Education can change the lives of children in Malawi

Mission co-worker partners with Church of Central Africa Presbyterian to reimagine schools

by Kathy Melvin | Presbyterian News Service

Meet Loveness, a 9-year-old girl in Malawi. (Photo by the Rev. Cheryl Barnes)

LOUISVILLE — Loveness is a 9-year-old child in Malawi who has a new friend in mission co-worker the Rev. Cheryl Barnes.

Barnes serves as an education facilitator for the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian (CCAP), where she collaborates with the CCAP Education Department and the education departments of the five CCAP Synods — three in Malawi, one in Zambia and one in Zimbabwe — to improve the quality of primary school education in the many schools under the CCAP umbrella.

Just before the coronavirus arrived in Malawi, Barnes met her new friend when she went to a nearby village to get supplies.


“As my driver and I approached the village, I noticed a group of young girls laughing and dancing on the unpaved road,” she wrote in a recent letter. “I watched for a few minutes until they noticed me. Almost immediately, one of the young girls approached and sat down near me, staring intently. With my limited Chichewa, I greeted her, and she flashed a wide smile seemingly impressed with my feeble attempt at the Chichewa language. Her beautifully sun-kissed skin framed her soulful eyes. She wore an oversized boys cotton shirt. Her bare feet were covered in brown dust. After a few minutes, she became very talkative, and I turned to my driver for translation. Her name was Loveness. She wanted to be my friend.”

Barnes said Loveness didn’t remember her age, and the older children told her (in Chichewa, the native language) that she was nine years old and intellectually impaired. Barnes secretly questioned their assessment because of the child’s inquisitive and outgoing nature.

The following week, Barnes found herself thinking often about Loveness. She decided to return to the village with some small gifts for Loveness’s family, gifts like sugar and bread, and to learn more about her new friend.

Loveness’s father told Barnes that as a small child, Loveness suffered from a terrible sickness and a high fever. The family prayed for God to spare her life, and she recovered from her illness. Her father said Loveness’s intellectual impairment was a result of the high fever. Since she was considered “impaired,” she was not attending school.

“There are many children like Loveness whose opportunities for education and advancement are not met because of the lack of trained and qualified teachers or programs designed to address what may simply be a learning disability,” said Barnes. “Children with special needs are often denied education. School in Malawi is often held in dilapidated buildings with overcrowded classrooms. The student-teacher ratio can be as high as 100:1 and the primary school dropout rate is 40%. These are alarming statistics. By the time a child in Malawi reaches adulthood, most have overcome unimaginable hurdles that may include malaria, typhus, cholera, food shortage, snake bites and child labor. The opportunity to receive an education would change their lives and help to lift them out of the depths of poverty.”

Barnes said her commitment to serve the children of Malawi, especially young girls like Loveness, is what drives her to continue to learn as much as possible about the personal struggles of the families she encounters, families that are hard at work educating their children.

“As an educational consultant, I am using my time to better understand the challenges of educating Malawi children by developing relationships with parents and children who willingly share their experiences, hopes and frustrations,” she said. “By doing this I am building a foundation of trusting relationships.

The Rev. Cheryl Barnes is an educational consultant for the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian in Malawi. (Contributed photo)

“I am currently working on building a coalition of stakeholders to imagine a new way of thinking about education,” Barnes said. “This includes the way children are taught and how we advocate for them, being intentional about educating girls and students with special needs and reforming how education is financed.”

Barnes had just settled in Malawi when COVID-19 arrived. She felt it was best for her to shelter in place there, rather than taking the risk of journeying back to the U.S. Currently there are more than 5,500 positive cases reported in Malawi and about 174 deaths, although the figures change daily.

“As with all countries around the globe, the closure of schools in Malawi was an immediate and appropriate response to control the spread of the coronavirus,” she said. “In America, the virus has disproportionately affected Black, brown, Indigenous communities, and immigrants. In Malawi, the children, especially the daughters of the poorest citizens, endure the greatest hardship since they are left to entertain themselves or care for younger siblings. Virtual learning is unfeasible because most Malawian homes lack books, computers or electricity.”

“The government has not yet announced the date for school reopening,” Barnes noted. “Without adequate infrastructure to control this highly contagious virus, it is unlikely that schools in Malawi will risk resuming classes this year.”

Barnes’s call to long-term mission service didn’t fully develop until her daughter became a 2017 Presbyterian Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) in Lima, Peru. As she supported her daughter and witnessed her spiritual growth during her YAV year, Barnes said she became increasingly open to seeing her gifts used in a different context within the church.

Prior to entering ordained ministry, Barnes taught special education and worked in early childhood education. She grew up in Georgia and earned a bachelor’s degree in special education at Morris Brown College in Atlanta; a Master of Business Administration at Nova University in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida; and a Master of Divinity at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia. She is a member of the Northeast Georgia Presbytery.

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