An email from Ratheniska Primary School, Co.Laois, Ireland

Brendan Fingleton is an engineer, I first met him a number of years ago, on a night when I had just returned from hole from Malawi, 30 hours travel and all that when I gave a talk to the Young Engineers Society!!. To make the story very short, he has just finished a stint volunteering with us in Malawi and is currently working in Australia, like many other young bright stars, of our potential future here. Liam will do well anywhere he goes, as he certainly did in Mzuzu.

His email goes as follows 

John and Mary how are things?

 I am sitting in Cairns about to head to bed. I hope all is good at home in Dublin. I assume all your Wells for Zoe projects are going good or in the right direction. I am sorry I have never got back to you with a summary of the bits and bobs that I did and learnt in Malawi. I have been looking at all the pictures on the site and they are all great. Makes me realize the amount I got to see and do when I was out there. I would like to say thanks again. It looks like this is your all-action time of year and have plenty of projects keeping you busy. 

I hope the shop is going good.

Anyway, I emailing you to show you some of your work is getting around and down to some kids in Laois. My sister is a teacher in our old primary school. She sent me a questions from the kids in her class. I tried to answer them as best I could and I thought you might be interested. I assume you have seen stuff like this before.

Anyway that you might be interested. And there is some pictures I sent them in the next email.


I have tried to answer the questions as best I could below. Let me know if you have any more.

On Wednesday, April 25, 2012, Karen Fingleton wrote:

Hi Brendan,

This is the senior infants here. We are e-mailing you from Ratheniska school.

We are learning about where water comes from. We learned all about a boy called Daniel. He lives in Uganda. He and his family get water from a well.

Miss Fingleton told us that you used to make wells in Malawi. We would like to know how do you make wells?

We know that there is water under the ground everywhere in the world. We know that beside rivers it is only a couple of meters below ground! But up on mountains it can be 100m below ground!

Aoibheann wants to know where did the water come from?

The water is below the ground. The soil is very wet if you go deep enough. So when you dig a hole the water will flow from the soil into the hole.

Luke wants to know how did you make cement for the well?

We go to the cement and buy it in bags like in Ireland. The cement comes from grinding stones in a quarry into dust. We then add sand and water and that makes cement. And when you let it dry it becomes really strong.

Pádraig wants to know where did you get the bricks?

The bricks come from the ground. In Malawi the ground is really strong but also wet. So they put the wet clay into a mould, like pouring water into an ice cube holder. They then stack all the wet bricks in a pile and let them dry out! Then they put the dried bricks in a heap with big poles underneath, cover the bricks with soil and burn the timber. This is called firing. This makes them strong.

Joanne wants to know how did you travel to Malawi?

I got the bus from Portlaoise to Dublin airport. Then I got the plane to London, England. This took 1 hour. Then I got a plane from London England to Addis Abba in Ethiopia. This in Africa. This took 8 hours. I then got a plane from Addis Abba, Ethiopia to Lilongwe, Malawi. This is the biggest city in Malawi. I stayed there one night and then I got a bus to Mzuzu. This is the same distance as Dublin to Cork. The trip took 8 hours as the buses are very old and slow and they stop in every little town and let everyone they see onto the bus.

Orla wants to know if the well used buckets or a pump?

We use a pump. We put a lid on the well and slot a pump down the middle of the lid. This stops dirt getting in to the well. Every time you lift up the pump and push it back down you get about 1/2 a liter of water. This is easier than lifting a bucket up an down, which would be very heavy. But the Malawi women, boys and girls fill buckets. These can contain 25 liters of water. They then carry them on there heads. They might walk for 30 mins then.

Mateusz and Eimear want to know how long it took to build a well?

First you have to dig the well. This can be the hardest and longest part. Some times this can be done in a day. The well might only be 3 meters deep. But it can also take nearly 3 weeks, if the well is 20 meters deep. You then build the bricks. Then you have to make the pump which is very easy and cheap if you know exactly how to make it and have all the materials. Then you have to make the lid from cement. Then you put the lid in place. So sometimes it can take a couple of days but more times it can take weeks and weeks.

Finn and Katie want to know how did you make the pump at the top?

You make the lid from concrete (sand, stones and cement) with a small hole in the middle for the pump. Then you lift the pump up really high and then slot it down the hole until it is in the bottom of the well in the water. Then you screw the pump to the concrete to make sure it stays there for a long time.

Grace wants to know how did you get the water in the well?

When you dig the well you put bricks inside in circle for as far down as you dig. Then all the water in the soil flows in between some bricks at the bottom into the well.

Pádraig says ‘Safe journey home‘ ( but Miss Fingleton knows that you won’t be coming home for a while and that’s OK too, so safe journey whenever then is)


Love Senior Infants and Miss Fingleton.

Go raibh maith agat.

