Messages from Malawi: Delivering hope, and backpacks!

Our communications officer Fatima visits Chimbaluka school and sees first-hand how backpacks offer hope and happiness to whole communities.

Malawi is experiencing its worst food crisis in more than a decade. Last year’s pitiful harvest has culminated in soaring food prices across the country which is leaving many vulnerable families fearful about how they will feed their children. 

So it is now more than ever that I can see the genuine hope and happiness a cup of nutritious phala brings to these families. School classes are brimming with hungry and eager children. 

Mary’s Meals’ school feeding programme continues to serve hope during such a critical period and our backpack distributions also continue across Malawi. Being there to witness these distributions of school bags - packed with essential educational items - always leaves me speechless and they are often met with stunned silence from the children too. But this soon transforms into ecstatic excitement filled with laughter, dancing and singing.

Chikwawa, a district in southern Malawi, is by far one of the hottest places I’ve travelled to with some of the friendliest people I’ve met. As one of the worst affected areas in last year’s floods, it is home to many families living amidst chronic hunger and acute food shortages. The distribution was to take place at Chimbaluka school and it was the first time Rob Donnelly, Mary’s Meals’ new director of programmes, who was visiting our Malawi office, was going to witness a distribution. 

After two hours of travelling, with a thick dust cloud clearing behind us, we arrived at the school. In the distance tiny clusters of mud houses covered by thatched straw roofs could be seen; helping to make up the dry, brown landscape of this remote area. 

The Mary’s Meals Malawi warehouse team had arrived just before us with the truck carrying the backpacks. Head teacher Moses Ndelrema welcomed us into the school grounds and thanked Mary’s Meals for this wonderful backpack surprise.  

Ahead of us, tiny classrooms made up of wooden trunks played host to children sat on the dusty dry ground, their eyes fixed on the teacher and blackboard in front of them. “They’ve just eaten their phala and so now what you are seeing is the most attention they will give to their teachers today,” said Mr Ndelrema. 

As the Mary’s Meals team lined up large white sacks filled with these treasure-troves of stationery, clothing and shoes outside each classroom, their attention began to waver. Little quiet conversations began to stem between one another, “what are those white bags?” and “why are all these people here?” 

As they began to realise what was happening, they broke into wide smiles. In one of the most organised distributions I have witnessed they lined up enthusiastically to receive their backpacks. Clutching their new bags to their chests, they returned to the classrooms where a gentle murmur of excitement could be heard. 

Each child showcased their new bag to their peers, each one praising the other’s. As they opened their bags, expressions of glee and happiness could be seen on everyone’s faces.

Some looked at each item in meticulous detail while others began to try and test the items out. “This is the only gift many of these children have ever received,” said Mr Jack Chilenje, who volunteers at the school twice a week. Helping some of the children uncover their items, he explained: “Just the porridge alone gives us hope as many of us are finding it very difficult to provide food for our children. But these backpacks are really telling us all in this community not to lose that hope. Not to give up.” 

The Backpack Project complements our main school feeding focus by offering an added incentive to keep children in school. 

The head teacher, Mr Moses Ndelrema told us: “Many of the parents are out trying to farm to provide a meal for the children tonight. When they will see what their child has come back with they will think they have won some sort of lottery. They will be feeling this happiness and hope has been sent over from Mary’s Meals’ supporters’ who don’t even know us!

“This is everything they need to keep attending school, everything they didn’t have to learn in class they now have. Now they can’t have any excuses to miss their homework.” When Mr Ndelrema finished speaking, a group of children surrounding him bellowed at the top of their lungs: “Zikomo!” (Thank you).

What to get involved? Find out what to pack.