St Michael’s Girls School in Mangochi is one of the better secondary schools in Malawi, although by international standards it doesn’t look like much. The buildings are run down with broken windows here and there. Goats from the local village roam freely across the campus, butting heads or lying on stone benches in the shade. But the students are smartly dressed, happy, and keen to learn. The teachers are skilled and motivated.
Joyce Chisale, 14, is top of her class of 122 children. Last year, she came first in various subjects ranging from Biology to Chichewa language and History. “An exceptional girl,” her biology teacher wrote on her report card. Joyce writes poetry and wants to be a doctor.
Joyce’s poems describe some of the harsh realities of life for adolescent girls in Malawi, including the risk of child marriage. But they are also uplifting and inspirational. Reciting her poem ‘Little by Little’, she says: “Little by little we’ll go, no matter how bumpy the road is, we will not turn back, but little by little we’ll go, and fulfil our dreams.”
This talented girl almost lost the chance to follow her dreams. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. Like many other families here, Joyce’s parents struggled to pay her school fees after she completed free basic education at age 13.
Her father Samson explains: “I used to work for a gas company, but I lost my job in 2005. Since then, I’ve survived on piece work, including painting, welding and offloading cargo. I earn 30,000 kwacha [$40 USD] a month, but the school fees are 80,000 [$110] per term.”
With few options, Samson was forced to rely on relatives to support Joyce’s education. “When Joyce went to secondary school, I begged my uncle for help,” he says. “He paid for the first and second term, but when I went back for the third term he said he had no more money. He had his own children to support. So we had to take her out of school.”
The decision was devastating for Joyce, her parents and her teachers.
Luckily for Joyce, later that year she was selected for a UNICEF scholarship, thanks to support from the KIND Fund, a charity set up by US TV host Lawrence O’Donnell which provides desks for schools in Malawi and scholarships for adolescent girls. Lawrence met Joyce on his annual visit to Malawi in 2016 and told her that she could return to school. Her response, including reciting ‘Little by Little’, made her an unlikely star in the US.
Home is where the heart is
UNICEF caught up with Joyce during the school holiday, at home in Ndirande township, Blantyre, after her first term back at school.
The family of seven shares a small concrete house down a narrow alleyway in the crowded neighbourhood. As well as their four children, Joyce’s parents took in a cousin after his mother died. The family squeeze into a small lounge with faded green walls, decorated with free calendars plus a framed photo of Joyce meeting Lawrence.
Outside, children play in the narrow alley and a woman sells eggs from a makeshift stall on the main road. Women carry water back from a nearby well, and people make brooms from leftover cotton from nearby garment factories. Loud techno music is carried on the breeze from a nearby bar selling a local brew made by Zambian women, earning the district the name ‘Zambia area’.
Although the conditions are cramped, Joyce is happy to be home and there is an obvious warmth between the family members and a shared pride in her achievements. “The first time I heard Joyce reciting poetry, I was speechless,” her father Samson says. “I could not believe it was my daughter writing these educated poems. I was overjoyed more than I can express. Tears came out of my eyes.”
Joyce’s mother Elube agrees. “We knew Joyce was talented, but we didn’t have the money to support her,” she says. “Now she can be someone. She can support her family and contribute to society.”
For Joyce, the best way she can say thank you is by studying. “I am so grateful to my parents and the people supporting my scholarship,” she says. “I am working hard to show that I appreciate what they have done for me. I’ve joined the writer’s club at school, and I read my poems in assembly. I feel very happy, like I am a real poet. I never knew I would be the one inspiring others about education.”
Supporting girls like Joyce
UNICEF is working to keep children in schools, with a particular focus on adolescent girls. The children’s organisation is currently supporting over 3,000 girls’ scholarships in ten districts, constructing classrooms, libraries and toilet blocks for schools and, through the KIND Fund, providing desks and chairs for students.
In addition, UNICEF is advocating with the Malawi Government to address class sizes and teacher shortages in primary schools by increasing the rural teacher’s allowance, especially in hard to reach areas, for free basic education to be extended by two years to Form 2, and for full implementation of national school standards. And it is calling for a national trust fund for girls education, to help raise resources, reach more girls and ensure long-term sustainability.
“Malawi is a developing country and over half the population are children, so they are the future of this country” UNICEF Education Specialist Kimanzi Muthengi says. “If they are well educated, this offers tremendous hope to lift millions of Malawians out of poverty. But if we fail this generation, the cycle of poverty will continue and worsen.”
Joyce’s story is an inspiration, and not just for her family and friends. In the US, after she featured in Lawrence’s show ‘The Last Word’, viewers wrote in to say how inspired they were by her story. In some cases, seeing Joyce prompted people to donate to the KIND Fund and help more girls like her go back to school. “Humbling and beautiful, Joyce Chisale renews faith in humanity,” said one viewer, David G, on Twitter. “Give if you can.”