Matt Corr’s Malawian Diary – A little piece of Celtic amongst extraordinarily emotional scenes

Celtic Star readers, if you can please donate a few quid to the Celtic FC Foundation organised Celtic’s Malawi Adventure 2024, Matt Corr of this parish is there at the moment and here’s day three of his Malawian Diary. Donations via Matt’s Just Giving page HERE…Thank you!

A little piece of Celtic amongst extraordinarily emotional scenes in Malawi…

Wednesday begins with perhaps the most unusual ‘Celtic’ shirt I’ve ever seen! Our Classrooms for Malawi rep Dezie appears in the breakfast area sporting a yellow Umbro retro shirt with Henrik Larsson’s name and iconic number seven on the back. So far so good. Only issues are that the collar and sleeve trim are in royal blue, as is the Celtic badge on the front. Cue much hilarity and many photos. The Swedish Celt CSC!

A full-on dayshift painting the new classroom block at Masalani follows. We’re all mucking in and doing whatever is required and the transformation over the course of the day is quite dramatic. I’m on blue wall painting in the morning and then in the afternoon I partner the lovely Lisa as we turn chalkboards into blackboards. Lisa and her fellow volunteer sister Karen are Liverpool-born and when I ask about the Celtic connection it turns out that Lisa’s hubby Gerry and son of the same name are both Celtic-mad and follow the team everywhere.

We spend a lovely couple of hours chewing the fat and having a laugh, highlight being the moment where two local kids come to the window to say hello to us and after about five seconds decide we’re either not interesting enough or too scary and disappear!

Cruella de Vil and The Childcatcher have just about completed the chalkboard in the second room when Lisa says, ‘Matt, don’t look behind you!’ Unlike room one, there are two giant boards in here, the other at the far end which for whatever reason neither of us had noticed previously. Our hearts sink for a moment then a quick check of our watches against the time available produces ‘We’ve got this!’

The third board is duly completed with just minutes to spare and before we board the bus we get a proper look at the blocks which the team have transformed inside and out over the course of a day. Hard to describe the feeling of pride over what had been achieved.

That feeling turns to relief as the bus makes a detour to the airport on the way home and we are finally reunited with our luggage, which has been…well, who knows where really, but the most important thing is that it’s here now and we have our clothes, gifts, toiletries and medication for the rest of the trip. It’s then time for a quiet dinner and an early night as tomorrow will involve a very early rise.

Thursday, 4.30am. Alarms are going off in the darkness of Kabula Lodge.

The volunteers wearily board the Vengabus for a 5am departure. We’re heading south-west into the Shire Highlands this morning to visit one of the 67 kitchens built by Celtic FC Foundation in conjunction with Mary’s Meals, this one at John Primary near Nchalo, which was actually sponsored by Preston Emerald CSC. This will be pretty special for Frank, one of our volunteer team, who is a member of that club.

It’s a minimum two-hour drive to Nchalo and Desi describes the journey as being like an aeroplane descent from 29,000 feet. We’re heading down into a flood zone where people are displaced annually but refuse to leave as generations of their family have been born there and one positive consequence of the floods is that the soil is highly fertile and thus good for farming, sugar and cotton growing.

We’ve just crossed a bridge over the Shire River, Malawi’s longest, which flows down to meet the Zambezi in Mozambique and from there all the way to the Indian Ocean. There is a police road block ahead and I ask the question as to what specifically they are looking for. Dezie advises that these are for our protection and they are checking that the vehicle is roadworthy and the driver properly licensed, but also for illegal cargo. These items include animals, drugs and, of course, charcoal, which apparently is banned due to concerns over deforestation, despite the fact it appears to be on sale at the roadside every 200 yards!

The banned list clearly does not include machetes, as whilst we are waiting a guy wanders casually past the bus with one draped over his shoulder. He’s about a foot away from the window before he beams a huge smile and carries on his way. Only in Malawi.

We finally meet up with Patrick from Mary’s Meals in Nchalo, our bus following his white truck a few miles further south before the mini convoy leaves the road and heads into the forest towards the John Primary School. What follows is the most incredibly emotional couple of hours.

Our convoy arriving at John Primary School

Porridge sometimes only meal of day

Our first sight as the bus pulls up in a woodland clearing are the lines of schoolkids, looking immaculate in their green uniforms, queuing up to receive a mug of porridge in front of a building with a Preston Emerald Celtic Supporters Club sign on it.

Frank at the kitchen sponsored by his CSC

Whilst that is a bit surreal, it is far from the dominant emotion at what we are witnessing. Like most of the group, I suspect, I had been warned about what to expect but nothing prepares you for this.

It is the most powerful, heartbreaking and moving image to take in and it is a sight you won’t easily forget.

As the kids queue up with their mugs to be filled with a maize-based porridge – sometime the only food the children will receive until the following day’s ritual is repeated – we are invited to look at the facilities where the food is prepared and as someone later mentioned to me, it is fair to say that they belong in a bygone age.

It is shameful that this situation exists in the third millennium, and apparently this is one of the better schools which at least has this feeding programme. It beggars belief to be honest.

