Education & Empowerment


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Last Friday I had the pleasure of interviewing Mr. Aaron Maluwa, Education Officer for the Museums of Malawi. Aaron is a good friend of ours who was introduced to us through our work with the NGO Malawi Matters. In his position as an Education Officer, Aaron is responsible for directing all the education programs across the Museum’s five sites. He stresses the importance of understanding that culture is not static; it is dynamic. Culture can and must change in order to allow people to live longer, better, healthier lives. To that end, as the director of the Museum’s education programs, he has created several important programs that promote awareness about potentially harmful cultural practices, while praising and promoting good practices. For example, he runs a program targeting harmful cultural practices that increase HIV transmission rates. He also runs a program on culture and malaria, designed to help people amend practices that lead to the creation of unhealthy environmental conditions where malaria can spread.

Aaron and I are now working together on a grant proposal that will hopefully allow us to roll out a new pilot program that will focus on culture and education, targeting girls, with an aim to reduce dropout rates related to early marriage, pregnancy, and menstruation. As Aaron explained:  

Museums are often object-centered. We want to shift our focus from being object-centered to being people-centered. We want to help the people and work in such a way that we can be useful to the people in their daily lives.  

Among the many wonderful things we talked about in our interview, Aaron talked about the importance of inspiration and motivation. He argued very strongly that the source of Malawi’s current problems is lack of education. Further, he said—especially for girls—students lack inspiration and motivation to stay in school, to fight to earn their education. Because in Malawi today, it is most definitely a fight. While primary education is free in Malawi, students have a lot of barriers to access—family obligation, distance, weather, lack of funds to pay for uniforms, etc.

This picture was taken on a school day. In it you can see school-aged girls on the campus of a school but they are clearly not attending class and they are not in uniform. Instead, it appears as if the oldest girl is tending to the younger ones rather than joining the other classmates.  

This picture was taken on a school day. In it you can see school-aged girls on the campus of a school but they are clearly not attending class and they are not in uniform. Instead, it appears as if the oldest girl is tending to the younger ones rather than joining the other classmates.  

If they can make it through the rigorous testing process and complete their primary education, they must then fight to secure a place at a secondary school (high school), which is not free. Without money to pay the school fees, a student cannot move forward. At this point, students face a multiplication of barriers. Family obligations are even stronger now as a boy may be expected to stay home and work with the family and a girl may be expected to marry. Secondary schools are few and the best schools are all private boarding schools, so students must often travel long distances and live isolated from their families. Furthermore, the family not only needs to support the student with funds to pay for school fees and uniforms, but they must also pay for upkeep of the student at the boarding school—food, living and school supplies, travel funds, etc. It is no wonder that in my survey of Malawian women I conducted with Malawi Matters, results show that the average Malawian woman goes no further than primary school (more on these results in a later post).

Aaron credits his own successes in school with hard work, motivation, and inspiration. In his case, he used the example set by a mentor in a neighboring village to guide his steps. This mentor was an abusa (pastor) who worked hard to guarantee that all his children and his grandchildren completed school all the way through secondary school. At the time Aaron was in school, he was classmates with one of the grandchildren. In Aaron’s family, no one had ever moved beyond a primary school education. He told me the story of his education and I found it so inspiring I wanted to share it with you! I was devastated to discover that my recording of our interview did not save properly, but I went home and feverishly wrote the story, to the best of my ability preserving his words. What follows is my faithful summary, not his exact words…


Sometimes I don’t know how I got here. I am surprised. I should not be here. I grew up poor. When I say “I was poor”, I mean POOR. We slept in a house with a grass roof, no tin. We never had breakfast, no. Every morning, we would wake up at 4:00am and wash ourselves with water from a bucket and then we would go to school. No breakfast, nothing in our stomachs. We would start walking. We would walk several kilometers until we reached the river, because a river separated us from the school and we had to cross it every day. In the rainy season, you know, the river can become very high, and fast. We had to cross it. So, we would take our school uniforms and our books on top of our heads, wrap them in a plastic wrapper tight on top of our heads, to keep them dry, and start walking out into the river. When it got too high, you had to swim across until you could walk out the other side. From there we walked all the way to school.
Classes started at 7:30am sharp so we had to be there or we would be punished. We studied hard in class all day until 1:00pm. That was the break for lunch, but we didn’t have any money, any food, so we just waited around the school until class started again at 2:00pm. We had class until 5:00pm. This was with no food, nothing in our stomachs all day, working hard in school and at 5:00pm we had to begin the walk back home. Now, sometimes in the rainy season, during the day it would rain and rain, making the river even higher, more dangerous. We would walk to the river and one of our parents would be waiting on the other side. They might call out, “Don’t cross today! It is too swift. Wait there and come back tomorrow.” So, we would not cross. We would have to go back to homes there in the village and ask to see if someone would take us in for the night, give us shelter for the night. Sometimes if they were generous they would give us food to eat. My parents could then sleep at night knowing we were not taken away by a strong current. When we woke up in the morning, we washed ourselves in the river and went straight back to school, no food. So sometimes we were not eating for days at a time.

