Six prize-winning sixth year pupils from Ballycastle have been inspired to consider careers as humanitarians after a recent trip to Malawi with overseas development organisation Concern Worldwide.
The Cross and Passion College students were invited to visit the country with one of their teachers to see first-hand the work of the humanitarian charity after triumphing over 150 other schools on the island to scoop top prize in the Concern School Debates. It was the first time in 26 years that a school from Northern Ireland had won the competition which gives 15-18 year old students the opportunity to debate global issues.
The winning team, made up of sixth-formers, Sorcha Hughes, Conleth Burns, Roisin Neill, Orla Donnelly, Bronagh Scullion and Luiseach Mathers, and teacher Caitlin Hughes, journeyed to three regions in Malawi in July.
“Some people say that debating is an art, others a sport. But our trip to Malawi after winning the Concern Debates helped us to see where words can really lead us,” said team captain Sorcha Hughes.
“Malawi is known as the warm heart of Africa – and our hearts were warmed by the stories we heard, the joy we shared and the memories we created,” she said.
Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world – three in every five people live on less than £1 a day. In recent years, the country has suffered several extreme climate events, as well as shorter rainy seasons, worsening the poverty that so many people face.
The students visited projects in several rural communities where Concern is developing skills and incomes for the most vulnerable and promoting gender equality.
Each time the team arrived at a new location, they were given a warm welcome.
“Standing was a phenomenon that we became accustomed to on our trip,” said 18-year-old Conleth Burns. “We would stand and be welcomed by community after community. We stood watching, observing and learning. They stood and taught together.”
Their first stop was in Mchinji at the Luna Care Group, where mothers and their young children learn the basics of good health and nutrition. So far, the programme has reached more than 4,800 mums.
“Ironically, it wasn’t one of the mothers who made the biggest impact on me,” said Conleth. “It was a man – Chipitiro - who is the proud dad of three daughters. He devotes his life to making their lives better.”
“Surrounded by women and children, Chipitiro stands out. He is the only male on the project. A life-long volunteer, he devotes many hours each week to make sure that the group continues. He grows soya beans and maize to ensure that his daughters can receive an education.
“But Chipitiro is cultivating something much greater. He is sowing the seeds of a new culture, one that his daughters will inherit - a culture where men and women work together for their children, and where more men can enjoy promoting women’s rights.”
Next stop was the Theatre for Change project in Lilongwe which uses interactive workshops to teach teenage girls about sexual and reproductive health – an issue that is close to 18-year-old student Sorcha Hughes’ heart.
“As a feminist with an interest in advocacy, women’s rights and theatre, stepping into the project was like stepping into an amalgamation of everything I had hoped to pursue as a career,” she said.
“We took part in an activity where we ran in a circle, following instructions as a group to see if we could stay completely in synch. And although we appeared slightly ungainly in our long skirts in the Malawian heat, the atmosphere was filled with laughter, and the group was clearly determined to succeed.
“We were told about how the project creates a space for people to explore why abuse is wrong, and not their own fault, and how they can become empowered to be in control of their own sexuality.”
18-year-old Bronagh Scullion said her most lasting memory was meeting Bertha, chairwoman of an agricultural cooperative in Chikwama and a former teacher with more than 30 years’ experience. The project promotes improved farming techniques - and already crop yields among small-hold farmers have increased which has benefitted the whole community.
“Bertha told us that change doesn’t happen overnight, but that as the owners of our future, we must push ourselves forward,” said Bronagh.
Full story online!
“She forced us to think not about her community’s current circumstances but about how they could improve its future. She told us that experience is the best teacher. And we could see clearly that the world she wanted to build tomorrow was lived out today.”
Three of the students have now returned to Cross and Passion to complete their final year studies – and have signed up once again for the school’s debating team. The remainder have gone to university in Oxford and Durham, and to spend a year in Australia – one of them certain of pursuing a career in global development after the inspirational trip.
You can find out more about Concern at: www.concern.net