How a cycling trip in Africa sparked Think Malawi
Reflections on 11 years as Chair from Steve McInerny
Founding a charitable trust in 2009 was actually the easy bit. The challenges came with getting registered in 2011 and then finding money, supporters and volunteers. It was also a hard task maintaining a working relationship with someone 7,000 miles away, often by text message and during power shortages not even that was possible.
That someone was Gertrude, the director of Ganet’s Adventure School in Malawi, where I had volunteered for a couple of weeks in 2005. I’d spent 10 months cycling with friends in Africa, and came back with a vague aim of wanting to pay back some of the kindness and hospitality we had been shown along the way. A vague sense of guilt for the position of privilege we found ourselves in while in Africa may well also have had something to do with it. Either way, by 2009 we had a tiny charity up and running, founded by my wife, my mother and me.
Supporting Ganet’s Adventure School
Gertrude’s school had huge potential to help its community. She and I worked together to tell people back in the UK about it, and to find ways to convert this interest into tangible support. By 2020, despite COVID shut downs impacting Malawi, Gertrude was ready to make the school independent of our outside support. The school and the charity have now ended their formal partnership, and we remain in contact.
I became good friends with Gertrude over the years, despite us having inevitable disagreements along the way. I was most touched when during one visit Gertrude pointed to a goat tied up outside her family’s house and said it was mine. The gratitude turned to fear when I was told that when I returned to Malawi I would have to slaughter it. Thankfully for me and the goat, this was either said in jest or forgotten about by the time I made it back there.
Learning from afar about the latest goings on in the village where Ganet’s Adventure School was situated, how often compost toilets need to be emptied, or how the best bricks are made using earth from old termite mounds, was a real privilege.
The everyday challenges
This close collaboration really impressed upon me how hard life is in Malawi for most people. Failed crops, flooding and land eviction all affected the school at different times, not to mention closure of schools nationwide due to COVID-19.
Each time these problems happened, Gertrude always had a plan for how to keep things going, so I along with the other trustees, just had to make sure the charity had the resources to support her in doing this.
The lows often led to the biggest highs during my time as Chair. The highs included when Ganet’s Adventure School finally got government permission to reopen, after four classrooms which we funded were completed. The school had been closed for many months as part of nationwide school closures by the government.
Any opportunity to see how the children in Malawi benefit from the support of our donors in the UK has always been massively motivating, and often very moving too. Visits to Malawi have had to be replaced by WhatsApp videos recently. When times allow, I would recommend anyone to go out and see the country and meet some of its people for yourself if you can.
The school winning a Teach a Man to Fish Award for Entrepreneurship in Education was another big high. Our celebrations in the UK couldn’t get close to those of the school’s staff and pupils in Malawi though, they paraded around the area singing and dancing to let everyone know about their award.
A more recent milestone was expanding our aims as a charity and relaunching with a new name in 2018. We did this in order to apply our accumulated knowhow and resources to educational projects across Malawi. This led to our first non-Ganet’s project, Her Education Matters, which enables girls to stay in school when they have their periods, through provision of sanitary pads sewn by mothers’ groups, as well as training, plus construction of specially designated changing rooms.
We learned how to do things by trial and error, it felt like mostly error at times. If you’re going to make errors, at least make them fun ones. Our gigs in Camden were certainly fun even if they were poorly attended and didn’t raise much money. Our film screening where our guest of honour, the film’s cinematographer, stopped the film partway through due to picture issues, was less fun, though everyone smiled about it once the film finally got back underway.
Gertrude isn’t the only incredible person I had the pleasure of meeting through the charity.
We are a 100% volunteer-run charity, and our volunteers all deserve thanks. Our indomitable volunteers in the early days who taught at the school, when it was no more than a couple of shelters with no walls and grass roofs, deserve a special mention. One of them, Miriam, even spent six months working hard at the school in these conditions.
I’m grateful to all of our trustees along the way who helped to push the charity forward. The one who’s done most in that respect has to be my mum, who remains a trustee today having been one of the original trustees when we started out in 2009. Her knowledge from a career as a teacher and having lived in Malawi has been invaluable.
And none of this would have happened without our loyal supporters. Among our most loyal supporters have been the parents, teachers and staff of Alleyn’s School, who have provided funds and other support for many years, including happily taking part in an outdoor netball match for us on a freezing December morning. Our supporters have brought fun, as well as funds into fundraising, whether it be supporters turning up unannounced in fancy dress on our sponsored bike rides or a rum-fuelled fundraising party held by Digitas.
Committing to this cause has really helped to give me purpose in life. It is something I would recommend to anyone, whatever your cause may be.
If you want to be a part of this vision, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.