The sound of drumming and contagious laughter penetrates the skies above Jacaranda School in Chigumula, a picturesque township on the outskirts of Blantyre. In a dilapidated shed, a newly formed band of orphans can be found practicing for a performance that what will surely be their induction into musical stardom.
“As of this past January, we had no music and many of these orphans had never played an instrument or sang before,” says Marie Da Silva, director and founder of the Jacaranda School. “We just got the great news that our band has been asked to perform at the Lake of Stars festival in October,” she adds, referring to Malawi’s most popular musical event.
As great as this opportunity sounds, an orphan’s life in this country is not enviable. As a direct result of the HIV/AIDS pandemic that’s swept the nation, Malawi’s average life expectancy currently sits around 38 years old. This reality not only leaves many children parentless from a young age, but more often than not, they end up testing HIV positive as well.
After losing 14 members of her immediate family to AIDS, including her father, Da Silva says she knew she had to provide for her nieces and nephews who were left behind. When her mother informed her that the local school they were attending was shutting down and an overcrowded and congested school became their only alternative, Da Silva felt the humanitarian pull. For her, “children need to be safe, healthy and happy in order to do well” and thus, she converted her family home into what is now the only free primary and secondary school in Malawi.
But her belief is that education doesn’t merely stop in the classroom. Just a few months back, Da Silva explains with an air of anger and sadness that they lost one of their students to AIDS. By the time she found out about the little girls illness, the child had already contracted pneumonia and tuberculosis and her chances of survival slipped away. She was just eight years old. Regrettably, Da Silva says the parents failed to come forward for fear of alienation due to the stigmas attached to this horrendous disease.
Unfortunately, realities like this are not uncommon. However, this particular incident pulled at Da Silva’s heartstrings, for as she put it, what good is a school if the children are suffering at home? The school’s challenges go deeper and beyond simply providing the orphans with education because “we are losing a lot of our children,” she expresses. “ In all aspects, the underprivileged children of Malawi are suffering.”
In order to put an end to child neglect, Jacaranda School employs a nurse to attend to the students two times a week. They’ve also introduced PTA (Parent Teacher Association) meetings focused on educating the guardians on aids and basic needs the children must be provided with, like shelter, clothing and proper nutrition. “You’ve got to help the guardians, you can’t just help the children, because the guardians are the ones that care for the children,” says Da Silva.
If anyone knows what’s happening on the ground, it’s Da Silva. In her opinion, “over the last ten years, the situation in Malawi has worsened – mostly because more people are dying,” and women are having children at a young age lacking the necessary support systems. As a result, children are regularly abandoned at police stations or local hospitals. One social worker at Queen’s public hospital in Blantyre says there were five cases of child abandonment in April alone.
In a speech delivered by President Barack Obama last year in Accra, Ghana, he proclaimed “we must start from the simple premise that Africa’s future is up to Africans.” Da Silva wholeheartedly believes this statement. She claims she isn’t doing anything different than what community members had done to help the victims of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.
“I saw a situation [in my own village] where children were out of school, needed to be in school and I took action,” she says. “I think us, as citizens, need to look into our own communities to see how we can help one another.”
For 13-year-old Selena Mariko, Jacaranda has been her saving grace. Her shy demeanor radiates through her brown expressive eyes as she fiddles with her oversized sweater on the couch adjacent from me. For most of us, we will never be able to comprehend the hardships she’s already experienced in her young life and yet, she sits with her muddy legs weaved between one another confessing that her dream is to become a doctor to help the sick.
“I believe in what I do because these children are the future of Malawi and I know what they are capable of if given a chance,” exclaims Da Silva.