By Sue Moore
From Schoolcraft to the Republic of Malawi in southern Africa is a big jump for Abby Chapin, a 2015 Schoolcraft graduate and sophomore at the University of Michigan. She made the trek to Malawi for six weeks this spring as a teacher in a Phalombe secondary boarding school.
It came about because of a book that was her required reading as a freshman at UM called the Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba, who is from Malawi and noted for building a windmill to power family appliances in his teens. Chapin was intrigued by the possibility of helping students in this impoverished country even though it would be on a small scale. She volunteered to tutor students in English, math and science. She applied for a grant that funded her expenses while in Malawi but had to pay for her air fare. Ten other college students were accepted to teach classes from May 7 to June 22, 2016.
“This boarding school was funded by the Ekari Foundation, headquartered in Seattle and named after a young man who had a dream to provide a high school or college education to students who couldn’t afford any further education than eighth grade,” Chapin pointed out. The foundation’s web site is at http://www.ekarifoundation.org/.
Youth and adults in Phalombe yearn for an education, according to the web site. But approximately 26 percent of youth in Malawi complete primary school. Just 18 percent go on to secondary school, and only 1 percent go onto college, mainly due to financial instability caused by extreme poverty. Primary school education in Malawi is free, but there is no access to a free secondary school education. The Malawi government instituted a nationwide adult literacy program but lacks funding to operate the program to its full capacity. Illiteracy rates among adults remain high.
At the boarding school, the college volunteers sometimes worked in a resource room for special needs students who were deaf. All the classes and exams are in English which is not spoken at home for these students. “Science is really hard to understand for these kids when it is all written in English,” Chapin said. “They come from one-parent or no-parent households or have unemployed parents with five or more siblings. The school gets hundreds of applications and can take only 480 at a time. They get three meals a day with breakfast being bread, peanut butter and honey. Lunch and dinner is the same, mostly beans, peas, greens, chicken, beef or goat for protein. I didn’t see a computer except one old desk top that might or might not have been working,” Chapin said. This is a very poor country that has experienced famine and has the most per capita deaths from HIV/AIDS in all of Africa.
“I really don’t intend to become a teacher but I’ve learned a lot through helping teach some summer school programs at the Schoolcraft library. My real goal is to become a mechanical engineer because I like to make things,” she said.
Chapin found her niche as a high school student at the Kalamazoo Area Math and Science Center. She participated in the MSTEM Science Fair, has taught summer reading at the library and headed up Abby’s science Fridays, this year teaching about science and rockets and even plant life from which compost is attained. She has worked at Timber Ridge and for Mac Sports, a timing company for area races.
“I’ve learned a lot more about other country’s culture, how they live. I see the contrast with what I have here in Schoolcraft. I look at things a lot differently now,” Chapin concluded.