We thank Miss Fingleton and her Senior Infant class for all the excellent questions

Can You help?

From Cassie:

Hello friends

here’s a good deed for the week…

While in Malawi, we worked in Zolo Zolo Secondary School. The school was sparse with few resources so we decided to fund the renovation of room into a library.

While there, we also thought creative writing to the students. Their commitment to learning was truly inspirational and their joy at gaining a library was overwhelming.

Whilst working in the school, I found out the names of their English text book. It is a book by MacMillan Education called Looking for a Rain God. It has been out of publication for 15 years, but with the kind help of the publishers, we have located 71 copies of the text book.

Now we want to send them to Malawi so the school will not have to share a book between 10 or 12 students. The cost to buy the book from the publishers and bring it to Malawi is ten euro…so now, we’re looking for 71 people to commit to buying a book and we’ll take care of the rest.

If you would like to be the proud sponsor of a book please contact Cassie at

The Promise

In the shower this morning, with sparkling water falling on my head I reflected on all the people in the World who lack this essential for life and also on the huge effort that women have to make to locate and carry, often dirty water for their family needs. Suddenly the following memory flashed back to light

It was late evening in a remote village in Doroba, about 35km from home, but every one of them over tracks with backbreaking craters and not for the fainthearted. We were on a preschool-day where we were meeting whole communities and Mary was outlining the benefits of preschools and what we were requiring them to contribute to the process. She was doing all the work while Nicole, Kate and Aoife and myself were just making up the numbers!! This was the last of four preschool groups, so we were all ready for home. We were just taking the final group photograph of the day when this old lady approached me. She was probably sixty but looked ninety. She said “can you come to look at our pumps now”? I was hot, tired, hungry, my poor bones ached and I was all set to do the scary drive back home. Now I needed a quick lie!!. In a flash I replied that the women were tired and they had to rush. But she interjected, “you promised”. “You promised last week that the next time you came you would look at where we get our water, and we’re all here” (about 20 of them, all women). Well if I promised, I promised. I looked closely at this, probably sick, half starved bundle of bones, thought of my 85 year old mother and said hop in, as I made place in the front seat for her.

I asked “where do we go”, knowing that we were at the end of the line, the end of what had any resemblance to a road. They pointed, “just, over there”, along a goat track where a few already wrecked, ancient brick lorries, had flattened the small trees and grass. Now this was the real wilderness, I had no Harisen, so I’m on my own with a group of possessed women. Four kilometres later we arrived at over there. I thought: With a quick turnaround all would be well, but no such luck.

I know if Harisen was there he would probably drive all the way to the pump location, but he wasn’t and probably having his dinner by now. So off we go led by this rejuvenated auld one, running and jumping over gorges like a kid goat. Where is it: “Just over these trees”, but when we arrive there was another landmark and then another up hills and down, following these crazy women.

After about 1km, I sat and thought, should I continue or go back. I was dead, but they came, pulled me to my feet, and said quietly, “It’s not too far now”. Well it wasn’t, not for them: just another kilometre. We saw where she wanted her well. We planned what was to be done. She had no problem with things like the size, the digging, carrying bricks sand and stones, as long as we would bring the pump and cement They all prayed and danced and sang while telling me that there would be ten pumps in all, which was great for us, when all could be done together.

As we hiked back they told me that God would reward me. “What God”? I replied, “there’s no God”, I said, because if there was, He wouldn’t have me out here, in this godforsaken place, with you crowd of mad people. The just fell apart laughing and took turns pulling me up the hills, making the path and minding me.

They are wonderful people, I love then, They’re God’s own people, and that’s how much they want clean water.

I haven’t been back but I’m told that they all have clean, safe drinking water now, all two thousand or so. Of course they’ll thank God, not me, but that’s not a bad deal.

When I returned, Mary and the gang were really tired, thought I had been kidnapped, or led astray. They slept on the journey back despite the undulations.

I will think before I promise in the future Well, No I won’t.

Mother and child

Mzuzu’s Little Mothers

This article, by Cassie Delaney examines the current education situation for young girls in rural Malawi and through interviews establishes that, in that particular region, the MDG to deliver universal primary education by 2015 is unachievable.

Cassie was on her third visit to Malawi, volunteering with Wells for Zoe, Easter 2012


“The girls come from far and they pass through many problems on their way”. Principal Rhoda Mulowayi talks to me in her office in Zolo Zolo Secondary School, Mzuzu. It is the Easter holidays and outside droves of children sing and play in the stone-splitting sun with a group of Irish volunteers. The secondary school students who prepare to sit their finals have come to ask for books and writing materials. Younger children from the community have come to catch a glimpse of the Mzungu. The shyer, timid children sit observing while their brazen older siblings approach the volunteers who entertain with bubbles and balloons and games. The scene is reminiscent of any school yard. Children run, laugh, play and fall over. But, on the perimeters of this playful scene, groups of girls carrying babies on their backs stand huddled together. These girls watch and laugh and sing but are unable to join in the rough and tumble. These girls are Mzuzu’s reluctant mothers and when asked each iterate the same thing; everyday, as their brothers and peers go to school, they are left behind to mind their younger siblings, fetch water and prepare food for their households because their place is in the home. It is these girls that have caused Rhoda concern.

