In July of 2017, I was given the opportunity of a lifetime. Only a few months earlier, I had been chosen as one of three students in the United States to travel with Concern Worldwide, a non-profit organization currently working in 29 countries to transform the lives of the world’s poorest people. Curious, excited, eager, and more than a little bit scared, I had only just begun to process what I would experience over the next seven days. What I did not know is that I would come home from Malawi a completely changed individual, rethinking each and every aspect of my life.
On our third day in the country, we packed up the van and traveled out to our third destination: Mbembembe Primary School. Little did I know that this small primary school would become a place I would write about and remember forever. At this school I experienced a feeling I had never felt before, and to this day, I still cannot find the right words to describe it. At this school I was introduced to Theatre for a Change, and experienced first-hand what the organization is doing to empower women and girls, providing them with the essential tools, encouragement and education they deserve.
Theatre for a Change works to empower the most vulnerable and marginalised women and girls worldwide to find their voice and assert their rights. They use a combination of drama and participatory learning, with a particular focus on sexual and reproductive health. Theatre for a Change runs a range of projects in Malawi, where they have operated since 2007.
Their work with schools consists of the Teacher Training Project, which trains teachers in Government Training Colleges across the country to improve their own sexual and reproductive health and the health of the students they go on to teach, and the Right to Learn Project. The Right to Learn Project, which I saw in action at Mbembembe Primary School, works to make schools into safer environments for children, focusing on reducing school related gender based violence and discrimination.
Though we only were able to spend an afternoon at the school, the lessons I learned are ones I will carry with me forever. The Student Council group we interacted with had many different purposes and roles within the school community, all extremely important to the success of the program. While talking with some of the children, we learned that abuses are often reported to the Student Council, in which case the students would approach the Head of the school and explain the situation. The Head would then decide (depending on the specific case), whether to contact the police or the Village Head. I thought it was absolutely incredible how involved the students were with the activities.
Using theatre and movement, Theatre for a Change is teaching young girls and boys to interact with one another, gain self confidence, and learn in depth about gender based violence, as well as other school-related issues facing them. We were able to be a part of the activities for the day, interact with the children, and experience firsthand the impact Concern and organizations like Theatre for a Change are having.
‘Agents of Change’ are responsible for managing the program and helping to implement it within the community. ‘Agents of Change’ go through special training in order to be a part of the community’s schools. Yami was the AOC we met with when we visited. She was extremely inspiring and so incredibly passionate about what she was doing. Even when there was no interpreter nearby, dancing, moving, and laughing with the students was a feeling like no other. I remember that day so vividly, and the feeling I had dancing around in that schoolroom, surrounded by joy, positivity and motivation, was simply irreplaceable.
Some of the specific lessons covered in the classroom included school-related gender-based violence and sexual education with a focus on reproductive health and contraceptives. One statistic that stood out to me was the sheer number of girls who skip weeks of school due to their menstrual cycles. Because there is no secluded, private area for them to change every few hours, they must walk the average distance of fifteen kilometers back to their villages to do so. Most decide to stay at home for the remainder of the day, because of the long distance walk back to school. This causes girls to miss important lessons and activities in the classroom.
While talking with the girls afterwards, many of them asked us to provide them with these changing areas, and expressed their disappointment at having to miss out on so many weeks of school. In that moment, I felt a responsibility to come home and share these stories. The children had a passion for learning and growing as human beings. This passion was so strong and so clear to me. I began thinking to myself, “These girls are missing out on opportunities, on an education, simply because they are girls?” It was like a smack in the face. How is this okay? How have I lived so many years of my life complaining about the classes I get to take, the opportunities practically thrown at me, left and right?
In leaving the school, I felt selfish. I felt angry, upset and disappointed in myself for not previously recognising the exceptionally comfortable life I live. However, I also left feeling empowered. I felt responsible for sharing what I had experienced, and responsible for creating a new standard for myself once I arrived back home. I realized that it was normal to feel angry, sad and disappointed. But I was reminded that organizations like Theatre for a Change and Concern Worldwide, along with so many others, are devoting their lives to helping these children.
Theatre for a Change is doing exactly that – changing lives. The human contact and sensitive connections made between students, teachers, and community leaders were nothing short of miraculous. Learning through movement, song, and theatrical exercises can transform lives. To be a part of that journey, even for a day, was a true gift.