Rihanna travels to Malawi to champion education
Rihanna visited Malawi with Julia Gillard and Hugh Evans in early 2017. While there she met with students, teachers, government officials, and civil society.
June 07, 2017 by GPE Secretariat
8 minute read
“It’s one thing to read statistics, but I want to see it firsthand, and find out all that can be done, and where to start first.”

With this spirit, GPE Global Ambassador Rihanna joined Julia Gillard, GPE board chair, and Hugh Evans, Global Citizen CEO, in Malawi in early 2017 to meet the people behind the statistics.

This trip was borne out of the partnership, announced in September 2016, between GPE, Rihanna’s Clara Lionel Foundation, and Global Citizen. It was an opportunity to spend time with President Mutharika and the Minister of Education, development partners, educators,  mentors, and students who are working collaboratively to build a better future for the next generation of Malawians.

So, what did Rihanna experience? Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world, joined GPE in 2009 and has demonstrated a commitment to education as key to achieving its development goals.

In fact, Malawi adopted a law in 1994 for free universal education, well before the Millennium Development Goals called for universal access to primary school in 2000. However, the unprecedented influx of children into schools created challenges that are still being dealt with today: particularly overcrowding, drop-outs, and lack of resources.

Girls are particularly disadvantaged in Malawi, facing barriers such as long distances to school, lack of adequate sanitation facilities, and a high rate of child marriage.

In fact, only 29% of girls who start primary school in Malawi finish, and the vast majority drop out between grades 6 and 8.

Guided by the Minister of Education. Science, and Technology, Dr. Emmanuel Fabiano (a former teacher himself) Rihanna came face to face with these challenges throughout her visit.

Rihanna visits two primary schools

Muzu and Mpingu primary schools, in the Lilongwe Rural West district, have more than 3,500 and 2,000 students in grades 1-8 respectively. There are not enough teachers which leads to overcrowded classrooms. There also aren’t enough classrooms so most students in grades 3-5 at Muzu learn outside – literally under a tree.

Why grades 3-5? Because educators want the younger children in grades 1-2 to stay encouraged and like coming to school, so they have class inside; and the older students need to be able to concentrate and prepare for their end of school exams and secondary school, so they also have the “luxury” of studying inside a classroom.

At Muzu, Rihanna sat down with 8th grader Wungani, who told her of his dreams of becoming a businessman and doesn’t worry about coming to school hungry every day because he knows that once he is successful, he won’t be hungry anymore. He even wrote her a song!

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Teachers like Ms. Makuwira and her assistant at Mpingu, have to teach more than 120 first graders every day. They sit on the floor because there’s no room for them and bring bottle caps from home to use as aids for counting exercises in math class.

Rihanna joined Ms. Makuwira’s class at Mpingu, did math with the children and sang “Pamchenga” a popular Chichewa song all Malawians are taught to learn letters. Roughly translated, children sing, “I enjoy writing letters in the sand…A, E, I, O, U”.

It is challenging for teachers to keep track of so many students, knowing their names, paying attention to those who struggle. The teachers do the best they can, but as a Muzu parent pointed out, “A class with 100 students can’t be easily controlled by one teacher, and it is difficult to watch children do well in that particular class. The end result is that they drop out.”

During her visit, Rihanna also met Tamara and Elizabeth, two girls who had to drop out of school to help support their families but were able to return. Even when she wasn’t attending classes, Elizabeth would continue to go to her secondary school and teach girls about sexual and reproductive health. She wanted to help her peers further their own education, even if she couldn’t continue her own.

“GPE’s support to Malawi is vital”

Outdoor classrooms at Muzu primary school in Malawi.Credit: GPE/Chantal Rigaud

Outdoor classrooms in session at Muzu, one of the schools Rihanna visited with GPE

Photo Credit: GPE/Chantal Rigaud

Both Muzu and Mpingu are in one of the eight most disadvantaged districts in the country. The very districts GPE is supporting with a US$44.9 million grant, to help the government address some of the main challenges facing the education system.

An earlier grant of US$90 million helped to strengthen the education system, build more than 2,900 classrooms, train more than 23,000 teachers, buy and distribute 26 million textbooks, and provide financial support to more than 80,000students, 94% of which are still in school.

In the words of GPE Champion President Mutharika:

“Educating the next generation is the best investment we can make in our future prosperity. The Global Partnership for Education’s support to Malawi is vital. GPE’s focus on strengthening the education system helps to improve the effectiveness of my government’s investments in education.”

A champion for global education

Rihanna, Hugh Evans, and Julia Gillard in a first grade class at Mpingu primary school in Malawi. Credit: Evan Rogers

Rihanna, Hugh Evans, and Julia GIllard join Ms Makuwira's 1st grade class of more than 120 students.

Photo Credit: Evan Rogers

Malawi has demonstrated its commitment to education not only by pioneering universal education, but also by consistently increasing its domestic financing for the sector. But despite the government’s best intentions it shows why a significant increase in external financing is needed to tackle the education crisis in Malawi and inmany other countries that are in a similar situation.

If the world answers ours call to invest US$3.1 billion in GPE between 2018 and 2020, we could support 89 countries’ efforts to improve quality and access to education for 870 million children. GPE is thrilled to be able to count on Rihanna and Global Citizen’s support to achieve this goal. 

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Sub-Saharan Africa: Malawi

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