The story of 12 year-old John Sampson was so compelling I decided I would share it with a group of young Malawians I was meeting on Saturday November 17th. In case you haven’t heard his story, which made headlines around the world last week, let me briefly tell you who this young man is. John Samson is an orphan who is doing Standard 6 (6th Grade) at Jacaranda School for Orphans, just outside Limbe, in Blantyre. He submitted an entry into the Royal Commonwealth Essay competition, and he won first prize.
The Commonwealth has 54 countries from around the world, and this 12 year-old Std 6 Malawian won first prize, out of 8,500 people who entered. On Wednesday November 14th, John met the Queen of England, at Buckingham Palace, and presented her with a Samsung tablet which has his essay on it. The essay is titled ‘The day I wore my best clothes.’ Judges for the competition, according to Jacaranda School’s website, were The Honourable Lady Jane Roberts, award-winning author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Telegraph Deputy Editor Benedict Brogan.
Without giving away the story, which you can read in full here, it is a heartfelt narrative from a young soul dealt a cruel hand by life. Barely out of toddler stage, he lost both his parents, was abandoned by an uncle, and lived by himself. He has since picked up the pieces, all in twelve short years. John was also interviewed on the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Outlook,’ which you can listen to here (starts at 10 minutes in).
I read John’s story to a group of young Malawians, aged between 10 and 20, at an event organized by the Malawi Human Rights Youth Network. The MHRYN had brought the youth together, with funding from Plan Malawi, for them to present issues on which they are looking for stakeholder intervention from the government and civil society. They came from primary and secondary schools, and ten of them were members of the Youth Parliament, drawn from constituencies in Lilongwe. They presented their issues to government representatives from the Ministry of Education, the National Youth Council, the Ministry of Labour, the judiciary, and from civil society.
In their presence was another young Malawian, whose own story I find as gripping as John Samson’s story. The story of 20 year-old Thandikile Jumbe appeared on the front page of The Nation on Friday November 2. When she was young, Thandikile lived in one of the wealthiest suburbs of Lilongwe City. Her parents owned property and businesses, including a filling station and a car hire firm. One day Thandikile’s father died, and her mother soon followed. Her parents had left a will which entrusted all their wealth to their only daughter. For some inexplicable reasons, the will ended up in someone else’s hands, and turned Thandikile’s life upside down. Today Thandikile lives in one of the poorest and most destitute parts of Lilongwe city. She lost everything, and in the process, became a teen mother.
But life did not end there for her. She became actively involved in a Community Based Organization (CBO) looking after little orphans. Today, she is Deputy Speaker of the National Youth Parliament, and is working to make the voice of young people heard in the national assembly. She is hoping to go to college, and to continue working with other orphans at the CBO.
The third story I shared with the young people on Saturday was that of William Kamkwamba. When he was 14 years old and in his first term in secondary school, William dropped out of school. It was in 2002, and Malawi was facing a severe food crisis. His parents used all the money they had to buy food, to keep the family alive. They were unable to pay for his tuition fees. A nearby primary school had a library, which William frequented. One of the books he checked out of the library demonstrated how to make electricity at home, using junk materials such as old bicycle dynamos, tyres, and other materials.
Soon William made a windmill out of the junk materials. He powered his parents’ house and his bedroom. An educationist whose USAID-funded project had brought the library books, Dr. Hartford Mchazime, heard of William’s windmill. He brought a Daily Times reporter, Sangwani Mwafulirwa, who wrote about William. Blogger Soyapi Mumba picked up the story and wrote about it on his blog. The story was picked up by other bloggers outside Malawi, and it became an international sensation.
Today, William is pursuing a degree at Dartmouth College, one of the best universities in the world. He has co-written a memoir of his experiences, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, which became a New York Times best seller. His media appearances talking about his book included the most watched and listened to TV and radio shows in the United States. He has attracted funding for bigger solar projects in his village, and has brought electricity to his former school and the surrounding area.
During the half day meeting on Saturday November 17th, the Lilongwe youth at the meeting presented the problems they face, and the departments they have identified to take their problems to. Issues included overcrowded classrooms, very poor sanitation in schools, inadequate textbooks, predatory teachers, too many children fending for themselves, unemployment, the politicization of youth entrepreneurship loans, among others. Several stakeholders were on hand to respond to the concerns of the youth. They described what their departments and organisations were doing to protect children and the youth, and promote their welfare.
Two police officers, Sgt Gertrude Mwachande and Sub-Inspector Malango Mwasinga described the introduction of the Child Protection Unit of the Malawi Police Service. They said every single police station in the country has this unit, where anyone, including children themselves, can go to alert the police about any abuse being inflicted on a child. Two district education managers (DEMs) were invited, from Lilongwe Urban and Lilongwe Rural West. The DEM for Lilongwe Rural West, Mr. Anderson Ntandika, came in person, while the DEM for Lilongwe Urban was represented by the Primary Education Advisor for Mkukula Zone, Mr. Nelson Kachikuni. Both Mr Ntandika and Mr Kachikuni described the numerous efforts the Ministry of Education is undertaking to improve schooling conditions. They singled out sanitation programmes in schools, continuous professional development training for teachers, and the involvement of communities in supporting schools.
From the Lilongwe District Youth Office came Mrs Alice Mazungwi, while Steven Phiri, Lilongwe District Social Welfare Officer, represented his department. Other stakeholders came from the Labour Office, the Magistrate Court, and Plan Malawi. They outlined initiatives being taken to improve the social welfare of vulnerable children, and to protect from them from abuse, poverty, and destitution.
On their part, young Malawians are taking up their place at the leadership table. In schools where MHRYN is working, they have set up Child Rights Clubs, where they educate one another about their rights and responsibilities. They are learning about the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and what Malawi is doing in fulfillment of the convention. They have formed a youth parliament, and are working towards making their concerns reach the highest levels of legislative power.
During lunch I sat on a table with three boys and one girl. The boys were in Standard 6 and 7, while the girl was in Form 3. They were all from different schools. They described to me what was working and what was not working in their schools. They said they were looking forward to visits from human rights activists to teach them more about human rights, and to encourage membership of their clubs.
As the stories of children like Thandikile, John Samson and William Kamkwamba teach us, young Malawians are no longer just sitting and waiting for the day when they will finally grow up and become leaders. They are claiming their leadership roles right now. They have their own vision for how to make Malawi a better place, something that going by the levels of degeneration and backward development over the past few decades, has eluded generations of Malawian leaders, including the current one. Combined with predatory, extractive capitalism structured to enrich the global North at the expense of the global South, the result has been regressing, rather than improving quality of life for most Malawians and Africans.
There are many youth groups mushrooming around the country, young people looking for meaningful, active involvement in making Malawi a better place. For the past six months Edward Chileka Banda has been organizing fellow youth and bringing them under one umbrella organization, the Youth Consultative Forum. He is driven by one philosophy: it’s time for the youth to get meaningfully engaged in the development of the country, through volunteering their time. Edward’s zeal and energy has inspired many other young Malawians and civil society leaders who have stood side by side with the YCF to galvanize the synergies of young Malawians.
The question of leadership has dominated the media over the past few weeks. Malawians are beginning to wonder what kind of leadership we have produced over the decades, and are hankering for a new vision. As John Samson, Thandikile Jumbe, William Kamkwamba, Edward Chileka Banda and other young Malawian leaders inspire their fellow youth to envision a different Malawi, two questions will be important: What legacy are we going to leave them? What kind of education is going to prepare them not to repeat the mistakes of past generations, but to build upon and ameliorate what is being bequeathed to them?