Providing Education for the youth of Malawi

Children going hungry and not attending school; parents struggle for next meal

I’m in Malawi, Africa working in partnership with the World Food Programme. I’m responsible for covering several stories on sustainability efforts and how they are helping communities here. Malawi is considered to be the third poorest country in the world and I’ve been worried about diseases, theft and the warnings about traveling to Africa. But mostly I’ve been concerned about not really experiencing this country if I am working the entire time I am here. I want the experience to be ingrained in my memory, but I also want the images that come through the camera to affect my audience in the profound way I hope it will affect me.

With modern technology we’ve become very accustomed to recording every moment of our lives and preserving it online forever. We see a sunset or a beautiful landscape and immediately post photos online to share to the world. The main criticism of this is that we don’t actually enjoy and experience the moment. We aren’t in the moment if we’re worried about saving the moment for later. Being a television and digital media major, this is something I think about when I stand behind a camera and watch a scene or story unfold through a lens. Will I be in the moment of the story?

My story here focuses on Home Grown School Feeding programs. Kids throughout Malawi are going hungry and not attending school because they and their families are more worried about where their next meal is coming from rather than pursuing their education. Home Grown has recognized this problem and has been able to increase attendance in schools over 80% by providing food during the day for the students. This isn’t the only thing they are doing. Home Grown provides money to the schools to buy crops from local farmers. This in turn increases income for farmers in the surrounding communities…

On the day our cramped bus pulled into the schoolyard I was full of anxiety. What would the students be like? Would the teachers give me good interviews? Would I get enough B-Roll for my piece? All of my energy and uneasiness was focused on the end result; I only cared about what I would be able to do in postproduction. Later my professor would tell me that a good amount of nerves is necessary to make a decent story but this wouldn’t of been helpful to me at the time. The second the van doors opened and we stepped onto the grassy field at the center of the school a horde of happy children surrounded the cameras with smiling faces and energy that was both endearing and overwhelming.

We split up into two production teams, one team coming with me to set up for interviews, the other team wandering through classrooms to collect B-Roll and interact with kids. There were over a 1,000 kids at the school, with ages ranging from 5 to 14. With hardly any room, we set up interviews outside behind the classroom buildings and soon found that if we didn’t chase or play with them, the
children would slowly surround the area in a tight circle, making it impossible to shoot. The work I was doing with the camera was infinitely interesting to them, but at times I was so engulfed in my story and interviews that they might as well not have been there.

The day went on, and I worried more. A good portion of my interviews slowly went from English to Chichewa, Malawi’s native language. When all was said and done and we were down to our last shots, I was feeling downtrodden. I wasn’t thinking about where we were or the people surrounding me – I was thinking about my failings on the field. Should I have asked different questions? Did I have all the facts I need? Would there be enough B-Roll? As I stood outside the head master’s office stewing in my own thoughts and self-pity, two young girls motioned to me. The girls were barefoot and dressed in school uniforms. Probably no older than fourteen, they stood leaning against the doorway of a classroom with a cool confident nature I would have killed for at their age. When our eyes met, they flashed me toothy grins and waved. Then suddenly, one of the girls lifted her hands to her eye and held her fingers in the shape of a box, closing in one of those fingers and saying in maybe the one English word she knew, “Photograph??”

And just like that, I was in the moment.

“You want a photograph?” I looked around and motioned to someone with a camera. Taking it from another member of the crew I went to take a picture before being stopped, “No Sofie, you get in the picture.” This sent the cool girls into a fit, they giggled and bounced and threw their arms over me. Smushing their faces against mine and smiling in the most contagious and genuine way, we took several photos. We made silly faces and attempted to communicate with the little Chichewa I knew, and the little English they knew. They spoke excitedly and tried their best to continue our conversation before I was pulled away for the closing of the production.

It was the first day of production and although the interaction might not seem like a big deal, it became the first time I saw my work through a different lens. I saw the way those girls looked at the camera, and what the photos meant to them. More importantly, I felt the importance of what I am doing here.

I am showing these kids and this program to the world. I am making their stories known. Every exchange or occurrence, regardless of how small, leaves an imprint. I was preserving those girls and this story in that moment, forever. The program’s story as a whole was what was really important; the fine details that I slaved over were preventing me from seeing that…

Everyone we have encountered on this trip has been warm and welcoming, and wanted to leave an imprint of kindness. My fears and worries don’t feel as important anymore. I realize that being behind the camera doesn’t prevent me from being in the moment; it has the potential to put me in the middle of it.

Montclair State | New Jersey

Sofia Chavez

Sofia is a senior studying broadcasting at Montclair State University. She has a radio show on campus called "Salsa & Chicks" and skills in editing and producing.