It’s Monday and the first day back at school for thousands of children across Malawi.
As I drive along a dusty road I notice children skipping, jumping and laughing as they make their way to school.
I laugh to myself as I remember my first day back after the long summer break and I’m sure that I was never that enthusiastic about returning. But for many children in Malawi going back to school provides them with an opportunity to forget the grinding poverty that they live in and be children for once.
I pull up at a school and notice two little boys who are both seven-years-old walking shoulder to shoulder. They’ve walked more than 2 km on their own to get to school. They have no shoes on, and are wearing tatty clothes, but both are clinging tightly to their porridge mugs, which have been provided by Mary’s Meals.
Mary’s Meals is a school feeding programme, which now provides a daily meal to over 698,000 children on a daily basis in 516 primary schools across the country.
“What are you looking forward to most at school?” I ask the two boys.
“I like singing the alphabet”, one of the boys replies in Chichewa, the Malawian language.
The other boy pipes up.
“I’m looking forward to my mug of porridge”.
“Why’s that?” I inquire.
The little boy looks down at his feet and whispers: “I didn’t eat anything before I came to school so I’m really hungry.”
Unfortunately he’s not alone. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. Malnutrition of young children is widespread and the prevalence of stunting of Malawian children is one of the highest in the world.
Children often tell me they come to school because they know that they’ll be receiving a nutritious mug of porridge from Mary’s Meals. However the positive effects that the school-feeding programme has goes much further than meeting a child’s daily nutritional needs.
Teachers frequently tell me that attendance, and enrolments rates at their schools have improved dramatically since the introduction of Mary’s Meals.
“Before Mary’s Meals was here, children were coming to school hungry. When you are trying to talk to a child that is hungry you may as well forget it, as their mind is elsewhere,” one headteacher explains to me.
“Now the children at this school are happier and healthier, and it’s much easier to teach them when their bellies are full.”
I spend the rest of the morning in a Standard 1 classroom (the equivalent of year one in the UK). There are nearly 80 children in the class, all of them sat on the floor, most without shoes on, and most without any school equipment.
I suddenly receive a picture message from my sister back in the UK. A photo of my little niece springs up on my phone – she’s dressed smartly in her new school uniform and is laden with books, all ready for her first day of school.
It then dawns on me how different her first day will be from the children sitting millions of miles away in this classroom in Malawi.