Fostering Education In Rural Malawi

Fostering Education in Rural Malawi

By Joshua J. McElwee

For many American teenagers, doing chores after school is normal -there’s a bathroom to clean, garbage to take out, or a lawn to cut. But for teenagers in the landlocked African nation of Malawi there’s a whole different sort of workload, says Jesuit Fr. Peter Henriot. In rural areas of the country, young men coming home from school might be expected to tend cattle or work the fields. Young women might have to pump water from the neighborhood well or collect firewood to cook the evening meal. 

That’s one of the reasons why Henriot, an American who has served in Africa for the past 22 years, says he and other members of his community have decided to open a Jesuit high school in Kasungu, a rural town in central Malawi where simple houses of brick and thatched roofs dot an open landscape.

The school - currently in the development phase, and to be known as the Loyola Jesuit Secondary School - seeks to address a critical need. While a relatively stable democratic regime has governed Malawi since 1995, it is ranked 171 out of 187 countries in the world on the United Nations’ Human Development Index, and U.N. statistics indicate that the average adult there has only received about four years of schooling.

Speaking to NCR from Malawi by phone in February, Henriot said his hope was that the Jesuit project, which was undertaken this year and is currently looking for donations toward construction, would have a unique place in the country’s history.

““The key word in Malawi is that it’s a country of great potential,” said Henriot, development director for the project. ““We have great problems, but we just need to learn to apply the potential to the problems. That’s one of the things that a good secondary school, giving young people a chance, will do.”

A fact sheet prepared by Jesuit Fr. Alojz Podgrajsek, a Slovenian who has ministered in Zambia and Malawi for 30 years and is now serving as project manager of the school’s construction, notes that there were some 12,000 eighth-grade students in Kasungu district who took a government-mandated test in the region in 2010, but only 3,000 of those students ended up being placed in secondary schools.

Although there are 48 secondary schools in the district, Podgrajsek’s primer says 33 of those have no electricity or running water, and make do without a library or a science lab.

Worsening the problem, Henriot said, is that many teachers in those schools haven’t received proper education themselves. The Jesuit school ““will be a real contribution, in terms of the opportunity for younger people in that area,” Henriot said. ““When you have a country where less than 35 percent of students have a chance to go to secondary school, you don’t have any future of development unless you’re paying attention to that,” he said.

Originally from Washington state, Henriot, 76, served for 17 years at the Washington, D.C.-based Center of Concern before coming to Africa in 1989. He directed the Zambia-based Jesuit Center for Theological Reflection for 22 years before coming to Malawi at the start of 2011. That decision, he said, was largely influenced by discernment in his community about the best way to help the country. ““It became clear that one of the biggest challenges to development, to justice and peace in Malawi, is education,” Henriot said. After talking with the area’s bishops and government authorities, Henriot said the decision became even clearer:

““Let’s build a good, Jesuit secondary school, one with the Jesuit ethos to form women and men for others, people who won’t just make a living but will really make a difference.” Further discernment also clarified three important points, he said. In order to address gender, economic and location-based inequities, the school would need to be co-ed, aided by grants from the government, and in a rural area, ““where education is really needed.”

Additionally, Henriot said, the school would need to house its students, in order to promote equality and to ensure that the rigors of rural life outside of the classroom would not unduly burden the young people. Part of the consideration in building the school, Henriot said, is also to what extent it can be ecologically sensitive to the surrounding area. Noting that part of the struggle in building homes in rural areas of the country is finding firewood to fuel furnaces that make bricks, he said the school will use bricks made with soil and cement that don’t require baking. That, along with other steps like conserving water, will help ““teach the students also to be sensitive to ecological questions, which are very, very important in the country.”

The Jesuits have already built a wall around the 55-acre plot for the school and have secured water and electrical connections. Donations must come next, Henriot said. While a pamphlet describing the endeavor says the Jesuits plan to build the $8.5 million project in stages to allow students to enroll before construction is completed, it also says they need some $4.5 million before they’ll have enough to build the basic structures - schoolrooms, laboratories, a library and housing facilities - to be able to welcome the first class.

While Henriot admits that ““it’s a big task,” he’s doesn’t seem to be overwhelmed. ““With just a little help,” he said, ““we’ll be able to begin construction in a few months.”

Article taken from National Catholic Reporter, March 30 – April 12, 2012