….. Since then, I have never seen a pencil that I have never loved …..
The story starts in 1977 in Zomba, Malawi. The place was Zomba Government (now Bwaila) Primary School when I was in Standard 2. In those days, government used to provide schools with exercise books and pencils. However, each exercise book or pencil was cut in half to be shared between two learners. Fierce fights were common between some learners about who got which half of the pencil or the exercise book. When it came to exercise books, some preferred the top half where on the front it was written “Republic of Malawi”. These young patriots just loved the face that said Republic of Malawi and never cared about what was on the back cover because in Standard 2, we had no idea what the gibberish units of measurement thereon were all about. On the other hand, others would do anything to get the bottom half of the exercise/note because on the back of that bottom part was the Times Tables of two up to twelve.
When it came to sharing a pencil between two learners, the fight was always about who got the top half. The one with the eraser. That is if the pencils which were issued that year came erasers on them. The eraser part of the pencil is where this story originates from. Our much anticipated supplies for the school had just arrived and we were very excited when the teacher brought them to our classroom together with her huge pair of scissors and a small handsaw to halve the notebooks and pencils respectively. For me, my sharing of the notebook went without incident because the boy with whom I was paired chose first. He chose the bottom part and I didn’t care which part I got as long as I had something to write on. However, when it came to the sharing of the pencil, in the spirit of fairness, the rule was that the turns were switched. Now I had to choose first. This did not eventually go well with my partner because I chose the most coveted part of the pencil, the one with an eraser or rubber; otherwise called “Mbali ya Labala”. He vehemently protested and when I held my ground on my new possession, he cried like a baby. Our teacher tried to convince me to give up my half but who was I to give up Mbali ya Labala? You just could not. No ways. When my partner realized that crying would not achieve anything, he stopped and calmed down. However, he resorted to other means. Pestering. During our break time he followed me everywhere profusely pleading with me to swap my Labala half with his Labalaless half of the pencil … but I would not budge. During the whole class time, he paid little attention to the lessons because he was looking at me the whole time communicating through some sort of sign language pleading with me to change my mind. Well, I did not.
Then came the end of classes for the day. My partner decided to give it one last shot. Still I couldn’t give up my “Labala”. I had gotten tired of using money binding rubber bands which we used to collect from the back of the National Bank van when it came to drop my mother now and then. I had lost my privilege to own a pencil with an eraser because I had already lost three of them during that school term. The little boy cried as we parted ways going back to our homes. However, I came to the realization that even though the Labala was a cool and convenient tool to have, it was a bigger deal to my partner than it was for me. Besides, I could survive with improvising with rubber bands. Therefore, before we parted, I calmed him down with a promise that I would ask my mother to buy me another pencil with Labala and if that worked, then I would give him my treasured half. Therefore, when my mother came home from work, I gathered some courage to ask for a fourth pencil with Labala during that school term. My mother’s response was “Kodi wayamba bizinesi eti? Kapena ukumagulitsa ma pensulowa kusukuluko eti?”.(“Are you running a stationery business at school?”). I explained my pencil sharing ordeal earlier at school and how I eventually could not stand the agony in my partner’s face. My mother promised that in that case then she would get me one last pencil and I had to promise to never lose it like the previous three.
Forward to the next day. When I got to school, I found my partner waiting for me right outside our classroom. “Pensulo yanga. Paja unati ukapempha mayi ako kuti akakugulire ina” (“I want my pencil back. You promised that your mother would buy you another one”). Damn! Now it was “his pencil”? It was good he did not resort to physically wrestling the pencil away from me because that could have been a spectacle – physically fighting over pencil ya Labala? I told my friend that my mother would buy the pencil on that day and I would only give “his” pencil once I got mine, maybe the following day.
The next day. Behold! My partner was waiting at the exact same spot waiting for “his pencil”; this time beaming with joy as if he already knew that I was bringing great news. I gave him my Labala half of the pencil and he offered me his but I let him keep his other half pencil as well. Oh my! My friend jumped up and down with joy not just because he now had the Labala half that he wanted but he had a full pencil. You see? I managed to let him have the whole pencil because I was now a rich little boy. My mother had bought me a whole 10 pack of pencils because she had found them on sale at the local bookstore and it was also a reward for my good progress in writing. However, losing pencils like I did before would result in “unspecified” yet known consequences. Eish! Our parents had their ways.
