Fódhla Ní Dhálaigh (left) and Jessica Sweeney (right) sitting with members of a horticultural group supported by Gorta-Self Help Africa, Chitato village, Balaka, Malawi.
Three teenagers from a Clonakilty school got up close to some of the biggest challenges affecting people in rural Africa, during a schools study visit to Malawi, this month.
The girls, from Sacred Heart, Clonakilty, travelled with their teacher as part of a 20 strong group from across Ireland who took part in the one-week visit organised by Irish development charity Gorta-Self Help Africa.
Fódhla Ní Dhálaigh, Jessica Sweeney, Laura-Ann O’Donovan and teacher Therese Long travelled to Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi, and on to the Balaka district in the southern part of the sub-Saharan country.
During their trip, organised by the Development Education unit at Gorta-Self Help Africa, the group visited a local secondary school, a university, and met with farming communities, horticultural groups, women groups and villagers who are being supported by the charity to develop village-based savings and loans groups.
“The aim of the trip is to give the students and teachers a chance to see Africa at first hand, and learn more about the challenges that people face in their daily lives – whether it relates to gender equality, climate, trade or the issues around farming and sustainable food production,” explained Dorothy Jacob, coordinator of Gorta-Self Help Africa’s schools programme. “It’s about both deepening understandings and challenging preconceptions,” she added.
The trip is arranged annually for schools that take part in Gorta-Self Help Africa’s programme of school workshops, and also carry out local fundraising activities that both support the costs of the trip and contribute to the work of the charity.
During the visit the Clonakilty students, who were encouraged to find out more about a selected topic during their journey, undertook their own research into gender equality in Malawi.
“We learned that women do most of the physical work on farms as well as in the house. A lot of men I talked to recognised that this was unfair, and they too want things to change. Gender inequalities are reducing in Malawi, but it will take time to see a real change,” said Laura-Ann O’Donovan.
Fódhla Ní Dhálaigh said that she was surprised at how progressive Malawi was regarding gender equality. “People are definitely aware that it is essential in order to drive change in their country,” she added.
Through exchanges with farming communities, the students found out that challenges known by farmers in Malawi are not that different to those Irish farmers faced in the past.
“I’ve learned that Malawi’s farmers rely heavily on a single crop – maize. Currently, the country is affected by an invasive caterpillar called fall armyworm. It is taking away a lot of the maize,” said Jessica Sweeney. “With help from Gorta-Self Help Africa farmers are starting to diversify their crops to cope with this threat,” she added.
The trip-of-a-lifetime was the occasion for the group to discover the culture of the country known as the warm heart of Africa. “It has been a fantastic experience. Everyone was so welcoming. Malawi is an amazing country,” concluded Laura-Ann O’Donovan.
Each year, students of Irish secondary schools that have been involved in Development Education workshops and activities can apply to take part in the study visit, with the participants from each school chosen in a selection process that includes an essay and an interview.
The Clonakilty group, supported by their families, friends and schoolmates reached out to their local communities and organised fundraising events including table quizzes, coffee mornings, concerts and more, to fund their trip.
“Our hope is that once the students and teachers come back home, they will share their learning and become engaged and active citizens in their communities, and take the experiences that they have with them into their lives in the years to come,” added Dorothy Jacob.