United Amayi – empowering Malawi, one woman at a time

Date 15.05.2018

It started as a passion project for one charitable traveller, and four years on the student-run charity, United Amayi, is still growing and changing the lives of women in Malawi.

The charity, founded by student Emma Leering, provides conversational English training and work experience to vulnerable women in Malawi who have not had the opportunity of education.

Following the success of the first school; United Amayi have now opened a second school and are expanding its influence within the wider community with a new agricultural programme.

Emma, third year International Development student at University of Northampton, admitted that the story behind the charity is like something out of a film.

She said: “I got a 12 month contract as a volunteer at a primary school in Malawi – they just dropped me in the middle of a very rural area and said ‘Ok we’ll see you in a year’ – it was really daunting.

“No one could speak English apart from one of the teachers at the school, so it was quite lonely. I wasn’t able to communicate with anyone as I hadn’t learnt the local dialect (Chichewa). So I just decided that I would take speaking lessons in Chichewa from this teacher – it took me around three months to gain an understanding of the local language.”

The chief of the village in which Emma was staying, and the first woman chief of the region, spotted Emma’s growing confidence and integration within the community and asked her to teach her conversational English.

“She explained that she attended meetings with other male chiefs and they could all speak English. They in fact made all of the key decisions in English, so as to exclude the new female chief. So I said ‘Hell yeah I’ll teach you English!’

“Around a month later, I woke up one morning and went outside my house and there was an entire village of women standing outside and I thought ‘Oh dear, what have I done now, I’m going to get kicked out of the village’ and they all were all asking why it was just the chief that got the chance to learn and we don’t?’ So I thought ok why don’t we start a school then!’”

Four years on and Emma is supported by a team of inspirational Malawian volunteers and primary school teachers, including one of their former star students, Stelia.

Emma continued: “Stelia was in our first year of students, she’d never been to school before and it was plain to see from day one that she was incredibly intelligent. If she lived in the UK she would have been the next Einstein – she has just never had the opportunity in Malawi.

“We could see she had this potential, so just before I left to come back to the UK and start my degree, I decided to put her through training and she is now a full time teacher with us.”

There have been several powerful stories since the charity began; women have been inspired to leave previously abusive relationships and seek independence from attending the school.

Student Emma is currently writing her dissertation on how women’s education contributes towards development in Malawi, and as she explains, women of all ages are now enrolling to the school.

“Hilda was 65 when she joined us and was one of our oldest students. Others in the village questioned ‘why are you educating older people – what’s the point?’ and it’s because we are trying to change the philosophy behind education in the area.

“I have done primary research for my dissertation on this – we found that the whole concept of education has changed. Take Hilda for example, her parents never went to school, therefore she never went to school, so she’d never encourage her child as she never saw the benefit of it. It is all about challenging this perception.

“The perception of education is changing and targeting elders who are well respected within the community, and educating them has actually helped spread the message through the generations.”

As Emma, now 22, looks back on the past four years, she still can’t quite believe the journey on which the charity has taken her.

“If you said six years ago I would be running a charity at the age of 22, I wouldn’t have believed you. But there was a need to be fulfilled, and I felt I had the skills to help start it up. I didn’t want to come to Malawi with a western, neo-colonial view of ‘this is what you should be doing’ – I just wanted to help enhance their culture.

“The barriers we have faced over the past few years have helped us to adapt and improve as a charity. I’ve just got a passion for it and you can see it works – we have had over 100 women successfully come through our schools now.

“It has changed my life, it has opened lots of other opportunities for me. I’ve met some amazing people – it’s hard work but it’s worth it.”

So what next for the United Amayi team? The next few years will be key, as they plan to open up an office in the UK and embark on a new agricultural programme.

Emma said: “We’ve now created a third section – so we have education, employment and we are now about to launch our ‘enterprise’ section. This is an agricultural course which will teach students how to grow and maintain their own crops. I’ll be flying out in June for a couple of months, before I graduate, to help start it up.

“In August we are opening up our first United Amayi office in Cardiff, my home turf, which is exciting and we are looking for three interns to join the team.

“I do roughly five hours a day as a volunteer. My plan is to work full time with the charity for six months and then go and do some internships for Human trafficking charities, as that is also a huge interest of mine. I want to get United Amayi to the stage where I can take a backseat for a while and the charity runs ok on its own – which is definitely achievable.”

For further information on United Amayi, visit their website.