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I wanted to build a school in Africa

Home » I wanted to build a school in Africa

Motives of a young Czech

Governments fund different kinds of development aid programs, paying millions for various projects where the results are often nowhere to be seen. I decided to do something tangible. I was 26 and attracted to the idea of completely changing my life by trying to do something I have been talking about for a long time, though it seemed like the talk would be the extent of it.

At that time I had already 6 months working experience with one development organization in Malawi, southeastern Africa, but looking back I have to admit that, even though the experience was interesting and important, I had not learned much from it. My overall impression from Malawi was shock from the deep poverty of the local people, indignation over the injustice of where each of us is born and therefore what kind of life we will lead, and also a pleasant vibration from knowing how much can be done for these people so that they can live a more dignified life.

And so, in 2005, when I wrote my own proposal for a development project in Malawi and fundraised the necessary money, I was able to set off. I organized an international team of volunteers, and in October 2005 we landed in Malawi. Our goal was to set up a preschool in a rural area for children aged 3 to 6, which would also serve as a community center with a range of services offered to the local public based on specific local needs.

This was our team: me, Tereza Mirovičová from the Czech Republic,

Simon Gates
from England

Simone Fuchs
from Switzerland

David Leflar
from USA

Michal Kabelka
from the Czech Republic

How we settled down in Malawi

After our arrival to Malawi we met the director of CONGOMA (Council of Non-Governmental Organizations in Malawi) as he had promised us assistance with identifying a suitable village for the school construction. Instead of his asssistance though, we were given a 30 page list of organizations. That truly disappointed us and eventually we decided to find a place for the school by ourselves.

In November 2005 the place was found; the village of Juma is situated in a hilly area of southern Malawi 30 km off the city of Blantyre. We were invited into this village by a secondary school teacher Peter V. whom i got to know back in 2003 while working in Malawi. Peter organized a meeting between us and his younger brother – the headman of Juma village.

Village Headman Juma seemed to be a strong alcoholic and didn’t speak any English. During the discussions he was shaking, and in response to our questions and comments he would nod and give a quiet OK. We should have paid more attention but we were overexcited from the whole plan taking more concrete shape. Peter, on the other hand was very energetic and enthusiastic. He spoke about the necessity of preschool education, the lack of it in the area and the changes needed in this regard. Peter was the only person at the meeting speaking both languages (English and Chichewa) and thus translated for both sides.

hills of southern Malawi

Juma village

However the outcome of the meeting seemed to be positive:
1. The school was to be built in the village of Juma, several meters from the Village Headman’s house
2. we were to get a piece of land where a house could be built for us to live in during our 3 year stay, and which later could be rented in order to generate money for the community-run school
3. On a close-by hill a piece of land was dedicated for a future school kitchen where cassava, maize, peanuts and other crops would be planted
All the land which we were given to use and which traditionally so far belonged to the Village Headman of Juma was given for free and based on a verbal agreement only.

headman Juma

Peter Van Gelder

In November 2005 the construction work started, fully paid by the project funds. There were approximately 40 laborers hired and the we employed Peter as an Extension Officer whose task was to translate and help with logistics regarding the construction work. Our vision was to finish the school construction in February 2006, then to hand it over to the local community. We intended to assist the community in starting an Income Generating Activity (IGA) which would financially support the operation of the school (teachers’ salaries, food for children, school utensils …) and any other possible activity, based on the interest and needs of the local people (f.e.: HIV/AIDS club, youth group, medicinal garden, adult literacy classes ….). We wanted the project to become self-sufficient and independent on the outside funding as soon as possible.

The Extension Officer lies and steals

In December 2005, just as the building construction was near complete, problems started. Peter was caught stealing building materials meant for the school. Soon after it became apparent that Peter V. misused the language barrier and spread lies about the project, such as that I am the mother of his child, and coming to Malawi to give his family a school to improve their financial situation. We were appalled and took away Peter’s position as Extension Officer, not considering that this incident would have too serious consequences. Contrary was the case.
Peter has a big influence in the village. He is an educated person (with a university diploma), he has a regular income (as a secondary school teacher), owns a car (though immobile), is the oldest brother in the Village Headman’s family (in Malawi traditionally a very powerful position) and therefore holds a strong influence on the Village Headman, his younger brother.

Peter threatened us that without his support the project could not continue since he was the one bringing this development into the area and providing the land on which the school was built. Peter went from door to door in Juma and close-by villages telling people that he is the ‘Co-Founder’ of the school and therefore its rightful owner. His campaign was not only effective due to his influence in the village coupled with the communities’ lack of awareness of the project, but also was supported by the spreading fear of Peter’s involvement in Witchcraft. Thus the situation became from a “western point of view” absurd and unmanagable.
At that point all construction work on the school was temporarily stopped.


