Working toward a quality education for all.

Building Schools to Combat Illiteracy Among Youths and Adults

Brett Selzak, 
Building Schools to Combat Illiteracy Among Youths and Adults

Elizabeth Mwale was born in 2005 in Fwifwi, Malawi—one of the most densely populated and least developed countries in the world. The majority of Malawi’s residents live in rural communities where up to 90 percent of adults are unable to read and write, and the nation is ravaged by one of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in the world. After leaving school in second grade, it would have been easy, even expected, for Elizabeth to become another statistic of poverty. But today, she is back in school and thriving, and has something many in developing countries often live without—hope.

Built in partnership with In a Perfect World, buildOn’s Dwalala School in Fwifwi is bringing hope to many like Elizabeth, from primary school to adulthood. buildOn is a nonprofit with a mission to break the cycle of poverty, illiteracy, and low expectations through service and education by building schools in seven of the economically poorest countries in the world. These schools are constructed in true partnership with local communities and in villages that historically haven’t had an adequate school structure. Community members pledge to send girls to the new school in equal numbers to boys, and local men and women are given equal leadership opportunities in project management and construction. 

Since the school in Fwifwi, Malawi completed construction in June of 2014, enrollment has grown to 727 students (a 28 percent enrollment increase) and 54 percent of these students are female. Additionally, through buildOn’s Adult Literacy Program, more than 100 adults are learning to read and write for the first time and a small business loan program has been initiated which has the potential to bring long-term stability and self-reliance to the community.

Unfortunately, there are many factors that can prevent a child from receiving an education, even when there is a school nearby. Extreme poverty, gender discrimination, a lack of understanding about the human rights of children, or of the inherent value of education can keep a child out of the classroom. But through the buildOn Enroll Program (now offered in six of the seven developing countries buildOn works in), children like Elizabeth have the opportunity to return to school after dropping out, and many are attending school for the first time. Plus, with help and financial support of adults in the community, children who return to school are more likely to stay there.

Forty-four-year-old Linesi Banda is one of those adults. She volunteered to help build the Dwalala School so that the children of her village would have an opportunity she missed out on as a child – the chance to learn to read and write. When Linesi learned the school would also have an Adult Literacy Program, she signed up immediately.

“I was annoyed with the conduct of my husband. He would give me letters for safekeeping which were actually letters from his girlfriend since he knew that I was illiterate and I could not read them,” Linesi says. “That is the situation that prompted me to start the Adult Literacy classes at Dwalala. I have also seen that the world is changing and it needs educated people.”

Because of her newfound education, Linesi is now able to read and write, and is taking an active role in her community and in her own life. Linesi and the other program students started a village savings and loan initiative that provides microloans to small business, such as selling fruits and vegetables, baking and brewing beer. And through this promotion of basic education, Adult Literacy participants like Linesi have the opportunity, often for the first time in their lives, to learn about poverty, health, disease and injustice. “I am very proud that I am no longer in the dark,” she says.

Linesi, like many others, is committed to ending the cycle of poverty and illiteracy in her community, and has joined one of the income-generating initiatives that help children like Elizabeth remain in school. The community’s Leadership Committee purchased three goats from funds they raised and buildOn contributed funds for an additional seven goats. With the addition of seven offspring, the group now has 17 goats to support the children who were previously out of school. Ten of these goats have been distributed to the village’s most vulnerable learners and there are plans to distribute more once the goats mature and produce offspring.

The community is also beekeeping to support their students, and currently has seven beehives. When the honey is ready to harvest, earnings will be used to purchase basic needs for the children who are most vulnerable. Additionally, the group is also sewing sanitary pads for school-aged girls in the community. Due to an unfortunate stigma associated with menstruation, and a lack of funds for sanitary supplies, young girls in Fwifwi and in other developing communities around the world generally miss at least one week of school each month while they’re menstruating, causing them to fall behind in their studies.

Elizabeth, who is now 11 years old, has no plans of leaving school again. She considers herself a role model because when she leaves the Dwalala School at the end of the day, her friends who are not enrolled in school admire what she’s been able to accomplish during her time there. Once she completes her studies at Dwalala, she plans to continue her education and become a nurse.

Elizabeth—and the hundreds of thousands of other students enrolled in buildOn schools around the world—are defying low expectations through education. When we build schools today, they can build stronger communities tomorrow.

To find out more about the work buildOn is doing in the United States and abroad, click here.

Brett Selzak is the Storyteller and Content Strategist at buildOn.

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