Lilongwe, Malawi — Caroline Kachigwali loves to talk about science. It is the favorite subject of the 14-year-old who is in her last year of primary school and wants to become a pilot. She believes her affinity for it will one day change her life.
Yet, in 2018, her dreams were almost derailed after her parents died of chronic illness. “I stopped going to school, because I could not afford to pay for those on my own,” she told Al Jazeera.
Malawi has a free primary education policy but pupils are expected to pay a couple of levies including the school development fund, to be allowed to sit for exams.
But many are still unable to pay and that is in part, responsible for the high rate of out-of-school children in the Southern African country – where up to 60 percent of the people are multidimensionally poor. According to a 2021 report by Malawi’s National Statistical Office report, in 2021, two-thirds of children nationwide did not complete their primary education.
With no relative around, Kachigwali, then 11, had no choice but to leave school and shoulder the responsibility of fending for herself and her younger sister. Together, they stayed in a house with mud walls, a dirt floor and a grass thatched roof in the village of Ndodani just outside Lilongwe, Malawi’s capital city.
She was still beclouded by despair when she met Temwani Chilenga who gave her a home, then took her back to class at Chambu Primary School in the Area 25 community of Lilongwe.
“I met Madam Chilenga when she was looking for underprivileged children in our village,” Kachigwali said, with a smile on her face. “After seeing our situation, she took us in and for that, I’ll forever be grateful. She’s like a mother to us.”
She is one of 285 children who have been under the care of Chilenga, a 25-year-old primary school teacher.
Born to a meteorologist and a teacher, Chilenga is the fifth of their seven children. From a very young age, she knew she wanted to shine a light on others.
“Growing up, I did not have resources but my parents tried their best, so I know what it’s like for someone to lack something in life,” she said. “I knew someday I had to help orphans and other underprivileged children.”
In 2013, her journey to fulfilling that dream began when she enrolled at a Teachers Training College in central Malawi to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a teacher. Chilenga had previously studied journalism at the certificate level but decided to withdraw because she felt being an educator was her calling. “I have always been fond of children,” she said.
Five years later, when she had completed her training, she was posted to a government school – Chambu – on the outskirts of Lilongwe – where she began teaching.
It was there that she established her charity Zoe Foundation after seeing many children come to her class in tattered clothes, without shoes and also learning on an empty stomach because their parents and guardians could not afford basic necessities.
“Many of the kids stayed weeks without coming to school, while others dropped out completely,” Chilenga told Al Jazeera. “This broke my heart. Using my own salary, I started buying them school uniforms, and paid for all their necessities.”
Later on, she discovered that some of the children were orphans and lived in deplorable conditions. Through the help of chiefs in Ndodani village, Chilenga was able to acquire a piece of land to build a home for the children with the help of international donations sourced through Facebook.
Currently, she houses 95 orphans in the age group of 6-17, 55 girls and 40 boys. But beyond the orphanage she built, she also supports other children with food, uniforms and other learning materials as well as clothes.
Within the compound, there is a small nursery with murals of numbers and alphabets painted on the wall – the first nursery in the area and one providing free services.
Some of her fellow teachers and volunteer caregivers from the community also helped her with tasks, like Vyness Mzerum’mawa who reached out after being with the Ndodani project.
“I’m still awed by her generosity,” said Mzerum’mawa, her colleague. “This country needs more people like Timwani Chilenga.”
Mzerum’mawa said Chilenga’s intervention has had a pleasing effect as children who dropped out of school or got married early are now returning to class.
“When most of the children first came here, most of them looked lost, alone and full of despair, but this has significantly changed,” she said.
Sacrifices and challenges
So far, Chilenga has been bootstrapping to run the project, sacrificing part of her meagre monthly salary (approximately $123) to run the foundation, along with donations from followers of her work.
But even that is insufficient to offset all the expenses. “Donations from well-wishers is what also keeps the foundation running because there are times when I completely have no finances,” she said.
At the moment, the children at the orphanage are eating only twice a day due to a food shortage. There are also not enough beds and mattresses for them to sleep on.
Intermittently, Chilenga gets accusations of wanting to benefit from helping the children and that has often punctured her spirit.
“There are others who tell me this work will not take me anywhere because there were others before me who tried to do what I do but failed,” she said. “But all I do is ignore such remarks.”
But she remains deeply devoted to her work, saving every moment. “Helping these children brings me so much joy because I get to see how happy these children are,” she said. “I feel like a part of me is missing whenever I am away from them.”
For Jennifer Mkandawire, executive director of the Lilongwe-based Foundation for Children’s Rights nonprofit, Chilenga’s work is as inspiring as it is important.
“It is not every day where you are going to hear a story of a fairly young lady giving her time, effort and money just to make sure that orphaned children have a roof over their head and food to eat,” she said. “The country has a lot of such vulnerable children, and is struggling to protect them, so to have someone step in is really commendable.”
Fred Simwaka, spokesman for the Ministry of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare, said Chilenga has a “spirit that is lacking in most of us”.
“We are grateful because her work is complimenting government’s efforts of uplifting the less fortunate,” he told Al Jazeera. “As government, we have moved away from the policy of having orphanages but we are working closely with organizations that deal with the welfare of children.”
For her efforts, the young teacher was honored this February by the United Kingdom with a Commonwealth Point of Light award, a recognition for young leaders making a difference in their communities.
‘A safe place’
It is Chilenga’s dream that her wards go on to graduate from university and Kachigwali seems to be on the road to fulfilling that desire. Later this year, she will sit for her primary school leaving examinations and is looking forward to beginning her secondary education.
But while she remains at the orphanage, Kachigwali says she has gained a family in the foundation, something she never thought would ever exist in her life again.
“I have been given a second chance,” she said. “I’m happy to have found this in my life. I’m at peace knowing that [tomorrow] I’m going to wake up at a safe place, and go to school.”