NEW YORK (March 2, 2011)—Chimwala primary school in Lilongwe, Malawi serves 3,000 students in multiple shifts. A severe shortage of classrooms and school furniture means that these students have studied for years in discomfort—on dirt floors or even on the ground outside under shade trees.
Last month, UNICEF delivered 100 desks to furnish the school's 8 classrooms, the beginning of a project that will eventually deliver 46,000 desks to schools across Malawi. The project will give tens of thousands of kids their first ever opportunity to sit at a desk.
The arrival of the desks was a monumental occasion—one that inspired even the village chief to attend.
"In all my 13 years at UNICEF, I have never seen a day quite like this one," remarked UNICEF Communication Chief Victor Chinyama, who accompanied the desk manufacturers for the joyful delivery.
The Chimwala delivery was just the first in a series of desk deliveries that will ultimately provide 172 schools in the 4 districts of Dedza, Kasungu, Blantyre Rural and Lilongwe Rural with simple school desks. This achievement is the result of a unique campaign launched by the U.S. Fund for UNICEF and the cable news network MSNBC called K.I.N.D – or Kids in Need of Desks.
"Try sitting on a cement floor. You will be uncomfortable in 10 minutes or less," said journalist Lawrence O'Donnell, host of "The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell" on MSNBC. "Then you will be in pain—your back, your hips. Now stay there for 7 hours. Now try doing that 5 days a week. Oh, and don't forget to read and write while your sitting on the floor. And while you're at it, try to learn something, anything, a language maybe, something that requires real concentration."
O'Donnell launched the initiative with UNICEF after visiting Malawi last summer and witnessing first-hand the great need for basic educational supplies. On that trip, he was able to furnish a single classroom in just one week by contacting UNICEF and funding the production with local manufacturers. Inspired, he agreed to spread the word about UNICEF's efforts in Malawi to his television audience.
"Sure, there are more important things to do in Africa," he said. "Stop genocide in Darfur, get clean water supplies, fight AIDS—and better people than me are trying to do those things every day of their lives. Get some kids off the floor? Well, that's the best I could do."
To date, the K.I.N.D Fund has raised enough money to produce 46,000 desks, each of which will allow 2 or more children to rise off the floor and focus better on their studies. Already, more than 1,500 desks have been manufactured and are being delivered to schools thanks to generous donors to the K.I.N.D Fund.
"The gift of a desk to a child in Malawi means so much," said Caryl Stern, President and CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF. "Education is key to breaking the cycle of poverty. It helps lay the groundwork for survival and success that will continue for generations, and we are so pleased to have MSNBC as a partner in this campaign to give as many children as possible a head start."
Malawi still has many obstacles to overcome before every child has access to quality basic education. Four out of 5 students in Malawi are still without desks, and in all of sub-Saharan Africa there are 45 million children who are unable to go to school.
In addition to inadequate classroom space, the educational system is challenged by a shortage of trained teachers, learning materials and school sanitation facilities, which particularly impacts girls.
In 2004, UNICEF and the Nelson Mandela Foundation started Schools for Africa, a campaign to promote education for all, with a special emphasis on girls, orphans, children living in extreme poverty and other vulnerable children.
Through the Schools for Africa campaign, UNICEF works closely with the Government of Malawi and governments of 11 other African countries to overcome these obstacles and give a new generation of African children the right to education and opportunity to thrive.
WHAT YOUR MONEY CAN BUY
$15 can provide four local language story books for a school library.
$50 can provide 100 children with a pencil and exercise book.
$272 can provide an Early Childhood Development Kit for 50 children containing pads, pencils, puzzles, puppets in addition to 37 other teaching aids.