In February 2006 the gained a new team-member. Justin N. is a native Malawian, young, ambitious, active, intelligent, and open to new ideas, with several years experience working with different development and humanitarian organizations. His knowledge and skills have become, for us and the further development of the preschool project, priceless.

We assessed the situation and formed a new approach to continue the development. Over several meetings between Peter and us in the presence of local leaders, government officials, and representatives of Peter V.’s family, the issue regarding the ownership of the project land and buildings was discussed. The outcome was an agreement signed by all parties stating that the project land and buildings belong to the community in order to address their needs and interests.

12 village headmen

Somba and Peter

In March 2006 we organized a big meeting in order to explain the aim of the project, its background, the current situation, and future possibilities to local stakeholders. Important participants in the meeting were Traditional Authority Somba (the highest traditional/non-governmental chief of approximately 200 Village Headmen in the area), 12 Village Headmen of the 12 villages centered around Juma which were to benefit from the development, as well as representatives from local stakeholders such as primary and secondary schools, health centers, and NGOs working in the area. Peter was officially invited as well.

school construction

The meeting seemed to be very fruitful. All the participants had the chance to receive first-hand information about the development. The Traditional Authority Somba confirmed that the land on which the project buildings are situated belongs to the community and not to the Village Headman Juma or Peter, since it is a social community project. The other Village Headmen were embittered by Peter’s behavior and reasonably excited about the prospects of the rising school and possible activities offered to the public of their villages. Peter was publicly accused of being a greedy and selfish man.

It was now important to inform the ordinary villagers about the project, its aims, and the result of this meeting. Up to that point most people in the area thought that the school was a White People’s Gift to Peter.

It was necessary to change this misperception and to let the public realize that the upcoming school was a public welfare project, not private property of an individual. Villagers needed to get the chance to participate in the decision-making for the project and its future uses, as well as to finish the school construction.

White man doesn‘t know best

We decided to do a more thorough research in the local communities in order to find out what specific problems and needs the local people have (lack of food, lack of education, diseases, early marriages and pregnancies, lack of job opportunities …?), as well as their interest and willingness to participate in finding solutions and taking action. The research was necessary so that we would not base the character of the emerging preschool and community center on our external and possibly false opinions about what the local people need and want. That, as we could witness with other development projects in Malawi, is a common but fundamental mistake often made, which consequently is the reason for misunderstandings, a lack of community ownership, and unsustainability.

research in a household

The research took place in March and April 2006. We visited over 80 households, several local schools, health centers, churches and orphanages, as well as relevant Ministries and Government Offices.
We experienced quite a few obstacles when initially trying to cooperate with the Malawian Government, being confronted with unreliability, empty promises, disorganization … However, through the continuous interaction and collaboration with specific members within the Malawian Government Ministries, we have developed some essential working relationships.

public meeting in Kambalame

In May 2006 a public meeting was held in each of the 12 villages involved in the project, where usually only a fragment of villagers attended. The content was always the same. We introduced ourselves and clarified the character of the implemented project – explaining that the emerging preschool and community centre is there to serve the local public in enabling the community to initiate and run various activities in the areas of Education, Health and Food Security. We also clarified that we are only temporarily supporting this development through financial and organizational assistance, while aiming to see the project become sustainable and not dependant on outside funding by the time we leave.
We wanted to set up an Executive Committee composed of 12 voluntary representatives from the 12 respective villages. Their task would be to carry out activities regarding the development of the preschool and community center, to involve more volunteers from their villages, and to eventually completely take over the management of the whole project. Therefore, in the end of each of the public meetings the present villagers elected from amongst themselves 1 voluntary Executive Committee member.

Executive Committee

We made it clear that these volunteers needed to participate in the community center’s development truly voluntarily—without any financial appreciation— as the project is for them and their communities, and their participation is needed even after our involvement and assistance are finished.

In June 2006 a weeklong Executive Committee training took place, which was organized in cooperation with the Malawian Ministry of Woman and Child Development and the international development agency Population Services International. The purpose of the training was to prepare the members for their new role as community leaders and representatives of a public welfare project, to inspire them and to discuss possible obstacles they might have to overcome, to teach them how to involve other volunteers and to equip them with basic management and accountability knowledge and skills.

