Partnership with Malawi brings lessons in sisterhood

As a 17-year old-student in a £45 million school campus, it is almost unthinkable to imagine a school without three tremendous colour-coded floors, a glass ceiling with pyramidal details above our canteen area, a stash of interactive smart-boards just itching to be used and thousands of books, textbooks and jotters waiting for their spines to be creased.

Francesca thomson in Malawi

Thousands of miles away from Port Glasgow High School is Nguludi High, in which the pupils complete exams in cramped classrooms with extreme limitations regarding their school buildings, opportunities and resources. Their days are long in the crackling, dry heat and where I am driven in the comfort of a car to the school gates, many Nguludi pupils must walk for miles to reach their school. But is a school building or destination really a limitation to the mind?

When our school became involved in the Scotland Malawi Partnership, my immediate thoughts turned to poverty and scarcity. Our partnership with Nguludi High has opened my eyes to the diversity of our cultures, but also the similarities of our schools and pupils. My initial visions of poverty and scarcity were true in terms of the destitution and harsh fates, particularly of girls my own age. African tradition and economic realities force many girls to drop out of school in order to marry. More than half of the girls in Malawi are married by 18 and more than a quarter aged 15-19 have already given birth, whilst most girls in Scotland attend school, study and complete homework. We are entirely fortunate not to find ourselves suffocated by the responsibility of motherhood and marriage at such a young and vulnerable age. However, poverty lurks within our school community in a very different way. My postcode and region are logged as socially and economically deprived. Our school building may appear extravagant and contemporary to those who read my description but it hides a bleak kind of poverty within its walls. Unemployment in our community is rife and many young people struggle to leave school with sufficient qualifications, making it particularly hard for them to find their passion and chase their dreams.

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In Malawi, education is viewed as the way out of the maze that is poverty, education in Scotland is our key to achieving a good job. Our goals as school are similar. The Scotland Malawi Partnership is not about charity or pity, it’s about allowing us to expand and grow in culture and education – we learn from each other.

Our school staff keep in regular contact with the staff in Nguludi High via WhatsApp. We have exchanged cultural and educational gifts, sending Irn Bru, dumpling and some of our SQA exam papers. Nguludi High sends us such intricate and personal items as painted tapestries, and exam papers in maths and agriculture.

Since starting our Malawi partnership we have blossomed as a school community, through annual videos, photographs and letters. The content of our school assemblies are always bursting with the happiness that radiates from the photos of our partnership school thousands of miles away. Although I have never visited Nguludi High, I feel a strong connection with the pupils there.

As Head Girl in Port Glasgow High School, I am in touch with the Head Girl of Nguludi High. Our school’s partnership has shaped my education in a way exams and studying never could. From Scotland to Malawi – we are one.

Kirsten Irvine, 17, is Head Girl of Port Glasgow High School.