOn has been constructing schools, enrolling out-of-school children, and offering adults, like 59-year-old Winesi Mbale, the opportunity to participate in Adult Literacy Classes. 

Winesi in front of her home in Kavidebwere, a small community in Central Malawi.

Winesi is from the village of Kavidebwere, a community located in the heart of Kasungu’s tobacco country. Like many women of her age, Winesi did not have the opportunity to receive an education when she was a child. Seeing the negative effects of illiteracy on her life, Winesi eagerly signed up for Adult Literacy Classes at the new buildOn school in Kavidebwere in 2020. Over the past two years, the 76 participants (75 women and 1 man) in Winesi’s class have learned valuable literacy and numeracy skills, taught through the lens of health, agriculture and social enterprise. 

As her class prepares to graduate this month, Winesi reflects back on the transformation that these Adult Literacy Classes have brought about in her life. “One of the things that makes me most proud is that I am able to read, write, and count– skills that have enabled me to acquire leadership positions in my village,” says Winesi. “For instance, I am the Treasurer for a Village Bank Group and the Chairlady for our Village Development Committee. I was given these roles because I can read, write, and count. Previously, before joining the Adult Literacy Program, I was never considered for any position in the community. Additionally, I can now help my grandchildren with their schoolwork at home and this has helped in improving their performance at school.” 

One of the things that makes me most proud is that I am able to read, write, and count– skills that have enabled me to acquire leadership positions on various committees in my village.

Winesi Mbale, Adult Literacy Program student

Not only has her participation in buildOn’s Adult Literacy Program helped Winesi to gain new leadership opportunities in her community, the skills and resources she was provided with are helping her to lift her family out of extreme poverty. Winesi was one of 19 students who benefited from an Animal Husbandry Initiative, implemented through her Adult Literacy Program. Through this initiative, participants are given goats, which they then care for and breed. When the animals reproduce, some of their offspring are given to other classmates, who then repeat the same process. The three goats that Winesi received through this initiative have already provided her with crucial income that she used to pay for her son’s university education. 

Winesi and her classmates were also taught how to use animal dung as organic fertilizer to obtain better crop yields. “After learning how to make organic fertilizer this growing season, I managed to make 10 bags which I then applied to an acre of my maize garden,” says Winesi. “I am expecting improved bumper yields this year from my garden because the crops look so much healthier than in the past when I used only inorganic fertilizer. Also, most of the households here do not have the means to pay for inorganic fertilizers, so these organic fertilizers are a way to improve food security for our families.” 

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As the participants in Winesi’s class used the skills they gained to increase their household incomes, they were also able to invest some of their earnings into a Village Savings & Loan Initiative. Winesi says, “I invested K50,000 (roughly $61 U.S. Dollars) into the Village Savings & Loan Initiative at the beginning of 2021, but with interest, I was able to receive K100,000 (roughly $123 U.S. Dollars) back at the end of the year which I used for household supplies and to pay the school fees for my 17-year-old daughter, Nomsa Phiri, who is a student at Emfeni Secondary School.” 

Filled with pride, her daughter speaks of the transformation she has seen in her mother since she began buildOn’s Adult Literacy Program. “My mother has benefited a lot from the Adult Literacy Program initiatives she has participated in because she is now able to pay for our school fees, uniforms, and food. My mother was raised in a village where education was not a priority for girl children and as such she was denied a chance to attend school. However, her story changed when she started attending Adult Literacy classes. She is now able to read, write, and count, and with these skills she is able to assist my younger siblings with their homework, a thing that never happened before she joined buildOn’s Adult Literacy Program.”