In August 2006 the Executive Committee together with us, who act as the Trustees, registered the development project with the Malawian Ministry of Woman and Child Development as a Community Based Organization (CBO) under the name of UMODZI-MBAME.

latrine digging

In the meantime, from March to September 2006, the Executive Committee members and other volunteers were finishing the school blocks – painting the classrooms, planting grass, harvesting maize from the school garden, bringing sand from the nearby river to plaster the school veranda, burning bricks from soil to erect the latrines, etc.
The work was being finished slowly. Working volunteers received food but were not paid for these jobs as laborers used to be at the beginning of the construction work. This caused discussions between us and the volunteers, the volunteers asking for payment or incentives for their work, us being reluctant considering the consequences this might have for the future sustainability of the project. Who will be willing to work when additional construction or maintenance is needed but no funds available to pay for these jobs? Does it mean that with our departure the project will come to an end?
Together with the volunteers it was agreed that it is necessary to start some Income Generating Activity which could financially support activities of the preschool and community center and possibly cover small incentives for the volunteers. We were ready to suport them in the beginning of such an activity – financially or otherwise.

The school starts

Despite this, in September 2006 the construction was completed and ready to serve its original purpose of a preschool building, where care and education would be provided to the local children from 3 to 6 years.
Together with a panel of representatives from the Executive Committee we chose 4 applicants out of 30 who were interested in being teachers at UMODZI-MBAME preschool. All of them live in the surrounding villages, have completed secondary education, and have experience with preschool teaching.

school registration

students with name cards


on the first day

In October 2006, 60 boys and 50 girls of the age 3 to 6 years were registered, one fifth being orphans. On 31st October 2006 the school opened. Lessons run every working day from 8am to 12pm, and include 1 warm meal prepared in the school kitchen by parents.


school kitchen

The family of each child is supposed to make a monthly contribution of 50 Malawian Kwacha ($0.35). However, many parents or guardians don’t pay and it is often clear that they don’t fail due to financial constraints but rather negligence. This kind of negligence and disinterest is actually inherent in the majority of the people involved in the project. We can see it clearly as the preschool children’s parents and volunteers don’t show any will to maintain or improve the preschool or broaden its programs so that the preschool could become a real community center serving not only the preschool children but other youths and adults too.


We have many ideas which seem to be so easily implemented and capable of positive impact (i.e. build a nice playground in front of the school, equip the school with youth books and set up a library, start a medicinal garden, run Adult Literacy Classes ….) and are ready to cover the initial expenses (books, building materials, trainings …). Gradually though, we have found out that the community, even though well aware of these possibilities and welcoming them, has not shown interest in realizing them.

Seeing this passivity and lack of interest was a vital experience and realization, continuously challenging the judgment of our work. It took us some time to understand the villagers’ passivity and see possible reasons behind it. UMODZI-MBAME CBO was initiated by us – outside input based on an externally perceived need. The initial set up of the project was not driven by the local people’s need, interests or initiative, but by our perceptions, visions, and efforts; thus resulting in the difficulties. Eventually this experience was demonstrating for us clearly that there is not much sense for representatives of a development organization, to force or continuously encourage people to volunteer for their community project if they have only expressed their need but have not shown any initiative to take action, too.

Helping those who are helping themselves

This fact very well reflects in light of the experience we acquired with another community we have been working with for over one year. The village of Kantimbanya, unlike Juma, is situated far from the road, not easily accessible, and therefore gets little to no attention from the government or NGOs. However this seems to have inspired the people to face their problems differently.

The demographic and sociologic figures are the same as in Juma and all of Malawi (a majority of people live under the level of extreme poverty, malnutrition and 13% child mortality under 5, a sixth of the population lives with the HIV virus or has already developed AIDS, early marriages and pregnancies, insufficient or dysfunctional health care, 40% illiteracy rate …), but in the village of Kantimbanya people actively try to tackle their problems.

In 2003, due to the alarming rise of orphans and their bad living conditions, a growing group of volunteers organized themselves and initiated the set up of 4 community centers which serve almost 200 children under 7 as a care and learning place, where they also receive a warm meal. The group also found it necessary to take care of lonely sick and elderly people and thus started a Home Based Care Programme that includes visiting the homes of the sick and elderly, washing their clothes, cultivating their gardens, buying little necessities such as soap or matches, and interacting with them. All this is carried out by over 120 volunteers, people who are willing to commit their time and limited financial means to help and support their neighbours.

