Messages from Malawi: witnessing a backpack distribution

Fatima is our Communications Officer in Malawi. In her latest blog she shares the “profound experience” she had witnessing one of our backpack distributions. 

Every few months our marvellous Mary's Meals volunteers in Glasgow load up a container full of backpacks to send to Malawi. The latest shipment included more than 8,000 backpacks, each one containing essential items a child needs to make the most of their time in school. More than four hundred of these backpacks were allocated to Mulunguzi School in the Neno District for distribution. 

And so, we set off early from the Mary’s Meals Malawi office in Blantyre to make our way to the school. It wasn’t long before we were driving off the smooth tarmac onto dusty dirt roads, winding up twisting hills and through beautiful valleys.

I soon realised many of these ‘dirt roads’ weren’t roads at all, they were paths created by the local people to reach remote destinations. I really hadn’t expected the school to be so off the beaten track! 

Almost two hours later, as we approached a tiny village, our driver Harry began to slow down and the dust cloud behind the car began to clear. Men, women and children had gathered outside their houses to see where we were heading. We took a left, uphill towards a building. Children began running after us chanting ‘Mary’s Meals’. Curious mothers, some with babies on their backs, eagerly followed their little ones uphill. 

Our car came to a sudden halt outside Mulunguzi School. It was almost noon and the sun was at its peak. Children trickled out of their classrooms with excitement; whispering and giggling amongst one another. The teachers followed explaining that the children had already eaten their ‘phala’ (porridge) and were asking if the rumours were true. Is Mary’s Meals here with the backpacks?

When it comes to the distribution of backpacks, Mary’s Meals gives no advance notice to the school that backpacks will be handed out that day. This helps to ensure that only the children who regularly attend school receive a backpack and benefit from all of the useful educational materials they contain, as well as adding to the atmosphere of joy, surprise and excitement on the day.  

In Mulunguzi School’s case the rumours were true! The clanking of the trucks could now be heard within close distance of the school. The children began shrieking with joy, excited mothers began singing and a large crowd gathered in the school field. 

As the trucks parked up, the children returned to their classrooms for the distribution to begin. While some of the Mary’s Meals team unloaded the sacks of backpacks from the trucks, the others joined the class teachers and were keeping the children entertained in the classrooms. 

“Do you know what is in these sacks?” asked Harrison, our Warehouse Operative. Silence followed for a moment in the dark classroom. From behind, a voice asked, “Is it the backpacks?” “Yes, yes, it is backpacks! Would you like them?” replied Harrison. 

The room exploded into laughter, gasps and echoes of “Kwambiri” (very much). Eyes lit up, arms were in the air with joy. You could feel the dark room fill with happiness, excitement and hope.  

As Harrison and the team handed out the backpacks I felt a wave of unexpected emotion hit me. It was truly a profound experience. I say profound as I have never witnessed such joy in my life before. In all my time in Sri Lanka and Pakistan whilst observing children, mothers and entire communities’ reaction to receiving items, I have never seen so much genuine happiness. 

The children clutched their backpacks tightly to their chests. And, when the time came to open them, there was silence as they uncovered the hidden treasures buried deep in their new bags. In the next few minutes, the room was filled with shouts of joy and gasps of excitement. Every single child in the classroom was looking at their items - whether they were pencils or sandals - in amazement. It was almost as if they were saying, “Wow! Is this really mine?” 

And that’s when it hit me. For many of these children this was the first time they had ever owned a pencil, tennis ball or a notepad. 

As the children poured out of the classrooms, their mothers ran as fast as they could, to meet them. I could see each mother looking anxiously for her child and their faces lit up when they found them. Anxious frowns turned into a fully rounded smiles, each mother pushed through the crowd and grabbed their little one planting him or her with kisses. 

They had yet to know about the treasures within their child’s backpack.

For me, the passionate reactions really brought home the actual implications of living in such grinding poverty. The items I pay no heed over in my daily life, gifted by Mary’s Meals’ amazing supporters to these young children, meant the world to them. 

All I could feel was immense gratitude towards the supporters of Mary’s Meals and the donors of these backpacks. I felt genuinely grateful to them for giving these children the chance to feel such happiness. And of course,  giving the children the chance to improve their learning by providing basic equipment which we all use every day yet don’t think twice about.

From the very bottom of my heart I’d like to say a big thank you to all of them. They’ve honestly given the children a billion reasons to smile today. 

Fatima

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