During my time in Malawi—just over two months so far—I’ve visited a lot of schools with Mary’s Meals. When we visit, we arrange to go during the children’s break time so we don’t disrupt the lessons.
Usually when we arrive at the schools, break time will have started and the children will be eating their likuni phala*. Chatting to the children and taking their pictures is a lot of fun. The children tend to be very excited that there’s a visitor at their school and they absolutely love having their photo taken and then seeing their picture on my camera’s display.
However, there have been times when I’ve visited schools before it’s time for the children to eat and this is where my job gets a little challenging.
For the majority of children, the mug of likuni phala will be their only meal of the day and anybody who has skipped a meal before knows how difficult it can be to concentrate without food. Although I already knew Mary’s Meals was important to the children, I was about to witness first-hand how different the children are without it.
Pulling up to the school, the children didn’t crowd around the car like these usually do. They stood idly in the playground not doing or saying much at all. I greeted them in Chichewa and waved, but got no response.
I spotted a couple of older girls sitting under a tree and went over to speak to them. It was difficult to get more than one word answers from them so I thanked them and asked if I could take their picture, since I’ve found this is often a good way to break the ice with the children. They didn’t feel like smiling, though, and if you hadn’t eaten in 24 hours you would understand why. I showed the girls their picture but there was little response from them. They were simply too hungry to smile.
I then went over to another group of children. Once again I greeted them in Chichewa and asked how they were and how their morning was going. I have also found that speaking in Chichewa to the children initially is a good way of engaging them in conversation. However, once again there was little response. I asked if I could take their picture but they simply weren’t interested. I felt horrible knowing I had eaten my breakfast only a couple of hours prior to visiting the school and in a way I had just expected them to have gone through the same morning routine as me.
Thankfully, the likuni phala was soon ready to be served and the children ran over to the volunteers and lined up, eager to get their mug of porridge. Almost in an instant the whole atmosphere at the school had changed. Children were smiling, laughing, engaging with each other and me. “Take my picture!” they shouted excitedly. It was incredible to witness first-hand how different the children can be without this vital meal, which reinforced my understanding of the amazing job Mary’s Meals is doing all over the world.
* Likuni phala is a type of porridge made from maize and peanut flour created by nuns in the village of Likuni just outside Lilongwe in Malawi