At that time in Malawi, in the district where Aaron lived, there was only ONE secondary school. So, every year, the students finishing Standard 8 had to compete with all the other students from every other primary school in the district to try and secure one of only 40 spots available at the secondary school. If your exam grades did not place you as top 40 in the district, you did not go to secondary school. Aaron said he knew students who had repeated Standard 8, trying over and over to secure a spot to move on to secondary school. People could try five, even seven times to get a score high enough to earn a place. As Aaron explained,

I knew men with beards who were still in Standard 8, trying to earn a place to go to secondary school. None of my brothers passed with a high enough score. I was determined. I will do it. I will pass on the first try.

Aaron studied very hard and was thrilled to learn that he had passed with a high enough score to enter the secondary school on his first attempt. He was 19th out of 40. His parents, his entire village were elated. He was the first person in the village to ever earn a place to go to secondary school. In his words, it was transformative for his family and for the village. People walked around saying,

Did you hear what happened? Did you hear? One of Mr. Maluwa’s sons has passed the exam, he is going to secondary school!!    

Elated and empowered by this opportunity, Aaron excelled so greatly at his new school that he soon jumped several spots at once in the class ranking, leading his teachers to accuse him of cheating! They though he must have already completed the grade and lied on his intake forms. He convinced them that he was excelling purely through hard work and that he had not lied on his forms. From that moment up to his graduation, Aaron was always in 1st or 2nd position in the class ranking.

After graduating secondary school, Aaron became the first in his family to pursue a college degree! To date, Aaron has a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees, and in June of next year he intends to finish his PhD!! Now, he spends every moment of his professional career working hard to create a similar environment for students across the country. He travels the country and the world, teaching and training schools, universities, and museums in how to craft education programs that protect and promote good cultural practices while encouraging youth to stay in school. His hope is that all students can find something that motivates them and inspires them to stay in school and pursue higher education. This must begin with having role models, examples of other Malawians, like Aaron, who defied the odds and would let nothing stand between them and their goals.


Aaron, you are a gentleman and a scholar and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for the work you are doing in Malawi to inspire and educate youth to pursue education. I am so excited that in a few short months you will achieve your dream of earning your PhD! I wish we would still be in the country on this day so I could attend the ceremony! Congratulations to all your family on such an exciting achievement! 

You will be hearing a lot more about Aaron in future posts, both about the Museum itself, and as Jordan and I work with him to implement new programs related to empowerment and safe water access. 


For me, stories like this are why I am so passionate about education and about pursuing my own PhD. I went to public school in the US and, for me, the years I spent in elementary, middle, and high school were an absolute torment. What most frustrated me was the lack of interest from other students in being at school! In the US, school is compulsory up through high school and a public-school education can be attained very cheaply. For me, all throughout my primary and secondary schooling I wanted to go up to students who were clearly apathetic and shake them. Hard. “What the hell are you doing??? Why are you wasting this time?? Don’t you understand what a gift this is?? What an absolute privilege it is to be here??”


The biggest lie people tell about schools is that they are full of educators. We use that word all the time. I am an educator, I am a teacher. NO. That is the wrong way to think about it. I’m not an educator or a teacher. I am a facilitator. I am a mentor. A role model. I don’t teach you things, I facilitate you learning things. It may seem like a subtle difference, or no difference, but trust me, there is a HUUUUUGE difference and once that difference is understood, it can be truly transformative to a person’s education. Think of the old saying, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink." Education is the exact same as that stubborn horse. No one can make you learn anything if you don't want to learn it. You have to choose to learn.  

As one person commented, "That is a frighteningly large pile of books." Yeah....most of those were for pleasure reading....

As one person commented, "That is a frighteningly large pile of books." Yeah....most of those were for pleasure reading....

We do not spend enough time explaining to people that education is first and foremost about EMPOWERMENT. You and only you are in charge of what you learn, how much you learn, and when (if) you ever stop learning. I cannot take your knowledge from you and I cannot give it to you. The best I can do as a teacher is help you help yourself. That’s why it drove me crazy when students would make fun of me for self-learning. I was never without extra books at school—fiction, nonfiction, biographies, magazines. I read in class, in the hallway, at lunch. My friends and I were that nerdy table in the lunch room all with our noses in our books, only occasionally coming up for air to grab a bite of sandwich (I actually found picture proof in the dark recesses of Facebook....even the sandwiches!). What an absolute waste of energy to mock me and belittle me for being the master of my own education. And I hate to break it to you, high school bullies, but your taunts did nothing. They had no effect on me other than to feel sad, angry, and frustrated for you that you were trained to think that self-learning was something worthy of mocking.

