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Why Maria Won't Stop Smiling. By Nation Correspondent

Image taken from The Nation

For many young Malawians, higher education is a dream that never comes true largely due to limited bed space in public universities and inability for the needy to pay fees.

This is the story of Maria Kondowe, 28, from Lukhwawa Village Traditional Authority (T/A) Mwasisya in Nkhata Bay.

Until six months ago, Maria had completely given up on her dream to step in university corridors.

Her heartbreak started when she got selected to a community day secondary school (CDSS). In Malawi, CDSSs often lack basic resources, including functional libraries and laboratories. Also, many of the teachers lack requisite training having been upgraded from primary schools.

It was not surprising, therefore, that Maria and many other students from Zolozolo CDSS could not make it to any of the country’s public universities.

Further attempts to acquire tertiary qualifications only left her further disappointed.

“I applied for nursing school and was left out. I tried teaching, I was not selected either. What really gutted me was when I applied to become a mere hospital attendant and was never picked,” she recounts.

Frustrated, Maria married and went on to work in maize fields of her well-off neighbours – with all her dreams of ever becoming a nurse but shattered.

Today, Maria is no longer a distraught girl.

Donning a blue work suit with a matching crash helmet, everything about her demeanor speaks volumes of a happy and confident young woman she has become.

Maria is finally studying electrical installation with the Malawi Polytechnic in Blantyre, gaining skills that will make her employable and financially independent.

Strengthening Higher Education Access in Malawi Activity (Sheama) has sponsored her short course through Open Distance and e-learning (Ode-L) at the University of Malawi college.

Through ODL, lecturers from the Polytechnic provide content which include videos and audios to the students online. The students access the content via their phones and even computers. There is no face-to-face interaction with lecturers unless the course has a practical aspect.

This enables a limitless number of students to access higher education without being restricted by space in colleges as this is normally the case.

“I had ruled out ever studying for any course. In fact, I had given up on education,” she says, her hammer and chisel strapped to her work suit.

Sheama, funded by USAid but implemented by Arizona State University. Envisages almost 15000 students accessing higher education through the provision of scholarships to vulnerable students, upscaling the use of ODe-L and strengthening university-industry linkages for market relevant programming.

Sheama has already supported a Mushroom production short course through Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (Luanar) and a certificate in early childhood development through Mzuzu University (Mzuni).

The certificate in electrical installation course which Maria is pursuing is the fourth and the mother-of-two cannot hide her joy.

After studying online for three months, Maria and her other 104 certificate in installation course mates – 84 of whom are on a Sheama scholarship – were called to the Polytechnic for a weeklong hands-on training.

She is now on internship at Prera Electrical in Mzuzu to sharpen her skills. So far, she has been part of the team assigned to install electricity at Ehehleni CDSS in Mzimba District.

Her supervisor Patrick Msiska cannot believe Maria has been studying from home.

“All our interns come from face-to-face backgrounds. This is our first time to interact with a student who has been studying on her own from home. Her understanding of issues and determination are outstanding,” he says.

Msiska says Maria can confidently do circuit connection, wiring diagrams and connection of cooker control unit.

“We would love to see her in self-employment creating jobs for other girls like her,” says her mentor.

Such stories are common among all student who are currently pursuing Sheama-supported Ode-L programmes with public universities.

Yohane Benson. A 24 year-old from Chilamwela in Thyolo, also pursuing the same programme despite that he has a hearing impairment.

“The good thing about studying home is that you plan your time. This enable you to do other activities such as work in the home,” he says.

Dr Sellina Mkweteza-Kanyerere, director of scholarship and grants at Sheama, says the story of the two demonstrate that, if the ODL concept is fully embraced, many young people would attain tertiary education and become more relevant to their societies.

“What we are seeing among the young men and women is very compelling and we commend government for rolling out ODL programmes through public universities. They will go a long way in increasing access to higher education,” she says.

Maria, probably the happiest apprentice in town, says she is ready to go out and make a difference for her family and community – fixing domestic electrical problems and providing for her family.

“Just six months ago I was an ordinary farmer, growing maize and vegetables. Today, I am a trained electrician. I can’t hide my joy,” she says, smiling.