We invited Victor Chinyama, the Chief of Communications for UNICEF in Malawi, to be a guest-blogger for us here at The Last Word. He has been working with Lawrence on the joint MSNBC-UNICEF initiative, K.I.N.D.: Kids In Need Of Desks, to improve schools in Malawi. Below he explains his first encounter with Lawrence and why it's so important to help create a better learning environment for these children.
The email was simply titled “Request – Malawi”. I would have missed it in the dozens of emails I receive everyday, most of them unsolicited, were it not for the words NBC Universal in brackets after the sender’s name. My attention poked, I opened the email and thus began a journey that is likely to transform hundreds of classrooms and potentially change the lives of thousands of children in Malawi.
The email was from Dana Haller, a producer at MSNBC. Dana told me a new host, Lawrence O’Donnell, was travelling to Malawi on a personal trip and was wondering if we could assist him visit a couple of schools. I said no problem and Lawrence duly arrived at the end of July this year.
I was not sure what to expect. Dana had told me that Lawrence had been made aware of the school furniture problem in Malawi by a personal friend who had visited Malawi. He therefore wanted to see the situation for himself, buy desks for a school, film the delivery, and show his audiences back home that something can be done.
I explained to Lawrence the challenges schools in Malawi face: the lack of furniture, which forces students to sit on the floor, a shortage of 30,000 classrooms, which means students learn in the open or under trees, average class sizes of 100, and the absence of running water and toilets in some schools. Only 35 per cent of children complete primary schooling and, because Malawi’s current system requires students to write exams at the end of every grade, about 20 per cent of all students in any given year are forced to repeat the grade because they don’t pass. We estimate that 65 per cent of the education budget is wasted on teaching children who drop out altogether or repeat grades.
Lawrence and I visited a local manufacturer where he placed an order for 40 desks. Two days later, we were at Mchesi Primary School to witness the delivery. It was an uproarious scene, hundreds of children running towards the truck, others breaking out in song and dance, and still others screaming with excitement. Some of the students who sat on those desks were doing so for the first time in their lives.
Four months later, I decided to visit the school to see how the desks were fairing. Seventh grader Promise Nkhata told me her outlook towards school had changed.
"Before the desks were bought, I used to sit on the floor. I didn't like coming to school. Sitting on a desk makes me comfortable and I am able to concentrate on the lessons. I am able to write well and I can sit for a longer time." Promise says she wants to be a doctor when she finishes school.
A desk costs $48, including transportation. If MSNBC raises $2 million, 93,000 more children will be able to sit on a desk. Their chances of fulfilling their dreams will be ever more brighter.
— By Victor Chinyama