On campus at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, Summer 2015

On campus at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, Summer 2015

Now that I am in the end stages of my PhD program, I have found that the mocking is still the same. Instead of classmates calling me nerd or loser or avoiding me for always having my nose in a book, now it is other adults who mock, often using the same tired jabs. They accuse me of being somehow even less educated than when I started college. These are the classics: 1) "She may have book smarts but she lacks street smarts" and 2) "PhDs are so out of touch!" To those jabs I say, I've worked in over a dozen jobs since I was 16 years old--factory work, retail, waitressing, paid and unpaid internships. I know the value of a hard earned dollar. I've been financially independent from my parents since I was 22 years old. I pay all my bills and my taxes. I have no student loans. I've lived in four different countries on three continents. I can navigate the "streets" in Chicago, Cape Town, or Kyoto. In the "street smarts" department, I do just fine. I will NEVER apologize for bettering myself through education. I will NEVER let you make me feel smaller for reading and learning and exploring (and being skilled/savvy enough that I now get paid to do it). I will NEVER let you make me feel like I am wasting my time, energy, and talent by pursuing a PhD. Education should only EVER be celebrated; not mocked. 

Another important lie that must be exposed is that learning only happens in school and once you are outside of a school you are no longer learning. This too is bullshit. A school is just a building with four walls and a roof or (as is often the case in Malawi) a shady tree! Learning can happen anywhere. For me, I used books, movies, and travel as my ultimate classroom. Except for math and music, there was very little I learned while inside the actual school building. In most cases, I had already explored through self-learning most every topic covered by teachers. In the case of math and music, I knew I needed the guidance and help of mentors skilled in these areas to show me ways of learning. Again, no one can teach you math; you learn it with the help of a skilled facilitator who gives you the tools you need to figure out how you best learn the material.  

I busted my butt in college and graduated  summa cum laude  with two majors and a minor. I studied abroad four times in three years. I learned a new language. I was determined to make the scholarships I earned count and not take a single penny of it for granted! My reward? I am now being paid to get a PhD. 

I busted my butt in college and graduated summa cum laude with two majors and a minor. I studied abroad four times in three years. I learned a new language. I was determined to make the scholarships I earned count and not take a single penny of it for granted! My reward? I am now being paid to get a PhD. 

Third lie: If your window of learning closes it won't reopen. Shout it out with me: BULLSHIT! Learning can happen anytime. There is not a set time when learning must take place. I often complain and say I am in 24th grade and that I can’t wait to be done with school, but really all I am saying is I am done learning in the traditional classroom setting of “teacher stands by blackboard with students in desks completing random and (in most cases) completely unhelpful/useless assignments”. I know how I learn best and I want to be free to learn my way. I will never stop learning, never stop seeking, never stop growing. I am not a "know-it-all" and I strongly dislike that label. To label me more accurately would be to say I am a "wants-to-know-it-all". I want to go everywhere, see everything, talk to everyone, and take in all the world around me like a sponge. I want you to prove me wrong. I want you to tell me something I didn't know before, because the greatest joy of my life is to learn. Correct me, guide me, enlighten me, but be open and interested enough to learn from me too. I may only be 28 years old, but in those short years I've learned some useful stuff too. The mind was made to be used and I will use mine until every single watt of energy is consumed.


When I see how hard people like Aaron had to work just to get to school—let alone complete all his work, take his tests, and excel—I feel embarrassed and frustrated. Did I do enough? How much time did I waste? Could I have learned more, tried harder, earned better grades? Am I doing enough now? I also feel deeply, deeply sad for those people I know—friends and neighbors and classmates—who wasted such beautiful potential because they were not taught that most important of truths: education is empowerment.

That is what I love so much about working with Malawi Matters--it is continuing education. Men and women from all walks of life participate in this organization to learn and better themselves and their communities. No one is too old to learn. No one is too poor to learn. No one is too isolated to learn. We don't need a school building. We don't need a building at all. And we do not teach in the sense that "I have all the answers, let me give them to you." Instead, it is a collaborative environment where people use the skills and tools they know and enjoy like music, drama, art, and poetry to ask questions, brainstorm, and share knowledge. All are welcome and all come to learn and explore together.

Through education, people can save lives, improve health and social conditions in communities, and encourage development. Through education, families raise themselves up out of poverty. Through education, people manage diseases better, protect their environments, and gain a stronger sense of self worth. Through collective education, we learn quickly that each of us have useful talents, skills, and knowledge that we can share for the betterment of all. We need to be open to all styles of learning and not constrain the idea of learning into something that only happens in a classroom or only while at a certain age.     

For some reason, writing this post brings to mind a line from the (epic and excellent) movie Rob Roy. Talking of the history of his family and clan, Rob says, “All men with honor are kings. But not all kings have honor.” When Rob’s son asks him to explain honor, Rob replies, “Honor is what no man can give you and none can take away. Honors is a man’s gift to himself.” Considering the ultimate message of this post, I want to take that quote and remake it:

Education is what no person can give you and none can take away. Education is your gift to yourself.   

Let Aaron's story of awesome perseverance in the face of extreme odds be your inspiration to learn something new every day! Let my reflections remind you that there is no time limit on learning and that NO ONE can make you feel inferior for empowering yourself with the gift of knowledge. Go, learn something!  

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Education is Power. 

Education is what no person can give you and none can take away. Education is your gift to yourself.