Empowering communities: Meet the Kerala couple who built a school in Africa's Malawi

Vishnu Ramakrishnan

5 min read
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Arun and Sumi along with students

In a world where schools are rapidly embracing technology and advancements, one man's encounter with a humble school in a remote corner of the globe sparked a transformative mission.

Arun, hailing from Malappuram, found himself questioning the state of education when he discovered a dilapidated school building at Chisasila village in Malawi--a landlocked country in southeastern Africa.

Malawi is home to numerous villages where people still lack basic necessities like water, electricity, and education. Chisasila village was one such place, plagued by extreme poverty and insecurity. Two years ago, during a journey through the village, Arun stumbled upon a dilapidated building on the verge of collapse. To his dismay, he discovered it was the village's primary school. The sight of children enduring the rain while learning, inspired Arun to take action. From that moment he was on a mission to build a school where children could sit comfortably without getting soaked in the rain. Arun's determination was matched by his wife, Sumi, and together with a group of friends, they set out to turn this dream into a reality.

Arun and his wife, Sumi, dedicated themselves to improving the lives of those suffering in this village. The couple faced numerous hurdles and hardships along the way. However, fueled by their determination, they persevered. After a year and a half of relentless efforts, the Malayalee school in Chisasila village was finally completed.

The construction of a village school marked the first step toward their mission. But their ambitions extended beyond the school's construction. The couple has been working to make the village self-sufficient and pave the way for progress.

First impression of the village
Arun's initial impression of the village was a mix of curiosity and empathy. Arun's arrival in Malawi in 2019 was influenced by familial connections. Initially working as a warehouse manager in a trading company, Arun transitioned to a leading construction company based in Malawi, owned by a resident from Kozhikode.

During the rainy season of 2021, Arun's path led him to Chisasila village, where he was involved in a dam construction project. While traversing the village roads by car, he was greeted by the sight of children dashing through the downpour. As he continued his journey, his attention was drawn to a dilapidated building. Inquiring about its condition, he discovered that it was a primary school, with children gathered around. The lack of space forced some students to study under a tree, and when rain poured, their only option was to seek shelter back home.

Kerala Block at the school

Overwhelmed by the distressing scene, Arun couldn't help but contemplate ways to assist the school. With Majao, a young colleague, Arun planned to visit the village during weekends. Majao became the first person to learn about Arun's decision to construct a new school building. Realizing that his livelihood in the country directly supported his family back home, Arun felt a deep sense of responsibility to allocate a portion of his earnings toward improving the lives of the people he encountered in Malawi.

Sumi, who arrived in Malawi during the final stages of school construction, was captivated by the unique landscapes and traditional houses of Chisasila village. The mud-walled and thatched-roofed houses were a far cry from her familiar surroundings. As she joined Arun in helping with the final construction works of the school, Sumi developed a deeper connection with the local children and women. Their happiness and resilience left an indelible impression on her.

I would never be able to forget their happy faces: Arun
To fund the construction, Arun allocated a portion of his salary. One Sunday morning, he called a meeting with the villagers, explaining their intention and seeking assistance in building the school. The response was heartening. As a first step, the villagers enthusiastically agreed to make earthen blocks, crafting around 40,000 blocks within a week. Even the little children helped as best as they could and women brought them water from distant places. Witnessing their dedication filled Arun with immense joy and motivated him to continue the project.

As the school took shape, Arun realised the need for additional facilities. He wanted to build a school with four classrooms and a verandah. He reached out to his friend Ashif in Dubai, who had been involved in the project from the start. Ashif's unwavering support boosted their confidence.

Simultaneously, the rising costs of construction materials posed a challenge. With the idea of ​​completing the construction at a low cost without reducing any facilities, he approached another friend in the office named Kenneth. Kenneth is a native of Kollam. Kenneth was interested in their idea and provided all necessary assistance. Ashif sent money in times of need. The generosity of the couple's office colleagues, who gifted them a substantial amount for their wedding, added to their happiness.

Taking advantage of the 15-day Christmas break in December, Arun and Sumi dedicated themselves to advancing the school's progress as much as possible. During this period, when many villagers were away celebrating with their relatives, they took it upon themselves to paint the school. However, their efforts did not stop there. They contemplated ways to enhance the school's appearance, leading to the creation of a charming garden in the schoolyard, the construction of benches for comfortable seating, and the addition of vibrant wall paintings.

Thus, after a year and a half, with their combined efforts, the school was completed and inaugurated on February 19, 2023. The rapid transformation left a lasting impression on the villagers, who expressed astonishment upon their return. “I would never be able to forget their happy faces,” said Arun. Looking ahead, they have decided to purchase uniforms and shoes for the children in the upcoming months, further improving their educational experience.

School inauguration

Empowering communities
Sumi was deeply influenced by the strength and independence of the village women. She mentioned that they were far more independent than the women in India. The women here made decisions for themselves without relying on their husbands' approval.

Communication with the villagers was initially challenging due to language barriers. The main language of Malawi is Chichewa. But Arun said that the language changes every time you visit a different region. Each village has its own language. The people knew very little English.

Initially, they developed their relationship with the locals by speaking English, word by word, and using hand gestures. Sumi's dedication and constant interaction enabled her to learn their language and foster connections. Interestingly, this rapport has even led to some villagers learning and talking Malayalam.

The culinary practices in Malawi were also quite different. The local cuisine predominantly revolved around types of porridge, and tapioca powder was a very common ingredient. It was at this point Sumi introduced traditional Kerala cuisine to the villagers, gradually acclimatizing them to new flavors. They made many dishes like puttu, upma, dosa, sambar, etc. Initially, the villagers could not adapt to these foods. But later they started developing a liking for it.

Recently, when they were invited to a home to see a newborn baby, they noticed that the houses were built there by stacking trees and scraping the earth. When they learned of a family's struggle to build a house, they took it upon themselves to provide shelter. Arun’s work in Chisasila village is nearing completion, but they aim to build a house before moving on.
Reflecting on their transformative journey, Arun expressed gratitude for the kindness and warmth he encountered in Malawi. The negative stereotypes he had held about Africans were shattered as he experienced their love and care.

Arun said that their aim is to transform the entire village, step by step. Recently, they even opened a grocery store which is run by the villagers. People in Chisasila are ignorant of many things, and Arun is trying to change that and make them self-sufficient.

Translated by: Nahla Jasmin, Mount Carmel College, Bengaluru

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