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Letters from a small island

Correspondence to pupils in Malawi, considering the differences Between life there and in Orkney, has today won the Scottish Schools Africa Challenge. Here are some extracts

The windswept beaches of Orkney are 5,000 miles and a 20-hour journey by air from the sub-tropical villages of Malawi. To the children who live in these small communities, they must seem worlds apart.

However, a national competition launched in February by the First Minister, Jack McConnell, and the entrepreneur Tom Hunter, of the Hunter Foundation, has brought the two together and revealed just how similar their lifestyles can be.

Over 100 secondaries took up the Scottish Schools Africa Challenge, an exercise devised to celebrate the international dimension of secondary school education and teach S1-S3 pupils about Third World issues in the run-up to the G8 summit of leading economic nations at Gleneagles in July.

The winners, announced today, are five teenagers at Sanday School, the entire S3 class to be precise. They and two of their teachers will visit Malawi with the First Minister at the end of May and have the chance to see for themselves "a fascinating country where life is very different and where social and economic challenges are being addressed with spirit and resolve", as the British Council describes it.

During the week's visit, the pupils will visit a school in Lilongwe, take part in lessons and visit students' homes, establishing a new link to add to the 150 between Scottish schools and schools across Africa. They will visit the presidential palace and explore the Zomba plateau, the Liwonde National Park and Livingstonia beach resort. They will also meet Mr McConnell to update him on their progress.

Towards the end of the year a group of Malawian teenagers will come to Scotland and their new friends will introduce them to life on a small island.

Competing teams were asked to send work exploring the value of education in Scotland and Africa or benefits that links might bring. Essays and posters, DVDs and CDs, a script and video of a play, poems and even a board game were submitted from all corners of the country. But it was one of the simplest entries that won: a series of five pen pal letters, each on a different theme.

"As a group we discussed issues which we thought would affect teenagers both here and in Malawi and decided to write letters to imaginary penfriends," they write in their introduction. Now their imaginary friendships can come true.

Everyday life

Dear friend,I have been trying to find out about your way of life so that I can compare it with my own. We hear a lot about Africa from the television, but it's difficult to know what it is really like. We usually hear about disasters but not the developments which are being made all the time.

The United Nations Millennium Goal number 1 is to eradicate poverty throughout the world. I really hope that they succeed as we feel guilty when we are so well off when some people are starving I I live on an island called Sanday. Only 530 people live here I Sanday is renowned for its high quality of life and its security. My Dad is Orcadian and my Mum moved here to work. She feels that it's a very secure place for children to live..

I found out that most people in Malawi live in houses with brick walls and thatched roofs. I also found out that most houses have 1 or 2 rooms with up to 8 people living in them. Is this true around where you live? This seems quite a lot in such a small houses (sic) compared to us I I live in a bungalow with 3 bedrooms, a kitchen, a living room and a bathroom. I live with my mum, dad and brother. My house is actually on a small farm which my parents own and I live near my grandparents who own a bigger farm.

I found out that Malawi has been swept by floods and parched by drought.

Therefore the crops don't grow if there isn't water and if they get washed away. I think that this must make it very hard for Malawian farmers to manage to produce enough food I Do you grow your own food or do you buy it locally at a market for example? I 49% of under 5s have chronic malnutrition. Is that a problem where you live?

On our island we have a market garden which produces most of our vegetables..

Going back to water ... (sic) 48% of the population have gained access to potable water by 1998. Do you have to walk far to get water? If yes, how many times a day? How much water do you use each day? I was surprised to find out I that we actually use 150 litres of water each, per day.

Is the water fairly clean? Are there differences between towns and the countryside?

In Sanday we have a freshwater loch with a pump house beside it which cleans the water before it's pumped through to our taps. So we never have a shortage..

I also understand that transport is very limited throughout most of Malawi.

I know that there are airports, and other public transport services (eg taxibus vehicles) and push bikes etc. How far do you get the chance to travel? Do you feel isolated? Do you walk to most of the places you go or how do you travel? I I recently participated in a Youth Conference on the mainland of Orkney. We discussed many issues which affect teenagers like transport and health issues. I really enjoyed it. Do you get opportunities to express your opinions? Would you like to? I thoroughly enjoyed myself and we put our views across to many Orkney officials..

