June 26, 2011
I’m a Graduate of Chaminade
Meet Lyson Mswazi Mlenga, a native of Malawi, who in 1990 was given an opportunity to earn a high school diploma in a country where 97 percent of its young people never cross that finish line. That’s because Malawi is a country so undeveloped, even by African standards, it teeters on the brink of disaster. The statistics tell a sobering story.
According to United Nations’ estimates, Malawi ranks among the poorest and least developed countries in the world. Most people eke out a living as subsistence farmers. (The average household earns less than 50 cents a day.) For many, there is never enough food. Children suffer the most, with 48 percent chronically malnourished. Heath statistics reveal a country in crisis: Twelve percent of its 14 million people are infected with HIV/AIDS; life expectancy hovers at age 38; and more than a million children have been orphaned as a result of AIDS.
Though many students are eager to attend school, many parents are unable to pay school fees, triggering a high dropout rate and even more dismal statistics: 40 percent of the population is illiterate; only 3.4 percent complete high school; and only one percent attend a college or university.
But Lyson Mswazi Mlenga was given a chance to beat those odds. At age 13, he and two classmates from his village were admitted to Chaminade Secondary School, a Marianist-sponsored high school in the small town of Karonga in northern Malawi. Lyson, like many in Malawi, knew of the school’s reputation for academic excellence, but he also saw it as a passport from a life of unrelenting poverty.
Now a successful entrepreneur who runs an office supply shop in Karonga, Lyson, a 1994 grad, still marvels at his good fortune. “This school laid a strong foundation for my life,” he says.
But it was more than an excellent education and a door to opportunity. Lyson credits the Marianists for shaping him into the man he is today. He remembers with fondness the late Marianist Brother George Dury, the first headmaster of Chaminade, and Marianist Father Richard Loehrlein for mentoring him. “They were men of God,” says Lyson. “Father Richard encouraged me in my faith until just a few years ago” when he left Malawi for work in Kenya.
Lyson’s story is not unusual according to Marianist Brother Charles Kimeu, the school’s manager. Many graduates from Chaminade are admitted to universities and colleges and later take leadership roles in government, education and business throughout Malawi. “The school has had an enormous impact on students and the shaping of this country,” says Brother Charles.
A 50-year commitment
In 2012, Chaminade Secondary School will celebrate its 50th anniversary, a milestone that many Marianists look upon with an equal mix of amazement and satisfaction. “Not only did the Marianists go to Malawi, one of the poorest countries in the world,” says Marianist Father David Paul, director for development for ministries in developing regions for the U.S. Province, “we went to northern Malawi – often called the ‘dead north’ because it was the least developed and had the least potential of anywhere in the country. It was not developed in 1962 when we started the school. It is not developed today. That we chose to go there – and stay – says all kinds of things about the Marianist commitment to the poorest of the poor.”
The first brothers who came to Malawi in the early 1960s endured all kinds of hardships. “They had to put up with poor water supplies, poor roads, poor telecommunications and electricity that often didn’t work, says Brother Charles, not to mention the sacrifices of living in the bush, far from most modern conveniences and in a different culture.
“Despite all odds, they created a very good school academically, athletically – in every way it is a quality school,” he says.
It is a legacy that Brother Charles is determined to build on. With assistance from Brother Godfrey Ssenyomo – another Marianist from the Region of Eastern Africa – and Father David, faculty and other distinguished educators from the Karonga district, the school recently carved out a strategic plan (Vision 2022) that will build on its past and create a vibrant future. “Our students need additional support in developing moral character and leadership skills, as well as academics,” says Brother Charles. The new strategic plan is aimed at bolstering all three.
A reputation to build on
Chaminade draws students from all parts of the country, says Moses Wanda, headmaster of the school, though the majority of them come from northern Malawi. Started as a boarding school for boys, it currently has 375 students. A few years ago, the Marianists opened an evening school so boys and girls from Karonga and its surrounding villages could get a quality education. The evening program now has 450 students.
Historically, Chaminade students have excelled academically, making it a privilege to work there, says Moses. The same holds true today. Government achievement exams are given at the end of 10th and 12th grades. In 2010, 99 percent of the 10th grade boarding students passed the exams; 90 percent of the evening students passed. Of the senior class, 94 percent of the boarding students passed the final exams; 58 percent of the evening students passed. The national average is 53 percent.
The numbers reflect the accomplishments of the students and staff, but also point to areas of improvement, especially for evening students whose lives are complicated by many responsibilities at home, including the care of family members and help with farming to keep the family fed. “It is a very difficult life,” says Father David. “Most people have a little plot of land and must raise their own food to survive. When there is a drought, which often happens, many people suffer from malnutrition,” he says.
Improvements and upgrades
Persistent poverty often means that students don’t have the money to pay for school fees. Last year, 20 percent of budgeted school fees were uncollected because the students’ parents were unable to pay. “We would like to provide students more financial aid to overcome these shortfalls,” says Brother Charles.
Lack of consistent funding also meant that buildings had fallen into disrepair. Although the school is improving the deteriorating facilities — building a new dormitory for the boarding school and painting and rehabbing many classrooms – much remains to be done.
Benedict Nyondo, a graduate of Chaminade and now director of the boarding school, sees critical areas for improvement. Benedict, who also teaches English and Chichewa, the national language of Malawi, would like to see a computer lab installed. The school has only three computers.
“Can you imagine living in this world without access to a computer? Every student needs to be computer literate – even in Malawi. Right now this is impossible without outside funding,” says Benedict.
He also points out that the science labs haven’t been upgraded since the 1960s. Plans are underway to install the latest lab equipment. “We hope that new labs will improve students’ test scores,” says Brother Charles.
Others in administration point to the need for more library books and other basics such as desks and tables and chairs for the dining hall.
Signs of hope
Though much needs to be done, the school is on solid footing and growing. “The biggest challenge is funding,” says Brother Charles. “There is never enough money to cover expenses because people are so poor,” he says. But he remains hopeful.
“This school touches the lives of people and empowers them to become someone – to overcome their circumstances and create a better life. In that sense, it is doing an amazing job,” says Brother Charles.
Lyson Mswazi Mlenga agrees. “When I go home to my village and meet my former schoolmates, I want to cry. They look so old. The way they live is miserable,” he says. “I look at these friends and think: ‘That could be me.’”
Adds Lyson, “Chaminade has done a great thing for me. Without this school, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”