Fast forward to 2009. I was working and living in South Africa. I went to Malawi for Easter Holidays. One morning, I was chilling with my now retired mother outside her house in our home area Thondwe. The son of one of the people who helped with chores around my mother’s house came to join us. We started talking about school. My mother told me that the boy was very sharp; always the best in his class but poverty was the problem. “Last term he came here to ask for money for an exercise book and a pencil. I gave him some money. He went to Thondwe to buy the materials and came back to show me”, said my mother. “Mwana wolimbikila kwabasi” (“Very hard working young man”), she continued. “He actually asked me again last week but I didn’t have anything to give him. So I told him I would bring him some when I go to Zomba”, said my mother.
I gave the young man some money to buy notebooks. I had pencil and a few pens with me. I went to fetch them from my bag. What followed after that was one of the most surreal moments of flashback that I have ever had. When I gave the pencil to the young man, the flash and beam on his face took me way back to the joy that I saw in my partner from Mpondabwino in 1977 when he got his “full pencil”. From that moment, I made a commitment that while I was away from my home, I would be accumulating pencils and pens that I would take back home to give to children who lack these the basic building blocks of their education, their best way to break out of the cycle of poverty.
Therefore every time my wife and I went to do our monthly shopping at the stores in South Africa, especially Makro Stores, we used to buy five to ten packs of pencils. They were R10 ($1) per pack of 20. That is R50 for 100 pencils. By the end of the year I would have a whole box of at least 1200 pencils and pens as well. I always took with me that box among other things when I traveled home. A pencil sounds trivial to someone in urban areas or abroad. But to someone in our villages, it does. On one of my trips to my home community, I went with officials from our Community-based organization, Thondwe Youth Skills Organization(THOYODO) to deliver pencils and pens at St Anthony School in Thondwe. During our arrival at the school, it was ironic to note that we had come to deliver pencils but as we arrived, we found kids learning how to write using their fingers on the ground outside.The following day, I met a gentlemen who after finding out that I was the one that his child was talking about when she got back from schools, came to me and said “are you really the one who went to St. Anthony yesterday to deliver pencils?”. I said “Yes”. The gentleman said with tears in his eyes “achimwene simukudziwa mmene mwandithandizila pamenepa. Ana anga anabwela ndi mapensulo a labala dzulo. Ana anga akhala akundipempha pensulo week yonse ino koma ine ndakhala ndikulephela kuwagulira chifukwa nanga ndikagulila pensulo adya chani?”. The man had to choose between feeding the children or buying them one of the basic building blocks to the education that can break the cycle that they are in. I can write a whole book about what I have experienced and everyday I am always encouraged to soldier on. I have tried as much as I can to document some of the things that I am involved in in my home area at https://obetha.wordpress.com and/or social media in order to encourage others to do the little that they can do in their own home communities. What we need is to Organize Against Poverty and empower our people in our home areas so we can break the vicious cycles of despair that afflict them.
I encourage us all to identify credibles Community-based Organizations in our areas and channel our development and empowerment efforts through them. In my area, I channel through Thondwe Youth Skills Development Organization (THOYODO) and through simple and innovative programs, we are doing our small part in empowering our community. We are giving our youth access to training in skills like Welding, Bricklaying, General Computer Skills, Tailoring and Design, Video Editing, Paper Recycling, Creative Art and Electrician training. We also have AIDS/HIV Awareness and Prevention Programs for our youth. In addition, we have scholarship programs for needy youth who otherwise would have dropped out of school. Soon we will have Computer Repair training, Jewelry design and many more.
Usually, when we see the many issues and poverty in our communities, it looks overwhelming such that many people believe that it too big for them to bite but when you get into biting your small bit while encouraging others to do their part, you realize that the impact is huge and has a progressive and sustainable ripple effect against poverty — “The Tipping Point”.
When it comes to our communities, especially in the rural areas, any empowerment initiative that you do will make a huge difference. Anything, really anything. And will not take too much of your resources to do your part in Organizing Against Poverty.
Be The Progress. Your Community needs you.
We Can Do This! You can do this!
On 17 June 2013, we went to another primary school in my community, St Pius Primary School, to deliver pencils, pens and crayons that I had collected since my previous visit. Every time I make such visits, it always reminds me of how we take things like a pencil for granted.
Our Community-based Organization, the Thondwe Youth Skills Development Organization (THOYODO), receives requests for help from needy learners in our community for education materials. I handed over a box of pencils, crayons and pens to the officials of the organization for that cause. Whenever I get my hands on a pencil or pen wherever I am, I hold on to it because I know what it means to someone in my community. Please, remember the needy learners in your home community as well.