Sunday, August 09, 2009

Under the Baobab tree

Fatima Najm | Arab News

KIDS MEAL: Malawi children wait Under The Baobab Tree for lunch.

Threads of golden sunlight dance on the pale blue waters of Lake Malawi as palm fringed shadows reach over the sandy beach, sheltering the children from the intense heat. The idyllic bay makes it hard to focus on the fact that we are on a fact-finding mission at the behest of a school that is locked in a constant struggle to shield its students from the debilitating forces of poverty and ignorance in Namaso Bay.

Hundreds of the students had gathered on the beach for a feast the Patel family had announced to the village a few days ago. The children chattered excitedly as they watched massive pots of their favorite food being carried out of the kitchen.

Jayashree Patel dissipated the tension by popping a Bollywood album into the music system. Within moments, there were dozens of children dancing around her, the hunger in their stomach forgotten for a moment, their empty bowls cast aside in favor of moving rhythmically to the Hindi tunes. She spoke to them in fluent Chechwa — one of Malawi’s languages — encouraging them to try out their moves as the food made its way safely to a serving table.

It was her husband who first established the school when he saw groups of children huddled in the shade of a massive baobab tree, day after day, whatever the weather, blistering sun or pouring rain. They were trying to feed their hungry minds with only a single teacher. Now her brother, Raj Patel, has joined forces with committed professionals, such as the board director Yo Yoshida, to embark on what they call “a passionate gesture of good will” and continue to support the residents of Namaso Bay by bringing experts in education and income-generating enterprises to see how the school can provide the most advantageous opportunities to the community in the most “non-intrusive way.”

Back on the lawn in front of the Patel family lake house, the aroma of beans and seema (a stodgy maize-based porridge) as the lids come off gargantuan pots has the children rushing to take their places in line. We are here to meet the students of the Namaso Bay School, but the meeting will have to wait till they have finished their only meal of the day. The next hour passes in a blur of hundreds of feet shuffling over the grass as a tangle of hands pushes plates and bowls forward. Anxious eyes follow our hands as we dip into the vats for food and smiles greet the generous portions we are ladling out.

Not surprising given that food inflation is running at 8.1 percent, according to Malawi’s National Statistical Office (NSO), making it impossible for most Malawians to consume anything other than what they can grow or catch. The NSO attributed the food inflation to a scarcity of maize, Malawi’s staple food, but independent industry reports have pointed out that Malawian maize exports (following a confused estimate of surplus crops) may have exacerbated the shortage. The United Nations news wire IRIN reported in January that the country had fallen short of producing the two million tons of maize required annually to feed its population of over 12 million.

It is no wonder that the children cannot get their minds or eyes off the food on their plates to talk about what they like about going to school. Education is a luxury in a country where starvation determines mortality rates and prosperity is a tin roof.

“That’s right. A tin roof; it’s not pretty but we are proud to have one,” explains a Malawian who has taken on the task of driving us the two hours from Lilongwe, the capital, to Namaso Bay. “You might like to see the dried grass on top of our houses, but dried grass means insects, vermin and even small animals can live between the layers; it is damp and because of animal droppings, it is unhygienic. When you get a tin roof, that is when your family has made it good.”

Under The Baobab Tree has injected hope into a community that feels as if it has been forgotten by the outside world. The NGO built a water tank on top of a boulder to facilitate the efficient distribution of water. But it is hard for people living in abject poverty to widen their horizons and consider the world of opportunity that lies beyond their village. In fact, they live in an area that remains unconnected by any kind of public transport.

Education or food?

It is difficult for them to imagine the merits and worth of an education. It is much easier for them to see why one would go fishing. At a parent-teacher meeting, a parent explains the challenge: “When you catch a fish, you feed the family but everyone asks how this school will help?” How can sitting in a classroom, scrawling in notebooks and discussing abstract concepts with a teacher help put food on the table? A group of parents were eager to make the point that they had noticed an improvement in the children who go to Under The Baobab Tree: “They are polite now and more willing to work hard.”

“Simple things get in the way of helping the children see a different future,” said Richard, who was then head teacher at Under The Baobab Tree. “We had only male teachers so for a female role model, I contacted a female police officer I know who promised to come and talk to the class, but she couldn’t because there was no one to bring her, no car, no bus, nothing.”

But the top scorers of the Namaso Bay school know exactly why they are studying. They sit on the grass on the Patel family lawn, excitedly telling us what they want to be when they grow up. All the girls seem to think “nurse” is a good career to aspire to. One drew gasps when she said the word “pilot.” When we ventured the word “teacher,” we drew confused looks, and the girls responded that this was a man’s job. Richard said: “We are trying to find female role models but it is hard. They repeat the things they see.”

Jayashree plays an important role here, rallying the older girls around her, talking to the young about the dangers of multiple partners and always emphasizing the merits of an education.

“There is a lot of work to be done in terms of education and awareness; unfortunately the girls think that the way to keep a man is to have his baby so they end up with multiple partners and a lot of children that grandparents are expected to care for,” she explains.

From Lilongwe to Namaso Bay to Likomo island, we hear the same story: Aids and starvation are an everyday reality in rural Malawi. For every smiling face that stared into our camera lens, there seems to have been another one that had to be buried.

“There is no concept of crop rotation or food storage or planning. You work in the field and you eat what you harvest or catch in the lake, and you survive for a day,” sighs Jayashree. “There are three months of certain starvation in many of our surrounding villages.”

The Patel family coordinated with the World Food Program which now provides a breakfast of porridge to the children, allowing them to sit through a few hours of class. They held a parent teacher meeting at which they offered to give the people cloth if they could organize themselves into groups to make the uniforms.

“The idea is to ensure that we are not handing them gifts or charity. We want them to take ownership of the school, and come together to participate in bettering their children’s lives,” explains Raj, who is keen to introduce beading or embroidery workshops as an income-generating enterprise.

The sky explodes into a kaleidoscopic canvas of reds as a group of young boys push a canoe they have spent weeks making from a tree trunk into the water. As they balanced their weight to avoid toppling over, their laughter was the only sound that broke the pervading sense of serenity.

A few donors sat watching the idyllic scene unfold as they discussed the development of a volunteer program. “It’s a lucky volunteer who will wake and sleep to this incredible view of the lake,” commented a donor, as we watched the sun fade from the sky with a final, dramatic flourish.

Check out opportunities at Under The Baobab Tree’s volunteer program by visiting their website at:

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