Just as at Masalani previously, the staff and children are keen to engage with our volunteers and there are some nice introductions and interactions going on across the school compound.

Whilst most of the children are either queuing or playing outside ahead of the school day, I wander into what I think is an empty classroom. Turns out there are five students already sitting at their desks, reading or writing in their exercise books, with not a sound being made. Dezie appears and translates on my behalf in an attempt to engage in conversation. Then he asks each in turn where they finished in the class last time and it turns out that these are the top five pupils.

Back outside and a loud ringing sound fills the air as a boy bangs on an old vehicle wheel suspended from a tree. This is the school bell and immediately several lines are formed outside a building opposite the kitchen block. As this is happening, what appear to be some of the teachers or staff are going around with a twig broom, coralling the younger ones away from the well or the kitchen area into their classroom lines.

The Head Teacher takes the assembled kids through several routines involving numbers and hand movements then the children sing their national anthem. Then by 7.30am it’s time for lessons to commence and the various lines disperse into classrooms, some of which are incomplete brick shells, whilst one group sets up outside against the wall of a teaching block.

Desks are being carried out from one of the classrooms by the children so a few of us offer to help, assuming another outdoor classroom is being set up, but these are actually being placed in a circle in another part of the compound, where a welcome meeting will take place. The welcome party includes a village headman and chief, the headmaster, several members of the school committee and representatives from Mary’s Meals.

Everyone has to introduce themselves whilst a few of the party make speeches. The benefit of the Feeding Programme established here is illustrated by the present school roll having increased from less than 300 to more than 550 students.

There was a strong message consistently made emphasising that whilst the support to date was wonderful, and the follow-up visit much appreciated, there was and would be a need for more help.

We also received a few lessons on Malawian culture, the most unique perhaps being that it was expected that folk would clap differently for the headman and senior chief – a sort of strange, slow vertical clapping movement rather than conventional applause. More on that later!

The visit to the school is completed by a more formal classroom visit by the team. Another eye-opener here as 60 children are sitting on the floor of a room with no lighting. Bad enough as that is, apparently that number can be double.

Despite these circumstances, the children are absolutely inspiring. They are full of smiles and sing a lovely song to us which turns out to be about a dog eating a fish which as you would suspect doesn’t end well for the fish! We reply as a courtesy with a version of the Celtic song which doesn’t really compete!

Soon it is time for farewells and we’re shaking hands with the staff when I unexpectedly receive a huge hug from the kitchen lady! It is yet another unexpected touching moment in a morning full of them at John Primary School. What folk do here in the most appalling circumstances is quite incredible.

It is very contemplative group on the bus journey home, which is interrupted by a couple of stops to take in the stunning vistas in the Shire Highlands from Kamuzu View. Photos are taken of the girls and the boys and our hosts, Ozzie, Dezie and driver Isa, plus one of myself and my brother Robert which is a lovely touch.

It is late morning by the time we reach our lodge so the planned breakfast has become lunch and after a quick change into our painting gear we are back on the bus and heading for Masalani again.

The afternoon produces another huge team effort and we are now working on a refurbished classroom block as the transformation of this area continues apace. Our little green army of working ants are everywhere and it is hugely rewarding to see it all coming together.

The African sun is baking hot and Ross is continually checking that folk are not spending too much time outdoors, or indeed indoors where the mix of paint fumes is heady. By 4pm we have been up and about, travelling or working, for 12 hours and time is called.

As before, the children have been a huge part of the day, constantly looking for and getting that important interaction with the team. I’m outside painting a window frame when I catch my brother skipping with some of the children to whoops of delight, whilst every so often we hear renditions of James singing ‘Heeelllooo!’ with his backing group. As the bus prepares to depart it is surrounded by the kids, the girls on the team are dancing or being cuddled, whilst high fives and fist bumps are the order of the day for the guys. One young lad is proudly sporting Fin’s cap and his smile would melt your heart! I pull some funny faces at the bus window and am met with a dozen replies! It is with a real sense of sadness that we wave cheerio to these special kids for another day.

The later finish means we catch the Blantyre rush-hour traffic and progress is much slower. A quick supplies stop is made at the local shopping centre before we roll down the now familiar track to the sanctuary of Kabula Lodge.
Ross stands up to discuss the plans for the weekend and the group spontaneously breaks into the vertical hand clap unique to the village chief. It has been the longest and most emotional of days but the laughter on the bus is the perfect tonic as we approach our temporary home at Kimbala Lodge.

There are some days in your life I suspect you will always remember.

This was one of them.

Matt Corr
In Malawi with the Celtic FC Foundation Volunteers

Follow Matt @Boola-vogue on Twitter/X

Matt’s Just Giving page is Matt Corr is fundraising for Celtic FC Foundation – just click HERE to donate.

 

About Author

Having retired from his day job Matt Corr can usually be found working as a Tour Guide at Celtic Park, or if there is a Marathon on anywhere in the world from as far away as Tokyo or New York, Matt will be running for the Celtic Foundation. On a European away-day, he's there writing his Diary for The Celtic Star and he's currently completing his first Celtic book with another two planned.

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