I am also curious to what you do in your free time. Do you go to clubs? Are there traditional games you play?..

We have many after school clubs. Many are sports, dance and musical clubs.

Do you play instruments? Do you play traditional African songs or dances? Here we have a recorder club and a fiddle club. Also outwith school people play a variety of instruments from flutes and clarinet (which I play) to bagpipes and electric guitars! Sanday is a very musical place.

See you all soon!!!

Love, Michelle, 14


Dear friend,I On the Internet, I saw that the average number of pupils in one (Malawian) primary school is about 1,000 pupils. I also found out that now the ratio for teachers to pupils is 1:85. The government is wanting to reduce the amount of pupils to teachers (sic) to 1:60.

Here in my school, there are only about 100 pupils and 10 teachers altogether. This is from Primary 1 to Secondary 4 (we don't do S5 or 6 here). In my class (S3), there are only 5 pupils altogether! Our biggest class has 13 pupils. How many pupils are there in your class? I How many people have a secondary education?..

Hope to see you soon.

From Arlene Walls, 14


Dear friend,I I've heard that you've got all sorts of wild animals. I would love to see an elephant. Have you really got such a variety? Elephant, antelope, impala, bush-back, kudu, hippopotamus, zebra, warthog, jackal, leopard, harteebeast and eland.

I have found out that Lake Malawi has more species of fish than any other inland body of water in the world, with more than 500. Sanday has various little lochs with a small variety but Lake Malawi is the third biggest lake in Africa.

You must only have beaches along the lakeside. What are they like? Here in Sanday we have large stretches of beaches with high grassy dunes. Some beaches are sandy and some are stony. I know we'll enjoy walking along them together..

See you in May

From Kirsten, 14

Health and HIV

Dear friend,I've been trying to find out about the health system in Malawi and the HIV crisis and how it affects you. There are lots of statistics in the news, but that doesn't show things like how Aids affects people's everyday life..

In the UK we have the NHS which gives people treatment free..

One quarter of all Malawian doctors are expected to die in the next five years of Aids alone.

Aside from doctors dying of illness, there is also the "Brain Drain" of African doctors, coming to countries like our own when they are desperately needed in places all over Africa, including Malawi.

As the Aids epidemic is so widespread it's killing off the teachers who might be telling people how to avoid catching the disease and so education will suffer. How can a country rebuild and deal with things like Aids if a substantial and growing number of their doctors, teachers etc ... (sic) are dying or are going to leave? Are there enough doctors and nurses? I How open are people about the Aids virus? What are you taught in school? Are you told how to protect yourself or is it a taboo subject? I How far are you from the nearest hospital? We have to get an air ambulance in emergencies to hospital as we are on an island. We're roughly 25 miles across sea from the hospital which makes getting their (sic) generally difficult with long boat journeys..

Love from Cassie, 14

Work and opportunities

Dear friend,I I have been trying to find out what the economy of Malawi is like. I found out that farming provides 90% of the jobs. On Sanday, where I live, farming also provides a lot of jobs, but many of the farmers have another income as well, eg on my farm my Mum is also a teacher. Is it similar in Malawi?

The farming where I live is mainly livestock farming, with cattle being raised mainly for meat. What is the farming like where you live? I assume it would be mainly crops because of the climate. I would like to hear about the crops you grow and the farming techniques, the size of farms and about any of the animals you have.

I have read that tobacco makes up half of Malawi's faming exports. Is there any tobacco grown near you?

Financial help must be vital to support Malawi's agriculture. Our farm also receives government or EU assistance.

There are many different schemes to encourage farmers to look after the environment. On our farm, we have planted over 3,000 young trees, and we have got help to do so by diversification grants. This is the opposite to Malawi, because trees are being chopped down for fuel. Do you think hat (sic) there should be grants for planting in Malawi? I In the future farming will not support as many young people from our island so many are moving away to find work or for education. Even I am planning on leaving Sanday to further my education at university. Do these opportunities exist in Malawi? Do the young move from the countryside in to the city for work or education?

Please write back, From Thomas Newton

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