Elaine Scott, Building Services Manager at Renfrewshire Council, gives an insight into the Council’s recent experience in Malawi, where a team of volunteers went to build a new school for the children of William Village.
William Village is just over an hour’s drive from Malawi’s capital city, Blantyre. There are around 600 children in the village and the surrounding area, all of whom currently have no access to education. The area relies entirely on farming maize and small crops of vegetables, which helps to sustain the villagers. Just one person from the village had ever received a full classroom education.
In Late 2014, we gathered a group of volunteers from Renfrewshire Council to visit William Village with the aim of building a school. Individuals across the council – including staff from building services, education, social work, and business support – volunteered for the build project in October 2014, and they began raising money and gathering supplies before heading out in September 2015. The project developed into creating four new buildings; a school with three classrooms, teachers’ accommodation, a toilet block, and kitchen. This was in addition to employing locals to make desks and chairs, and supplying the students with uniforms. Our aim was to ensure that no financial obstacles stood in the way of the children’s education.
Before heading out to Malawi, our volunteers and supporters raised an amazing £125,000 for the trip. A total of 32 volunteers went to Malawi for 16 days to build the school and adjoining buildings. We worked alongside Classrooms for Malawi, a Scottish charity that works to help children in Malawi out of poverty and into education. The charity had existing links with Renfrewshire Schools, and this helped us to forge a very productive partnership. Through Classrooms for Malawi we linked into Mary’s Meals, a local charity that offers children in some of the poorest countries a good meal each school day. We built a kitchen adjacent to the school, which the charity could use to feed the children.
It was extremely humbling to see this village and its people. Meeting them gave us an appreciation of what poverty truly means. Hopefully, the school will help to alleviate the poverty in this community. Despite their circumstances, the locals are hard workers, and helped us in any way they could. The women would carry gallons of water on their head for the mortar mixes – usually with one baby tied to their front and one on their back. With their help, we were able to complete the three-classroom school, the Mary’s Meals kitchen, and the teachers’ accommodation to roof level. Mary’s Meals have since fitted gas burners and have started to feed the children in the village. Work on the girls’ and boys’ toilet blocks had begun whilst our team were there but completed by a local contractor. The school was officially handed over to the village in February 2016 and named Renfrewshire Primary School.
The children were overjoyed when the school was finally completed. But we didn’t stop there; we resolved to ensure that the students and teachers were equipped with everything they required to learn and grow, giving them the best chances in life. We designed a desk and table with a local craftsperson, and he developed a sample model while we were there. Now, the new school is fitted with 108 desks and chairs. Alongside the desks, we were able to provide 800 uniforms for students. These uniforms are made by a local orphanage that teaches tailoring skills to their older children. The income generated by making these uniforms goes towards paying for the orphan children's further and higher education.
When we took photos of the village children, they were so desperate to see them and we didn’t understand why. We soon came to realise that they had never seen themselves before – they have no mirrors. These are children who are used to having nothing at all, so the team were more than willing to help. We did everything we could to make the school more pleasant for the children, including making a see-saw from off-cuts of wood and mounting a handmade swing on a tree.
We also completed a number of small projects for the community; to get to William Village, we came across a very old wooden bridge with no sides and a very large hole. To cross, we had to get out of the minibus, walk across and wait on the other side as the bus crossed. On the first day of the build, an old lady from the village asked if we could fix this dangerous bridge. A local man had previously fell from it and been seriously hurt, so we were more than happy to help repair it.
We sourced the wood and labour locally, repairing the bridge at a total cost of £60. This may seem like a small amount to pay, but the villagers could never afford it. Many people there don’t have shoes. One man we met would walk around wearing a single flip flop. We asked him why, and he replied that the other had broken and it was better than having none.
Alongside the building work, the team transported over half a tonne of gifted items, generously donated by people and groups back home. The children of William Village were delighted at their toothbrushes and toothpaste, clothing, toys and stationary. There were also donations for the school itself, with teachers receiving jotters, stationary, chalkboards, games and sports equipment. Meanwhile, the volunteers personally provided gifts of soap, noodles, babywear, and ladies’ wraps to many of the families that live in the village.
The team also brought over a number of vital necessities for the community. Medical and first aid provisions that were collected and supplied by the volunteers were gifted to a local clinic, allowing them to continue to treat the community.
Our tools were gifted by Fyfe and McGrouther, an engineering and construction product suppliers in Scotland. There are virtually no tools available in William Village, and the few tools they do have are extremely basic. To help, we left the tools there once we were finished. The sets were passed onto the local builder, the craftsmen that made the school desks and chairs, and local people who were trying to build their own homes. Six sets of tools were given to the Classrooms for Malawi charity for use in future projects. The workwear we were given by Arco (a company that supplies safety equipment and workwear to businesses) was also given to the locals of William Village.
Our whole team virtually left everything for the village but the clothes we stood in. The people in William Village did not even have underwear. This trip has changed our perspective on life. We have seen poverty. Now, when people say they are starving we know better, we tell them they’re "just a wee bit hungry". The trip has not only allowed us to do something amazing, but taught us humility and a new appreciation for our own lives. We hope to return to Malawi and do more for William Village; the next project we have lined up is a community hub, with a doctor’s surgery, which we hope will improve the lives of these villagers all the more.