11 August 10
We profile the Vice Chairman of BAFTA in New York and the President of The Rosemary Pencil Foundation, Gillian Rose.
I go to Africa every spring. I take vacation from my day job at PBS station WLIW, pack enough clothes, books and cameras to fit in a carry-on bag and head for Malawi in south east Africa, one of the poorest countries on earth.
Malawi is landlocked, sandwiched between neighboring Zambia, Tanzania and Mozambique. It is a narrow strip of a country with a population of about 13 million. My reason for going is to visit students whose school fees I am paying. Elementary education is free in Malawi so children pack the classrooms, often 100+ students per teacher. But when elementary school finishes, the option for secondary/high school requires school fees, however modest. For village children who are often orphaned at a young age, continuing an education is impossible. That’s where I come in.
Several years ago I decided that although my life was blessed with a very happy family life, a job I love (and BAFTA, of course!) I still had the time and energy to do something more, the proverbial ‘giving back.’ I couldn’t create vaccines, build orphanage or develop new crops but I could, possibly, do something in education. How I determined on Malawi is a long story but suffice to say that the country was a British colony, English is widely spoken, there is no civil unrest and I had met someone who used to be in the Peace Corps there. To my husband’s dismay, I bought a round trip ticket and went ‘to see for myself.’ I didn’t know anyone in Malawi but had corresponded with several people via email and decided that if it was a complete disaster I could always stay in my hotel room all week and fly back seven days later, unscathed.
My hope is that one day there will be a Rosemary Pencil alumni with hundreds of children in Malawi...
But today we have 26 children on our scholarship program with many more to follow. I set up a 501 C 3, recruited a Board of Directors and run this small Foundation in my spare time. I raise money the old fashioned way: I ask for donations, write to other Foundations and do a sponsored walk. Friends say they need only mention the word Africa to find themselves on the sponsored walk mailing list. The children we support are between 14 and 19 years old and we use schools in the north, the central region and in the south. Some are boarding schools; others are day schools.
Gillian in Malawi with New Era School for Girls student Gloria and Gladys Msonda from Children in the Wilderness BAFTAEach May I meet all the students we support. I fly to Lilongwe, a noisy, bustling, chaotic kind of city, then drive north for a few hours before turning east towards Lake Malawi. We have a number of schools in a 100 mile radius and each day I head off, bumping down tracks that have been distorted and corrupted by the most recent rainfall or drought, past scattered huts, barefoot children who wave and laugh, goats and chickens that dash out recklessly in front of the car, women carrying heavy pots of water on their heads and boys wobbling precariously on their bikes. Usually I meet the children while they are at school so that I can also talk to the teachers. But occasionally, as in this last trip, I also get invited to their homes in the villages.
The Foundation has lots of plans. A mobile library is one that I have in my sights as the shortage of books is a serious impediment to education and we have so many here. I am also approached regularly about doing work in other African countries. .
My hope is that one day there will be a Rosemary Pencil (the name of my Foundation) alumni with hundreds of children in Malawi and elsewhere who have gone on to get good jobs because our early support got them to the next step. If they lived in the west, I would have them all in touch with one another through emails and My Space. Obviously that isn’t possible here but there is a ripple effect. Help one child and you are helping their family. Help the family and you are helping the village. Having met these girls and boys it is hard to imagine them not being at school. Wthout our support they would be at home in the village, no qualification, no job prospects, an extremely limited education. I think it’s about hope and I like to think that we are giving them hope. It certainly gives me hope.