Almost exactly ten years ago, Jack McConnell and Bingu wa Mutharika, then first minister of Scotland and president of Malawi, signed the Scotland-Malawi Cooperation Agreement. It outlined how 150 years of friendship between our two nations, dating back to David Livingstone, would be formally integrated within government.
At this time, November 2005, I was 14 years old and enjoying life in S3 at Holyrood Secondary School in Glasgow. I remember discussing with friends my experience that summer, marching with 225,000 others through the streets of Edinburgh for the Make Poverty History campaign. I still think back to the atmosphere that day: the conversations that sparked from my hand-made ‘education is a human right’ placard, the sheer volume of people and my nervous excitement.
With the Cooperation Agreement in the news, and a “Malawi buzz” starting to build in the school, we discussed how we could get involved with Malawi. We decide to ask pupils throughout the school and across our feeder primaries to get behind the backpack appeal run by the wonderful Scottish charity Mary’s Meals.
The concept for the backpack appeal was simple: to provide the most basic tools for education to some of the poorest children in the world. It seemed a painfully modest act in the face of global poverty but it came from a spirit of partnership and friendship. Young Scots and young Malawians whose lives, although staggeringly different in almost every way, intersected in one brief moment of shared humanity.
I will never forget the moment we watched the video of our bags being unpacked in Malawi. Seeing last year’s school bag, previously hidden at the back of the wardrobe, suddenly bringing unbridled delight to a girl my age in Malawi – a jotter! A pen! A tennis ball! Seeing the euphoric joy in things we all took for granted brought us smiles, tears and laughter. It was incredibly powerful.
These were young people, just like us, who had been born into a completely different world. It challenged every aspect of our lives but it also allowed us to see poverty in a whole new light – no longer a mass of statistics, but real people. These were incredibly happy, warm and dignified people, despite suffering unthinkable injustices.
I have no doubt that I benefitted as much as those in Malawi. I gained new skills and found new confidence as I gave presentations in local primary schools and community groups. More than this though, I gained a sense of global perspective: this was both humbling and inspiring. Scots have been passionate internationalists for hundreds of years, and that was me hooked.
And 18 months later, I went with 23 other pupils and staff to visit our partner school in Blantyre, Malawi. We were struck not by the differences but by the similarities: the shared interests, the shared culture, the laughter, the love for friends and family.
My Malawi story didn’t stop there. Through university I fundraised for Mary’s Meals and volunteered with the Scotland Malawi Partnership, the national network funded by the Scottish Government to coordinate the many civic links. Since graduating I was voted on to the Board of the Partnership and last year I was honoured to be elected their vice chair.
I was not the only one to be inspired by Malawi at school. My depute headteacher, the wonderful Tony Begley, went on to work for Mary’s Meals and played an integral role in setting up an educational charity, Classrooms for Malawi. Other pupils and friends have likewise gone on to work and volunteer in Malawi. Everyone involved has been touched by the school partnership in some way.
Through the Scotland Malawi Partnership, I now know my experience is not uncommon. Today, more than 200 Scottish schools have partnerships with Malawi. These links have inspired an entire generation of Scots. 46 per cent of Scots personally know someone with a connection to Malawi; this has drastically transformed public attitudes across the country. We have changed our nation, one backpack at a time. This week we mark ten years of formal governmental co-operation but, more than this, we celebrate a unique national effort, in no small part led by young Scots and young Malawians coming together in friendship.
Our march around the castle ten years ago didn’t make poverty history. Inspiring a generation of young people through school partnerships … that just might.
• Claire Martin @clairemartin91