In May 2006 the volunteers from the village of Kantimbanya heard about our presence in their area and decided to approach and invite us to see their community centers, asking if and how they could receive support for sustaining and expanding their activities.


community center

The situation in Kantimbanya is very different from that in Juma. In Kantimbanya it is the villagers themselves who initiate and carry out all the development activities. They themselves have realized their problems and the need to solve them and are actively making changes. Whatever they do for their community comes from their faith in and desire for improvement. There is no external inspiration or encouragement needed as they are already creative and motivated, driven by their own interest and energy.

half-finished maize mill

Toto setkání pro nás bylo velmi důležitou zkušeností. Uvědomili jsme si propastný rozdíl mezi podporou lidí, kteří jsou jen pasivními přijímateli, a podporou lidí, kteří pro sebe dělají maximum svépomocí a zároveň se snaží nabýt více znalostí, schopností a finančních prostředků, aby svůj potenciál mohli rozvinout naplno. Samozřejmě jsme se rozhodli komunitu v Kantimbanye podpořit. Pomohli jsme dobrovolníkům získat oficiální status komunitní organizace, již téměř rok jim nabízíme pravidelné školení učitelů a v neposlední řadě jsme jim poskytli finance (částečně jako půjčku) k výstavbě mlýna na kukuřici, který je v této oblasti velmi žádoucí. Výnosy budou použity k udržení a rozšíření stávajících aktivit ve vesnici.
This has been a very important experience for us, realizing the difference between encouraging and supporting people who are just passive recipients of any assistance, in comparison to working with people who have identified their needs and are actively addressing them – and are still looking for further knowledge, skills or financial means to reach their full potential.

It led us to work with the community of Kantimbanya, supporting them in their efforts through capacity building for their Executive Committee and preschool teachers, donations for their Home Based Care Programme as well as financing (partly as a loan) construction of a much needed maize mill whose profits will help to sustain and broaden the present activities in the village.

Now in July 2007 the maize mill is under construction. We have provided funds for those items which the volunteers aren’t able to get locally themselves – cement, iron sheets, nails and the maize mill with its diesel engine. All other materials and resources are organized by the volunteers. Since they feel that they do it for themselves and their community they don’t demand any payment for stone and sand collection, bricklayer and carpenter labor. Active partcipation on the maize mill´s construction reinforces their responsibility for it, and gives them the feeling of true ownership.

What about Juma?

While strengthening the link and co-operation with Kantimbanya, we still continue to work with UMODZI-MBAME CBO in Juma village. The Executive Committee temporarily receives 17.000 Malawi Kwacha ($ 112) monthly for the school expanses (food, teaching materials, teachers’ salaries …) and monitors and evaluates its operation.

It is clear that the UMODZI-MBAME preschool is not self-sustainable since it depends on the monthly funding of 17.000 Malawi Kwacha received through us. The Executive Committee, other volunteers, as well as parents of all registered children know that this assistance is only temporary until March 2008. They know it is for them to initiate an Income Generating Activity (IGA) whose profit could cover the expenses needed for the basic operation of the school. The CBO volunteers are aware of their chance to approach us with an idea and plan for an IGA to receive support in starting a business – financially, through capacity building or in any other relevant way. But while UMODZI-MBAME CBO has completed its first 3 months of independent management quite well, no steps regarding starting an IGA have yet been taken.
We leave it in the hands of the CBO to initiate this step.

teacher training

we don‘t have paper

Besides this, we continue our intensive work with the 4 teachers of UMODZI-MBAME preschool, aiming to develop the preschool into a Model CBCC (Community Based Childcare Centre), providing quality care and education, and further serving as a Training and Resource Facility from where other schools and organizations can get inspired and learn. Currently 17 teachers from 13 surrounding preschools and orphanages are attending monthly teacher training at the UMODZI-MBAME center, facilitated by us and the 4 UMODZI-MBAME teachers. Recently UNICEF has become our partner in this teacher-training program.

treasurer presents accounts

Thus our current role within the UMODZI-MBAME CBO is supervision and training of the teachers, as well as monitoring the Executive Committee and its money handeling.

It still remains a question, though, what to do in case, by March 2008, UMODZI-MBAME hasn’t shown any effort to become self-sufficient. Should we just accept that we will support UMODZI-MBAME as long as the project funds are available? Is undeserved support of passive communites what we call development work? Is it justified by few hundret better educated and fed children? Should we forget our aim of supporting active and self-sufficient communities? Should we accept that, for a major part of current generation of adult Malawians, passive waiting for help is an unchangeable reality? And hope that the new generation of children growing up in preschools like UMODZI-MBAME will be much more active, progressive, and self-confident about shaping their future?

