Donuts to dissertations: UNICEF scholars make it to university

Tiffany Kapanda, 18, is studying arts and humanities at Chancellor College in Zomba
© UNICEF Malawi/2018/Andrew Brown

The sprawling campus of Chancellor College is on the edge of Malawi’s former capital city, Zomba, with the dramatic profile of Zomba Plateau behind it. It is only 120 kms from the dirt tracks, maize fields, and mud-brick villages of student Tiffany’s home in Mangochi, but it feels like a world away. Fashionably dressed students sit in groups chatting on manicured lawns in front of the modern library building and lecture halls. A young man in a Che Guevara t-shirt walks past two women in colourful Muslim head scarfs. Flyers on the noticeboard outside the library advertise everything from music concerts to a study tour of the Ministry of Finance. It could be a university campus anywhere in the world.

Tiffany Kapanda, 18, has seen both sides of Malawi. A former UNICEF scholar, now studying at Chancellor College, she comes from Malembo village in Mangochi District. It’s a typical rural village with few opportunities except subsistence farming. Neither of her parents has a regular job. Her mother moved to South Africa in search of work, where she does temporary jobs as a maid. Her father also lives away from home, doing occasional carpentry and building work.

“When my mother left home, my sister and I went to live with our Grandmother in Blantyre,” Tiffany says. “It was difficult living with my Grandmother. She’s old and depends on my uncle. She earns a bit of money selling donuts and sweet beer outside the house, but it’s not enough.”

Tiffany’s grandmother and sister selling donuts outside their home in Blantyre
© UNICEF Malawi/2018/Andrew Brown

Tiffany’s uncle is the success story of her family. He put himself through college and got a government job, eventually moving to South Africa. Initially, he supported Tiffany and her sister to go to secondary school. She was selected for the prestigious St Michael’s Girls Secondary School and completed the first two years with good grades. But then her uncle lost his job and could no longer support the family.

“My Grandmother was planning to move me to a local Community Day Secondary School,” Tiffany says. These schools are cheaper than national secondary schools, but much lower quality. “I felt so sad when I learned I would have to leave St Michael’s,” she continues. “I felt like my chance to go to university and have a career had become much less.”

Tiffany told her teacher about her situation. Just before she was due to leave, she was delighted to learn she had been selected for a UNICEF scholarship, thanks to support from the US-based KIND Fund. MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell created the ground-breaking Fund with UNICEF in 2010 to support education in Malawi. Since then, the program has raised over $21 million for desks and girls’ scholarships thanks to TV station MSNBC and viewers of ‘The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell’.

“When my teacher told me, I was so excited and grateful,” Tiffany says. “I started a new chapter since then. Getting the scholarship made me work even harder. I was determined to pass. As much as I had a chance from UNICEF, I knew that I could do it. So here I am.”

Just over half of girls in Malawi complete primary school but only one in three make it to secondary school, and only one in five graduates. To address this, UNICEF supports vulnerable children with tuition fees, accommodation costs, learning materials, school bags, uniforms, sanitary pads and school shoes. In 2018, the first cohort of UNICEF scholars graduated from secondary school. Some are now at University, including one as far afield as Shandong, China.

Tiffany graduated with 14 points, a very high grade and enough to secure a place to study political science at Chancellor College, one of the top three universities in Malawi. To pay for the course, she took out a government loan for 550,000 kwacha (US $750) per year to pay her tuition fees and boarding, which she will have to pay back when she starts work.

“University is much harder than secondary school,” Tiffany says. “You have to motivate yourself and find your own time to study. I’m learning about public administration and political theory. I haven’t yet decided what to do after college. Maybe I will try to become an MP. I’m working hard because I want to be successful and help support my family.”

Fannie Mchimwa, 18, is studying arts and humanities at Chancellor College
© UNICEF Malawi/2018/Andrew Brown

I’ll be there for you

Luckily for Tiffany, she is not alone. Her best friend Fannie, a fellow UNICEF scholar from St Michael’s School, also made it to Chancellor College, where she is studying arts and humanities. The two girls support each other as they navigate the transition from secondary school to university.

Fannie climbs the stairs to the University library, where she finds a desk in a quiet corner and starts studying one of the yellowing textbooks that line the shelves. Originally from Bangwe township in Blantyre, Fannie is an only child. She never knew her father and her mother passed away after an illness when she was six years old. Since then, she has lived with her aunt Londly, who works as a hairdresser in Zomba.

Fannie was selected to go to St Michael’s School, but her aunt struggled to pay the tuition and boarding fees. Eventually, she was sent home and stayed with her aunt for a month while Londly tried to raise money to pay the outstanding amount. “It was very hard,” Fannie remembers. “I had to stay at home doing nothing while my friends continued to learn. I thought my life ended there and that I wouldn’t have a chance to go to college. I thought my dreams were shattered.”

Then one day, Fannie got a phone call from her teacher who told her she had been selected for a UNICEF scholarship. “I was so happy, I wasn’t expecting it at all,” she says. “From then on, my life changed. We didn’t have to struggle for fees, notebooks, uniform or boarding. It really helped me.” Fannie also met Lawrence O’Donnell when he visited St Michael’s School in 2016. “He encouraged us and told us not to lose hope,” she says.

Fannie’s university fees are being paid by her uncle, who works at the college as a janitor. “When I got into Chancellor College, my aunt was so happy she screamed,” she says. “It’s so exciting because many people don’t reach here. But I came here, so I feel so proud to be here. I’m very happy.”

Fannie’s aunt, Londly Mchimwa, at her hair salon near Chancellor College in Zomba
© UNICEF Malawi/2018/Andrew Brown

To build on the KIND Fund scholarships, UNICEF has launched Funo Langa, a fundraising campaign for the newly-established Secondary Education Trust. This brings together existing bursary schemes run by UNICEF, the Government and others. It allows Malawian companies, individuals and expatriates to donate, increasing the number of scholarships for both girls and boys.

“Malawi is a developing country and over half the population are children, so they are the future of this country,” UNICEF Chief of Education Kimanzi Muthengi says. “Last year, over 5,500 girls were supported with UNICEF scholarships through the KIND Fund. We hope that Funo Langa will take us a step closer to affordable secondary education for all children in the country.”

At the bottom of the hill from Chancellor College is Sisters’ Wish salon, a tiny roadside booth next to a snack shop, where Fannie’s aunt Londly cuts and braids the hair of university students. Traffic roars past on the main road as she bends over a young woman sat on a plastic stool, weaving red threads into her hair. Beauty products and a small mirror hang from hooks in the whitewashed walls.

“I’ve taken care of Fannie since she was very small. She is like a daughter to me,” Londly says. “I felt so bad when she was sent home from school but there was nothing I could do. We had no money. I was so happy when she got the scholarship, and I couldn’t believe it when she got into Chancellor College. I never imagined that someone from my family would study there.”

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