A corrected version of this story is below.
A teacher from Pearson College, Christie Johnson, approached the Sooke Rotary Club in 2005 asking to build a school in Malawi – the idea took flight, becoming a reality in 2007.
This wasn’t just any school, though.
Called Atsikana Pa Ulendo (meaning “girls on the move” in Chichewa) it’s a high school devoted to girls only, one of the few existing in the African country.
The school, accommodating up to 80 students in each grade, has turned out 400 young women since opening in 2011, all of whom dispersed throughout Malawi to join the work force or further their education.
More so, it fills an important gap in Malawi’s educational system, which, at this stage, still largely favours male academics, said Esther Mwale, a former graduate of the school who went in pursuit of her own post-secondary education in Canada to study economics.
“[APU] strengthened me. I didn’t really believe I could do it at first, but they really tried to bring out this other character from me, like ‘Esther, you can do this and everything else on your plate.’”
Mwale’s dad also really helped highlight that being a woman arrives at no difference in her ability to reach for the stars, and that more schools like this in the country could very well change Malawi’s mentality towards gender equality.
“This is one of the few schools that believe in girls … girls who come from poor families can access this education, which they couldn’t otherwise at other schools,” she said.
It doesn’t happen overnight though. The school took a few years of planning before any work began, said David Stocks, Sooke Rotary’s past district governor, an integral cog piece in the school’s realization. With advice from Christie Johnson, members of Sooke Rotary developed a program definition for the school and hired a trust in Malawi to build the school. Sooke Rotary also used its associated charity to collect funds and give tax receipts.
In its first year of construction, various Rotary clubs (also Rotaract and Interact clubs) raised around $100,000, and another $150,000 the following year. Donors also contributed $80,000 in scholarships. In all, around $3 million has gone into the school project. After a few years, the Sooke Rotary charity transferred financial responsibility to a new charity: APU Malawi Education Foundation.
Stocks said every bit of dirt was moved by hand, as there was no machinery, no electricity, and no running water.
Bit by bit, the classroom block and teacher accommodations were raised, along with wells, running water and solar power. Now, the campus has 17 buildings spread out over 20 hectares.
It’s certainly not finished. The APU MEF plans on not only expanding the high school, but have an elementary school and an all-women teacher training college in place for summer 2018.
The college is expected to help bridge another concerning gap in Malawi’s education system.
“The Reason why most girls [in Malawi] don’t get through Grade 8 is because the teachers prey on them. They say, ‘you want marks? Here’s how you get marks,’ so the girls drop out,” Stocks said. “We need female elementary school teachers to break that cycle.”
Student teachers will have a year of academics, a year of practicum, and six months on community development of agriculture and basic first aid.
For more information on Atsikana Pa Ulendo Secondary School, go to www.malawigirlsonthemove.com.