Every now and again, you hear about or meet someone who amazes you so much that it restores your faith in humanity. Sometimes that person is someone in a far-away land. At other times that person is an unsung hero amongst your country folk.
Temwani Chilenga is one such person.
If the spirit of Ubuntu is personified in deeds, then what she has achieved is exactly what Ubuntu looks like.
Born fourth in a family of six children, to a father who was a Meteorologist and a mother who was a Teacher, Temwani did her primary school education at Kachanga Primary School in Blantyre, Malawi, the City in which she grew up. This was followed by four years at Our Lady of Wisdom Secondary School, a Catholic Institution also in Blantyre.
After her Secondary school studies, Temwani decided to study Journalism at Malawi's Institute of Journalism, where she spent 2 years. In 2018, she decided to train as a teacher, following in the footsteps of her mum, and enrolled at Development Aid from People to People (DAPP) Dowa TTC, a Teacher Training College.
- DAPP DOWA TTC feeding itself from Farm Activities (The Nation)
In Malawi, the Ministry of Education decides the school & location that a teacher / trainee teacher is to be based in. So Temwani was posted to Chambu Primary School, on the outskirts of Lilongwe, the Capital city of Malawi, in 2017. She started work there in January 2018. Because DAPP Dowa TTC only trains teachers as a private institution, at the end of the training, trainee teachers are posted to government schools.
Temwani began teaching at Chambu Primary School a Standard 3 (Year 3) class which was the largest class in the school at the time, with more than 250 children! Most of the children came from poor families and lived in areas where they faced numerous hardships. But this was by no means only unique to her class in that most children enrolled in the school came from poor families.
This she says is partly what inspired her to do something about it.
"It's very hard to learn when you don't have the needed things. I also noted that some kids are orphans and that broke my heart". Temwani said.
She shed many tears and some of her fellow teachers dismissed her grief and helplessness as childish when some days she would get out of a class after a lesson and immediately burst out into tears.
"Most kids don't have shoes, school uniforms and needed school supplies so I started helping a few using my salary and things started to improve".
She says she wasn't satisfied because she couldn't help all the kids with her small salary, let alone have enough left to look after herself.
This selfless spirit towards poor children in her school is what distinguishes Temwani as truly special.
She decided to join one teachers' Facebook group and one day asked for some tips and ideas on teaching large classes.
In the responses that followed, "Some teachers noted that the class was too large and asked if we needed any support". Temwani asked for school supplies. At that time, she didn't know that the teachers in the Facebook Group were not from Malawi. But soon they started sending small parcels of school supplies and later they told her that because it was expensive to ship things to Malawi, it would be better if they sent money for her to go out and buy the things the children needed at the school for as many kids as were in need.
"That made me happy. I was taking pictures of the things I bought and the teachers were happy to see their money being used accordingly"
Then one day, one of the teachers in the Group decided to invite her to the US, to Festus, Missouri. Her time there was amazing and she visited several schools to meet with students, teachers and community groups.
"I went there in April 2019 and I came back in July. I came with children's clothes, chocolates and money".
Funds that were to be used to connect tap water to several villages, and to buy water filters for the plumbing – amongst other necessities. Eventually some of the assistance she received was used to build homes for orphans and single mothers, many of whom had up to this point lived in terrible conditions.
The publicity she received also generated support both locally and from Malawians living outside Malawi. Soon, Temwani was doing far more than she had thought she'd be able to do, and attracting support from people across the world.
Temwani says life has been better for some of the most deprived families of her students since then.
"So many children are back to school now and others are back from [early] marriages and others are back from [the] streets."
But the work is not complete. Not yet. While many of the children in the area in which she works now go to school, not all of them are enrolled because of the inability of some families to afford enrolment fees that must be paid before each child starts school. Further, they also have to pay for examinations; otherwise they are not allowed to stay in school. This she says is a source of much bother, and further powers her resolve to make sure that most kids in the area are in school.
"I hate seeing kids dropping out because of poverty. Apart from poverty, other kids drop out because of ill-treatment from some teachers and bullies and this is a very big problem too."
Congestion in classes too is an issue, as most class sizes are large. Various organisations and charities have over the years petitioned the Ministry of Education and the Government of Malawi to do something about this, and despite government saying that they send money to rural areas for school improvement plans, it appears that the funding does not translate into tangibles on the ground – with the consequence that not much is being done about classroom congestion.
The lack of text books too is another everyday problem faced by both teachers and learners. While there are some charities and NGO's addressing that fight, there's so much that needs to be done to address what is a chronic shortage.
Since schools were closed by the Government of Malawi early in March this year, following the COVID-19 pandemic, Temwani teaches some of her students at home as a way of keeping them busy. With the children seated outside, she teaches them Maths, English, Chichewa, Reading and Handwriting.
"They've also learnt how to sew masks by hand and that keeps them busy too. Apart from that, they also have to water our orchards that we have and older kids have to volunteer in some projects like the current project where we are building new homes."
Among the projects the children are involved in is a carpentry workshop. The girls are also learning sewing as a way of keeping them busy at home. And both boys and girls have learned how to make re-usable sanitary pads.
"I have books for them too to read while they wait for the schools to re-open. I have also planned some projects for the future."
In true star fashion, Temwani has set her sights on some big and ambitious projects.
"We will maintain damaged roads, teach carpentry, tailoring, adult literacy classes and other skills to people who have never been to school and feel like they're too old to start again. We don't want to leave anyone behind."
This remarkable selfless spirit is something that must be applauded universally. In Malawi (as in many other places across the world), it is an unfortunate fact of life that most people look away in apathy from the plight of millions of their fellow citizens, many of whom experience hardship brought about by poverty. The scale of the problem too means that African Governments, already burdened by many other challenges, can be slow to tackle and deal with the less overt aspects of poverty. Unfortunately, the lack of inaction means that generations of children either do not receive the standard of education that they should be receiving, or end up not going to school at all.
But seeing the transformative interventions which Temwani and her team have made in this small part of Africa, against many odds and funded only by small grants from well-wishers is encouraging. It is something that she should be immensely proud of, and her positive efforts must be supported!