This past October, the Ross School was pleased to host the founder of Malawi’s Jacaranda Foundation and School for Orphans, Marie Da Silva, and 16-year-old student Alinafe Botha, who shared their inspiring story with the Ross community.
The Jacaranda School’s ties to Ross began this past summer when Ross eighth grader Winter Shaw and her mother Suzanne Shaw joined Kryn Olson, a local artist and science teacher for the Sag Harbor school district, on a trip to to Malawi to volunteer to help Marie and her students with endeavors to improve their school, including planting a sustainable garden and building a greenhouse.
During several assemblies at Ross, Winter, Alinafe, and Marie discussed their experiences and the important role the Jacaranda School plays in helping children in Malawi survive and succeed in life. Marie is a CNN hero, awarded for her efforts and her work in building the school where she now feeds, educates, and loves more than 400 orphaned students. Her foundation has put more than 35 of her students through college, with three more graduating soon.
Alinafe was recently chosen by the First Lady of Malawi, Her Excellency Madame Gertrude Mutharika, and the United Nations Population Funds to represent the girls of Malawi. In early October, she traveled from Africa to New York to address the United Nations General Assembly in a speech speaking out against childhood marriage and the plight of children orphaned as a result of AIDS in Africa. In addition to the visits to Manhattan and Ross School, Alinafe and Marie met with organizations that advocate for children’s rights, including UNICEF.
Suzanne and Winter are still actively engaged in helping the Jacaranda School continue to thrive and educate children in Malawi. Winter is working on a soon to be announced related project, and her mother and close friend Kryn are currently collecting goods to fill a shipping container that will be sent to Malawi later this year. Items needed include shoes, clothing, bicycles, home goods, appropriate furnishings and kitchenware. Members of the Ross community wishing to donate can email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com for more information.
Following is the inspiring speech Alinafe prepared for the United Nations, and also delivered to Ross students, detailing her brave persistence to achieve an education and the path that led her to the Jacaranda School.
My name is Alinafe Botha. I am 16 years old. I was born in Malawi.
I was born to the third wife of a polygamous family.
My father died when I was four years old, and my mother remarried.
My mother had two other children with my stepfather. We were three altogether. We all lived with him in the village.
He used to beat all of us without any good reason. He was very abusive. This lasted until my mother and baby sister starting getting very sick. My stepfather had infected them with HIV.
After they got sick, he left us alone and said he was going into the city to earn money, but he did not come back with it.
My grandmother and I struggled to find work and feed the family, since my mother was very sick and could not work. When I was 10 years old, my mother died of AIDS. My stepfather came to take my two other sisters, and left me alone in the village.
The same year, my uncle came and took me to town. He said he would pay for me to go to school. He left me at his girlfriend’s house, and sent me to school.
After a year, he broke up with his girlfriend and said it was time for me to go back to the village. My older sisters had already gotten married and now it was my turn to get married. I was 12 years old.
I refused to go back to the village, and said I wanted to go to school. I did not want to get married. I had dreams of being a journalist. If I did not go to school, then this would not happen.
Since I refused to go back to the village, he would not pay for my education and said that I was on my own.
He was the only relative I knew at the time, and I had no mother or father to turn to; but I made the choice not to go.
My uncle’s ex girlfriend agreed to take me into her home in exchange for housework. My uncle was angry and stopped talking to me and even supporting me.
This lady heard of a free school for orphans in our village called Jacaranda School for Orphans, and she enrolled me in the school.
Whilst in school I also do piece work, where I clean people’s homes and draw water for them. With the little money that they give me, I use to buy necessary items that the lady who keeps me cannot afford. I suffer a lot. But it is better than being forced into marriage at an early age.
I am not the only one with a story like this; many girls in Malawi have stories like mine. When we are denied an education and forced into marriage at a very early age, we have no future. This is what happens in my country, and it saddens me.
The best thing for me is that I am in school. I am proud to tell you that I will be graduating high school in two years, and I am looking forward to going to college.
I made the choice to refuse child marriage, and I will continue speaking out against it. I am hoping more girls will do the same, and, with the help of people like Marie Da Silva, will get an education so they too can have a future and make a difference.
I came to the United Nations General Assembly to tell my story so that the world should listen to us and do something about stopping early childhood marriages, because it destroys our lives. Our future.
All girls should have a right to an education.
So I stand here today to tell you, that no matter what happened to me, I made a choice to exceed expectations, and I chose to be educated; and you too, no matter what will happen, you too should make a choice to exceed expectations.