In developed countries like the United States your earning potential is often based on the number of diplomas you have. But in rural Malawi, completing even a primary education is one of the most precious things anyone can achieve. For most girls there, getting even that single diploma is a rarity.
With a higher value placed on working in the fields, fetching water and helping take care of younger siblings, education lags behind for girls.
Take 14-year-old Tinenji Pitala, who wants to be an accountant. Despite always studying hard to get the grades that put her at the top of her class, she faces mammoth hurdles to go any further. Right now her dream may end in the eighth grade.
A Tough Reality
While cultural beliefs and attitudes toward education are major obstacles for so many Malawian children like Tinenji, other challenges to staying in school include the lack of resources: textbooks and classrooms for students, housing for teachers, even hiring the teachers to begin with.
It's hard for teachers who were educated in urban areas and accustomed to a semi-modern lifestyle to return to extreme rural living conditions, making less money than they would in larger towns and cities. Also consider the AIDS pandemic is another serious threat -- responsible for the deaths of up to 1,200 primary and secondary teachers each year.
At the Kasanduliza Primary School where Tinenji goes, located in one of Malawi's poorest areas, there are 704 students - and five teachers with four classrooms. Most children show up unable to write down lessons because their families cannot afford even a 14-cent pen or the 28 cents for an 80-page notebook. And today the school can only offer three homes for those five teachers, putting a strain on recruiting and retaining teachers in such poor rural areas where educational opportunities are needed the most.
Despite the challenges, one teacher says she's there to stay.
At night, inside her dilapidated mud brick home just a stone's throw from Kasanduliza Primary, Ms. Gama, 37, sits on a small mat working on lesson plans by candlelight. When it rains, the waters not only flood her classroom but also pour through the roof of her home. She's gotten into the habit of hanging her clothes from the only rafter that doesn't leak so they don't get wet or touch the muddy earthen floor.
Growing up in this area, Ms. Gama always wanted to be a teacher. A child of poverty herself, her parents sold peanuts and the family goat to put her through secondary school. She now feels obliged to use her education to give back to her community and encourage girls like Tinenji not to give up hope.
Ms. Gama has 124 students on her class roster but attendance is poor. After school, teachers like Ms. Gama often go out on foot, approaching homes to make sure everything is alright as well as encourage parents to send their children to school the next day.
"Many come today but might not come tomorrow," says Ms. Gama. "When families are short on food the kids are out begging or putting in extra time working the fields. You can teach and teach but they don't hear you when they're hungry. We teachers try our best, but a major problem is the situation kids are coming from. Deep poverty hinders the learning experience."
As in much of Africa where deep poverty is abundant, food insecurity is a barrier to education. And no country has ever developed with a high proportion of illiterate citizens.
During Malawi's lean "hungry season" from December to April, many families will eat only once a day, usually at night. This means children will walk to school, typically up to eight kilometers away, attend class for five hours, then walk home - all on an empty stomach. If they are lucky, someone riding by on a single-speed bicycle might toss them a piece of sugar cane to chew on. Ms. Gama says that many children fall asleep in class not because they are bored, but because they lack the energy to stay awake. She slips them food when she can.
Malawian families depend on rain to grow crops to nourish their children, and in years of drought the effects are especially devastating. In early 2005, lack of rain left a third of Malawi's 12 million people hungry. Most families are barely able to grow and store enough corn or sorghum to last until the next harvest.
During that drought year, some schools provided feeding programs with support from aid organizations like CARE - an added incentive to send most every child to school. But those feeding programs ended once the rains fell and harvests started coming in. As a result, far fewer students returned to class.
Nearly 40 percent of Malawi's entire population is illiterate. According to the National Statistics Office, the male literacy rate in Malawi is 72 percent while the female literacy rate is a meager 49 percent.
For girls, educational opportunity starts in their favor, but quickly turns against them.
In first grade, just over 50 percent of students are girls at schools like Kasanduliza Primary. By the eighth grade, however, only about a third are female students. Even fewer will go on to secondary school, where fees must be paid.
Girls are often forced to leave school at puberty to marry and deliver children. They will have, on average, six or seven children, and some as many as 10 children in their lifetime. Most parents never went to school themselves and often place little value on learning.
But Tinenji's parents are invisible to her. She hasn't seen them in the six years since being abandoned. She's been living with the family of her older sister, who says she now wants Tinenji at home rather than at school, helping more in the fields and taking on more household chores - basically becoming a second mother to her nieces and nephews.
According to Lameck Chirwa, the school headmaster, about 20 out of 44 in this year's graduating class at Kasanduliza Primary could move on to secondary school. But like in Tinenji's case, finding money to pay school fees and presenting a compelling case at home about the importance of continuing their education is a major hurdle.
Reasons for Optimism
Despite these obstacles, education in Malawi has come a long way since free primary schools were introduced in 1994, leading to a 70 percent increase in enrollment. There are many reasons to be hopeful that the quality of education at Kasanduliza Primary and other schools in Malawi will improve.
According to Norman Tembo, CARE's education coordinator in Malawi, it starts with a collective responsibility. "The best way to make a difference is to forge ahead and fill critical gaps," he says. "The situation doesn't have one-size-fits-all solution."
Over recent years, Norman has been working tirelessly with the Ministry of Education to help realize a vision of implementing a national strategy for community participation. Closer to the trenches, he and his staff work with headmasters like Lameck and teachers like Ms. Gama to organize parent-teacher committees that help place a higher value on learning in rural communities. At Kasanduliza Primary, a breakthrough occurred in 2007 when 30 children managed to go on to secondary school, which according to Lameck, was more than double what it was when he started as headmaster in 2002.
Many parents are now showing up at schools for the first time, helping repair leaky roofs, making bricks for new classrooms and teacher homes, and becoming role models for other parents and their children along the way.
On another front, the HIV rate has stabilized at around 14 percent, and increased access to lifesaving antiretroviral drugs is prolonging the productive years of the working population, including teachers. Prevention programs are also helping reduce the spread of HIV.
CARE works with families and communities to empower them with more control over crop production demonstrating ways to grow more even when it rains less. For example, whole communities are now organizing themselves to dig Olympic pool-sized reservoirs. The stored water is used to irrigate crops, as well as funnel down to newly built and stocked fish ponds, resulting in more protein in their diets and greater peace of mind in their households.
Nationally, around 90 percent of Malawi's debt was forgiven in 2006, making more money available to invest in education and other development programs rather than pay interest.
It's hoped that with these changes, more families will start to view education in a different light so that girls like Tinenji, who desperately want to go to secondary school and on to college, will be rewarded for their hard work and good grades. Then they will have a fighting chance to get diplomas and realize their dreams of becoming accountants, doctors and teachers.