Happy graduates of Atsikana Pa Ulendo, a secondary school for grils in Malawi supported by Rotarians in Alberta and British Columbia.
T eenage girls in Malawi face a daunting list of challenges that can prevent them from completing a secondary education.
Teacher Christie Johnson, who heads the fundraising, and her colleague Memory Mdyetseni, who runs the school.
Pregnancy, forced marriage, sexual abuse, the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS, long treks to school, and unaffordable tuition fees are a reality for many young women ages 14-22.
In 2000, Christie Johnson, a middle school teacher from Edmonton, learned about these obstacles firsthand while volunteering in Malawi at a secondary school for girls supported by a Canadian charity. Problems such as a lack of funding plagued the school, and it closed its doors while she was there. Johnson returned home, devastated by what she had seen but inspired by the young women she’d met. “It was the most exciting teaching I have ever done. It blew me away that they took everything in class and absorbed it. They were fearless learners,” she says.
Johnson’s father, Past District Governor Larry Johnson, encouraged her to talk about her experiences at Rotary clubs, so she visited several in her area. She was stunned when, after her presentations, many Rotarians offered to sponsor a student. Eventually, she secured enough funding from Rotarians – including members of the Rotary clubs of Edmonton West and St. Albert – to help her 24 students complete their secondary education. It was the beginning of a collaboration that would lead to the establishment of Atsikana Pa Ulendo, a secondary school for girls in rural Malawi.
Buoyed by the support, Johnson looked for a way to collect the money, transfer it to Malawi, and find schools for the young women. She enlisted Memory Mdyetseni, a Malawian friend and fellow teacher whom Johnson had met while volunteering. Mdyetseni was 20 years old and struggling to finance her own college education. Although hesitant at first, she eventually agreed to help. “She tells me now, the reason she said yes was that if she didn’t do it, it would be on her conscience for the rest of her life – it was like killing those 24 girls, and she couldn’t live with that,” Johnson says.
Johnson continued raising money from Rotary clubs while Mdyetseni located the students, who had returned to their villages after the school closed, some already married. After Mdyetseni secured school placements for them, Johnson still needed a way to transfer the funds for their tuition. Rafiq Nathanie, then governor of District 9210 (parts of Southern Africa), agreed to make the first payments from his own account, and Johnson later provided the money to reimburse him.
Each of the young women made it through secondary school and continued their studies. Some completed an additional two years at a trade school, and some went on to a four-year university. Today they are business owners, bank clerks, tailors, and teachers. (One even became a teacher at Atsikana Pa Ulendo. “This has come full circle in many ways,” Johnson says.)
Johnson also found a sponsor for Mdyetseni’s university education, which she completed in 2006 with a degree in teaching. “I am able to see how powerful education is, and I felt that I could help other girls who are struggling,” Mdyetseni says.
She approached Johnson with the idea of taking their achievements to the next level. “She wanted to build a school. I thought she was crazy,” Johnson recalls. “It’s one thing to put girls through school and another thing to build a school.” But Mdyetseni persisted, and Johnson agreed to keep raising money. Johnson had moved from Edmonton to Victoria, so she began speaking to Rotary clubs in British Columbia. Past District Governor David Stocks, then a member of the Rotary Club of Sooke, and other club members invited her to a private meeting, and Stocks helped her craft a plan for the school. In 2007, Mdyetseni and her husband secured a donation of 23 hectares of land about 40 kilometres west of Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe.
Atsikana Pa Ulendo, which translates to “girls on the move,” opened in January 2008. That year, more than 500 girls in the area applied for 80 spots; the next year, the school received over 4,000 applications for the same number of spaces. Every student has her own story – like Grace, who was offered in marriage at 13 to the local pub owner after her father couldn’t pay his tab. She became a second wife and was physically abused, even after becoming pregnant. Grace managed to go back to her family, and an uncle brought her in for the Atsikana Pa Ulendo entrance exam and interview. She earned a spot and has since graduated. Grace is now working at the school as she awaits the results of her university entrance exam. “She has started to support her family – the family counts on her to buy them food,” Mdyetseni says. “We’ve already started seeing the results for her.”
In 2011, the first class graduated, with 95 percent of the students passing their national exams. Johnson attributes the high success rate to quality teachers as well as the good food, clean water, and safe environment the school provides for the young women, who board there.
Rotary clubs and individual club members have contributed more than 70 percent of the $1.65 million raised for Atsikana Pa Ulendo since 2006. The money has funded the construction of 13 buildings, including classrooms, student and staff facilities, a science lab, and a cafeteria/kitchen, along with a septic tank and a water tower. The school has earned such a strong reputation, it has attracted students who can afford to pay a high tuition, which helps subsidize scholarships for the poorer girls. “The vision is to have two private-paying students for each sponsored student,” Johnson says. “We have no intention of creating a charity that goes on forever. We want the school to be self-sufficient.”
Stocks, who visited in 2009 with his wife, believes that giving a sense of ownership to the Malawians is one of the secrets to the school’s success. “It’s the biggest, most important public works project the area has ever seen, and we’re helping the local economy,” he says.
Mdyetseni and Johnson are now working to develop a teachers training college, both to give graduates and other area students the opportunity to pursue advanced studies and to fill a need for more female primary school teachers in Malawi.
Just as education changed the life of Mdyetseni, she and Johnson are changing the lives of many other young women. “Education is powerful because it gives a girl the ability to speak for herself, to become independent,” Mdyetseni says. “In rural areas of Malawi, education is life.”