Justice in exchange for a bag of sugar

Also the situation with Peter has not been solved yet. He still tries, as the so called “Co-Founder”, to get power over the project land and buildings, and sometimes uses means rather vicious. For example one night a tree in front of the school used by the teachers as shade for outside classes was cut down; another time pineapples, banana trees and cassava stems went missing from the project land. Witnesses reported seeing Peter in the act. We brought our complaints about Peter’s vandalism to the Traditional Authority Somba but were told to forgive and forget the past, and reinstate Peter in his previous position of Extension Officer. Later the rumors spread that Peter has been seen delivering bags of sugar to Traditional Authority Somba’s house.

We, the Project Team, perceived these conflicts very personally and felt an urge to fight against Peter on behalf of the UMODZI-MBAME CBO. It took us some time to realize that our resistance can not help and that us fighting in the name of the community for a community project is illogical, graceless, and doesn’t work. This is a fight which the community, local and national stakeholders need to lead while we can only provide encouragement and support, since any effort initiated and carried out by the us would support the false opinion that the school is not community-owned.

Recently there have been several official meetings regarding Peter’s claims over the school’s ownership. In addition to Peter and several members of the Executive Committee, Traditional Authority Somba, representatives of the Ministry under which UMODZI-MBAME is registered, as well as several villagers from Juma, who are not active volunteers, but felt the urge to act against Peter, participated. From our point of view the situation is very clear. UMODZI-MBAME CBO is, according to Malawian law, an official Community Based Organization and therefore can not be owned by an individual. It is property of a community which is responsible to look after it. But the Traditional Authority Somba, who in March 2006 publicly confirmed, and eved signed and stamped document saying, that the school and its land belongs to the community, is now acting as if he does not remember it. If Somba is corrupted by the bags of sugar, fears of witchcraft or something else, we will probably never find out. For us “westerners” the situation is truly absurd, as we continue to think that several weighty arguments would solve everything. Again and again though we see that in Malawi things don’t work according to our “western” rules. The only thing we can do now is to let the Malawian justice work and learn from the mistakes we might have made.


These 2 years of working with different rural Malawian communities brought results. Besides the tangible ones, and perhaps most important, were the results in the form of understanding and clear vision of our work in the future.

It is obvious that some people and some communities feel the urge and are ready for their own transformation, initiated and led by themselves, whereas others don’t have this urge or are not ready for change. Reasons for this may vary but the fact is that if we want to concentrate on sustainable changes in development work, our efforts will be more effective if we choose such partners who want their own transformation and work for it regardless of outside assistance.

Most significantly this realization led us to the decison to start our own development organization – boNGO (based on Need-driven Grassroots Ownership).

In Malawi, boNGO supports the development of such groups of people that are already actively trying to address their needs, but find it difficult to do so due to a lack of knowledge, experience, resources, or funds.

In the economically developed world, boNGO spreads awareness about life in Malawi, different ways of development aid and its impacts. boNGO tries to break clichés rooted in people and to suggest new ways of practicing development.
If you like our point of view and feel like helping, or if you have any comments or suggestions, please don‘t hesitate to contact us.

Tereza Mirovicova
Coordinator of the original project, member of boNGO

contact: or


  1. Je to asi ponekud drahy zpusob jak zjitit, ze pomahat se da jen tem, kteri chteji, aby jim bylo pomozeno, ale lepsi se to naucit drive a pak se tim ridit, nez pozdeji a vzdat to.

    Doufam, ze to bude jedna z prvnich veci, kterou se ti mali africanci nauci ve vasi skole.

  2. I, as a Malawian, really appreciate your work in this country.

  3. Já ,jako Češka také velmi uznávám vaši práci v této zemi.Myslím si,že vaše závěry z nabytých zkušeností jsou správné. Možná by ve vesnici Juma byla řešením misionářská stanice,která by práci ve škole dozorovala i po vašem odchodu,lidé,kteří by se zžili s domácí komunitou a získali si jejich podporu a úctu.

  4. Je dobré, k čemu tito mladí lidé dospěli, hodí se jim to do života, jen mi pořád trochu vadí to, že u nás je tolik problémů, že se to běžně zametá pod koberec a pracně budujeme něco v jiných koutech světa. Už můj kolega před 20ti lety v Africe rozjížděl projekty, po 10ti letech zcela vyčerpán toho nechal, je to prostě jiná mentalita, jinak ale rozhodně záslužná práce

  5. Well done dear Tereza…
    Madly in love with you,

  6. my name is James Abel i am from Nigeria, how are you all doing over there in Malawi?
    any i must say that you people did a nice and a wonderful work to help the little children in that country and God will never let you down, thank you and continue doing the good work you are doing don’t mind what people are saying or how they treat you in Malawi,i will be praying for your group because the work you are doing is for God, it is not so easy for you to left your country and come over to Africa with this wonderful ideas thank you