College Park pair furnishes schools in Malawi
By Taneen Momeni
In Malawi, a small country in Southern Africa, about two-thirds of students don’t have desks in school. Visitors often notice this and offer help, but rarely make good on their offers. In sharp contrast, Chikondi Kulemaka has more than stepped up to the challenge. She and her father, Andrew Kulemeka, who are themselves Malawain, co-founded The Desks Project, assuming the roles of president and vice-president, respectively.
The project started in the summer of 2017, when Chikondi Kulemeka briefly lived in Malawi. She visited Chankhanga Primary School and was inspired by those experiences.
“They were really excited to have me, and they had just started a girls soccer team, and I used to play soccer as well, so they were, like, ‘you could really help us with the girls team,’” she said.
As Chikondi Kulemeka spent more time at the school, she realized that there were no desks in the classrooms.
“My first week of teaching, I noticed that every class that I was in, the students were just sitting on the floor … there were first graders all the way up to eighth graders,” she said. “They have like 125 kids just all sitting on the floor, but they’re perfectly in line and really keeping it clean in between classes.”
And she learned that the students are not required to be in school. “They’re going to school because it’s fun … They want to learn, and I just really wanted to see how I could help get them a little bit more materials for their education,” Chikondi Kulemeka said.
According to the Kulemekas, lack of desks in schools is a problem throughout the country. Students typically don’t want to sit on the floor, which can be dirty and even muddy, and female students, who are required to wear skirts to school, may be particularly concerned about cleanliness. According to the Kulemekas, female students are more likely to drop out than male students, in large part because of this issue.
“Because, as they get older, they like to look clean. They don’t want their skirts to get dirty. Girls have been shown to leave school just because of their concerns about how clean they’re going to be looking,” Andrew Kulemeka said.
The turning point for Chikondi Kulemeka came on exam day. Since the floors were dirty, and it was important to the teacher that the exams stay clean, each student used a piece of cardboard as a mock desk on which to write their exam, Chikondi Kulemeka said. After observing the teacher’s approach, she met with school officials, and together they formulated a plan.
“[The vice principal] went to the carpenter across the street and got a quote for some desks … and how many desks he thought probably would be needed for the whole school,” Chikondi Kulemeka said. “I took it home, and I did the math, and I called my dad. ‘I’m going to need like $50,000,’” she said.
“At that point, it was really something like, ‘we’re gonna give it a try. We don’t know how it’s going to work out,’” Andrew Kulemeka said. “But I remember telling [Chikondi], what I do know about the United States is that people are very generous … and if we cannot do it in the U.S., then we cannot do it anywhere.”
Chikondi Kulemeka talked with teachers and created a team in Malawi. When she returned to the U.S., she got to work creating a team here.
“At that time, she was a student at St. Mary’s College, and there was a lot of enthusiasm for the project at her school. She created a committee there, basically of classmates,” Andrew Kulemeka said. “They started a tip jar … and they started collecting that money for the project.” Each desk costs around $45 and could seat as many as three students.
Even as fundraising efforts were slow to take off, the Kulemekas and their teammates persisted. Since 2017, the project has been able to provide desks two schools; Chankhanga, the primary school that Chikondi Kulemeka first visited, and Kalilombe, a school in the village the Kulemekas are from, are now fully furnished.
These schools are reaping the benefits of having desks for their students. Enrollments are up, as are students’ scores on standardized tests. Students who have received desks are advancing to high school at a higher rate than are students from any other school in Kasungu, the town where the Chankhanga school is located, according to Chikondi Kulemeka.
“You can see the pride that the teachers have and how they’re able to actually organize the space within the classroom … because of the desks. Before that, it was a little bit chaotic,” Andrew Kulemeka said.
According to the Kulemekas, teachers are not the only ones who applaud their efforts; students, too, appreciate having desks in their classrooms — and so much so that they created a club honoring Chikondi Kulemeka at the Chankhanga school and performed a musical play about what she’s done for them.
Chikondi Kulemeka is thrilled to see students in these schools blossoming, and she is impressed that people here in the U.S. care enough about these students to donate to the project.
“It just makes me happy to know that they know that people believe in their education. That’s really the part for me,” she said. “And I guess it does also make me feel really just supported when people are willing to believe in this project and support the children — and put their money behind it.”
Although the project has already fully furnished two schools with desks, their work is far from complete.
“I would definitely want to expand to … [other] countries, but I do have this inner mission … I would love to help be a part of finishing all of Malawi first and then moving on,” Chikondi Kulemeka said. “I’ll probably look to expand and see what other countries need help, but I think also I could look back, continue to probably look at Malawi’s development and see what else within education could use improvement.”
The Kulemekas and their collaborators — the project’s Team USA — are still working hard to fundraise, but not just for desks.
“We are actually planning a trip, pandemic willing, with actually all of Team USA to go this summer, so that we can visit both Kalilombe [Full] Primary School and also our first project [at Chankhanga Primary School],” Chikondi Kulemeka said. “We’re hoping to … identify two to three new schools to start right away on our next project.”
The Desks Project will be hosting a number of fundraisers in the next month, including candle-making events with Chappelle Candle Co.
“We will be finalizing [the candle-making fundraiser] dates within the next week hopefully,” Chikondi Kulemeka wrote in an email. “We are going to be featuring Black Owned Businesses and prominent Black people from history on our website and social media for Black History Month! I’d love to encourage people to keep up with that on our socials!”
Along with collaborating with businesses to raise funds, the team will be hosting virtual, three-session skills workshops on various topics including social-media marketing, budgeting and planning fundraisers, and recruiting and retaining donors. The workshops are open to the general public and are particularly for people interested in volunteering with the project.
“We will be hosting our first ever skills development workshop! It will be open to the public as a fundraiser and a way for individuals to boost their personal skills,” Chikondi Kulemeka wrote. “We are also hoping that anyone interested in becoming a Team USA member would come to training as well!”
For more information, go to thedesksproject.org or @thedesksproject on Instagram.