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In 2006 Jillian Wolstein was on a flight returning from a safari in northern Botswana to the USA.

HELP - Liwonde, Malawi [2012 © greatguides.org]

In 2006 Jillian Wolstein was on a flight returning from a safari in northern Botswana to the USA. With her experience of Africa fresh in her mind, she recognised that she wanted more meaning in her life. At home she surfed the Wilderness Safaris website and saw that in Malawi the staff of Mvuu lodge were requesting donations to help them build a classroom at Nanthomba, a school attended by most of the staff's children. She called the Wilderness office and requested bank details. She sent a donation sufficient for not just one classroom, but eight. It was the beginning of the award-winning HELP Malawi project.

Jillian's commitment did not end with making a donation. When I met her, four years later, she was on her hands and knees scrubbing the floor of a clinic they soon hope to open. Her continuing generosity, supported by other donors, evolved into an NGO called 'HELP Malawi'. The school that she built was given to the state, but an agreement was reached that the school would be run by a joint management committee consisting of representatives from the education department, teachers and HELP staff. Mvuu lodge, meanwhile, provides accommodation, facilities and logistical support for HELP's staff, some of whom are American and some Malawian.

HELP - Liwonde, Malawi [2010 © greatguides.org] - HELP Malawi - Great Guides
Nanthomba Primary is an award winning project of HELP Malawi

A priority for HELP is to retain and motivate excellent teachers. So, whilst the teachers remain on state pay, they live in houses built by HELP, which have electricity, kitchen facilities and solar hot water – uncommon facilities for state teachers. In addition there are some volunteer teachers from the USA who support them.

HELP - Liwonde, Malawi [2012 © greatguides.org] - HELP Malawi - Great Guides

HELP encourages gardening projects which give fresh produce and tea, and various craft groups sell their work to guests visiting the project from Mvuu. Debate and innovation are encouraged among pupils and staff, which is not typical of schools in Africa. We had a vibrant interaction with a grade 7 class; there is an energy and a level of organisation at Nanthomba that is striking. It is the intention that HELP will withdraw from the school's management in five years.

HELP brings US volunteers to rural Malawi

They hope that they can then move on to other schools in Malawi using the same partnership model. In a similar programme, HELP is about to re-open a government clinic near the school,working in partnership with the department of health.

The night before we arrived at Mvuu I had shared some 'greens' (Carlsberg) with a Scot based in Malawi. He was adamant that the best thing that could happen in Malawi was for international aid to cease, and aid workers to leave the country. He argued that such aid created a culture, among the people, and in government, that presumes that external organisations will step in and fill the gaps. It was with these thoughts in mind that I toured HELP's projects with Jordan, their enthusiastic US staff worker. Jillian hadn't heard of Malawi before she sent her donation. She is quite frank that she has no experience in development at all. But maybe the model she has developed has the right balance. It injects resources, but shares management, it introduces the 'western' culture of entrepreneurship, innovation and individualism that seem vital to economic success, but Jillian is honest enough to admit that, in part, her motivation is to give her and her family a sense of meaning which Africa does give to so many. And ultimately the projects are 'owned' by the state.

It seems to me that if a sense of mutual benefit continues to underline the project then this may distinguish HELP from other aid projects. Certainly the 800 children of Nanthomba school have been given a richer start in life through the efforts of HELP and Mvuu lodge.

Author: Roddy Bray
Published Date: 16 Sep 2010
Location: East Africa | Malawi
Themes: society | social development, education