Maina Mkandawire, 59 years old, became a teacher soon after she left the University of Malawi as a young woman. “My first responsibility was to build a house for my parents,” she tells me, “[because] all they could do was educate us.” Teaching was going to help pay the bills.
“Then you have to educate your own kids,” says Maina, who is a member of the Baha’i community here. She and her husband, Justin, have adopted two children, adding to their original three. She also supported her own siblings in the early years. “It means that, by the time you retire, you don’t have your own house.” But she says all this with a lightness, without any sense of an edge; these are just the facts of life.
Maina may not have her own house, but she does have her own school. Bambinos opened in 1993 with a pre-school; later, it added a secondary school and, together, they now have about 800 students. The playing field looks large enough to host a World Cup final, and the half-dozen school blocks are arranged neatly along paths decorated with flowers, trees and murals.
Maina and her colleagues even opened a new university, the University of Lilongwe, during the last year. She has a simple explanation for why she takes on more demands in life: “I wanted to do something for the people.”
Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, had few pre-schools in the early 1990s. Those that existed were “play schools,” with little educational substance. Bambinos was meant to be a place where “moral education and material education go hand-in-hand,” Maina tells me. And while Maina is a Baha’i, the school is secular. She says it is based on the “universal values expressed in Baha’i teachings,” but is not religious.
From Deep-frying to Deep thinking
Building the school took time. Maina had a few side jobs in the early years of her teaching career to earn extra money. She reared chickens, for example, and sold donuts. “My best business was making donuts,” Maina says. “It gave me the capital to build a nursery school. And it’s how I paid for teachers.”
The donuts helped. But Maina needed land and a building. She asked a local bank for a loan; the bank said no. Maina is sure that the refusal was because it was a woman who was asking. “Women can do things on their own … that needs to be acknowledged,” she says.
Justin, her husband, cajoled the local bank. It still refused, so Justin took his case to headquarters. Bank executives later visited Maina’s school, making a secret inspection, and were so impressed that they finally granted the loan and offered an open line of credit. Maina then found a government-owned plot of land that was allocated for education, and bought them out – for all of US$20. Bambinos was becoming real.
Going Far by Going Slow
In 1994, Malawi made primary education free. This boosted enrolment from 1.6 million children to 3 million. But the country was unprepared for such an increase. Teaching capacity, infrastructure, and even hygiene have all been compromised over the past 20 years because of the explosion in primary-age school children. Many village pre-schools operate with no funding and their teachers work for free. The schools have few basic resources and the children are sometimes under-nourished.
“There were no qualified teachers for the extra children,” Maina says. “The education system just went down. You could have people finishing high school but unable to speak English or even converse. It was a political statement – it didn’t have anything to do with education.”
The UN Development Programme says that Malawian children have a scholastic career of 10.8 years; in Iran, it’s 14.8 years, and in Canada the average duration of schooling is 16.3 years. Malawi’s primary school dropout rate is 50.9 percent and more than half of pre-teen children in Malawi leave school before finishing primary education. Only about eight percent of secondary students finish their studies.
Maina’s approach to Bambinos was defined by a more gradual approach – contrasting sharply with the government’s 1994 blitz. And completion of one’s education at Bambinos, for both primary and secondary students, girls and boys, is almost total.
According to Maina, student-to-teacher ratios at many free schools are extreme, with sometimes up to 100 students per teacher. At Bambinos, the average is 25 students to every teacher. And while Bambinos is not free, it is also not expensive. Working families, including farmers and other small business owners, can afford its fees.
“As you go forward,” Maina says, “you learn how to proceed, finding the right resources to support your next classes, and so on … You’re going with experience rather than just growing too big [too fast].”
Bambinos also offers its teachers extra training and other benefits: not only 50 percent discounted fees for their own children, but a pension scheme, funeral cover, and other benefits.
Part of Maina’s work at Bambinos involves “capacity-building.” The term is familiar to anyone working in development – and it is hardly controversial to say that the phrase is understood far less than it is used. But Maina says that when she uses the term, it means: “trying to help people live up to the responsibility you have given them.”
The vision, for Maina, was to train teachers who see their work “as a service,” and to cultivate students “who are excellent in character” as well as academically strong.
Intelligence Plus Character
Maina’s school resonated for me, deep in the “warm heart of Africa,” because it reminded me of Baha’i initiatives in 1930s Iran.
The Tarbiyat schools, opened by Baha’is during Reza Shah’s reign, were among the first modern schools to open in Iran and were soon seen as the best. The Persian word “tarbiyat” itself means “character,” and the schools became famous for attracting families beyond the Baha’i community – including the children of ministers and diplomats. (Bambinos, too, has at least one daughter of diplomats in its ranks.)
Maina is an educational pioneer in Malawi – and a part of her efforts is rooted in the early history of the Baha’is in Iran. But how does she regard her own efforts? “We are so rich,” Maina says. “We started with nothing but a positive mind and a vision of where we wanted to go. You do your best with it.” And as her students move between their classes, I can see Maina’s “best” running and laughing all around me.