The statistics are’nt new. In Sub-Sahara Africa, 31 million school aged children are not attending school. For those who can access education, 30% drop out before completing a course of primary education. In Malawi, 51% of primary school aged girls are not in school. A further 5% leave education before second level. We have spent several days in Malawi, and I have photographed many young girls who have each explained that they cannot attend school because of their commitments at home.

In Zolo Zolo Secondary School, a class of 72 students prepare to sit their final state exams. Of these students, 52 are male. “We are talking of gender equality worldwide” says Rhoda, “but for us to achieve this gender equality there is need for the girl child to be taken care of. For we have a saying here in Malawi; Educate a boy and you educate an individual, but educate a girl and you educate a nation”.

An expected opinion in Malawi is that girls should serve solely a domestic purpose. Rhoda ratifies that it is the common understanding that the place for girls is in the home. “When the mother is busy, the girl child is there to take care of the family. When someone is in the hospital, the girl child takes care of the family”. This sentiment is acknowledged by UNICEF who publically state “the socialization process victimizes girls because they are considered to be the weaker sex. Spending valuable resources such as money to pay for their education is considered a waste because they are expected to get married and be supported by their husbands. Their profile in society has remained low and their voices have not been heard”.

It would appear that the failure in Malawi’s education system is the social standing of women. When the United Nations talk about The Millennium Development Goal to achieve universal primary education by 2015 (Goal 2), they often cite this standing as the obstacle they face in realising this goal. But this, in Rhoda’s view, is merely the tip of the iceberg. There are more monstrous concerns facing young girls in Malawi; concerns which significantly hinder the progress of education and equality.

Rhoda sits behind a large pine desk. Her office is sparse, dark and piled high with loose papers. There is little room for me to sit so I stand leaning over an aging steel filing cabinet. On the lime wash concrete walls, attendance sheets for the four forms indicate a low level of attendance. Outside, the children and volunteers continue to play. Rhoda leans forward, her unbalanced chair moving with her weight. There is hesitance in her voice, as though she is reluctant to continue.

“The girls fall in to a lot of temptations” says Rhoda with regret. “It is easy for the girls to fall into the temptation of having so many boyfriends. Also the girls do not have enough money and they can easily be tempted to have money and in exchange for money they offer their bodies. We are surrounded by a community of drunkards and as you know, drunkards can rape.”

“Girls are suffering”, she continues. “Those who drop out are girls. They are pregnant and we can’t keep them a place”.

Rhoda looks distantly out her office door to the children and collection of classrooms outside. The school is large but unassuming. The classrooms are bare and, if one were to pass the gathering of buildings on a weekend, one would assume the place was derelict.  In previous conversation Rhoda expressed a desire to turn Zolo Zolo in to a boarding school for girls, which she believes, will ascertain their attendance throughout all forms. But, with the school lacking in basic provisions such as desks and chairs, the promise of full boarding facilities is a long way off.

The United Nations released a report about Goal 2 in 2010 in which they stated enrolment in primary education in developing regions had reached 89 per cent in 2008. But, from conversation with Rhoda, it is clear that it is not enrolling student in education that is problematic, but rather, keeping them in education. She is adamant that a boarding school is the solution and when I ask her why, Rhoda looks at me, and bluntly states, “Because we still have these arranged marriages”.

In the Malawian legal system, there is ambiguity regarding marriage. Law states that a person over 18 can marry without parental consent and those between the ages of 15 – 18 may marry with the consent of a guardian.  The Law Commission has fought to increase the age of consent to 18 with parental consent, and 21 without. In regards to forced marriage, the constitution states no person over the age of 18 can be forced in to marriage. But, according to Rhoda, the reality in rural villages is that young girls are still being coerced into marriage to repay family debt. This practice is known as kupimbira and is a form of debt repayment where a young daughter may be transferred to the creditor for marriage for failure to pay the debt back.

Kupimbira is a taboo subject in the region and when I approach young people and ask about it, few are willing to talk. Under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, such practice is internationally illegal and yet, according to the few who speak, is widely practiced in Malawi.

In spite of my pale Irish skin, I join the volunteers outside to play with the young children. Someone has thought them a game of “Pile on Cassie” and when my sunburnt skin can’t hack any more, I sit down with a group of young girls. One girl, Rebecca Murawae, speaks with impeccable English. Her skin is clear, he eyes are bright and in all respects she looks healthy and happy. She is 15 and in form one in Zolo Zolo. She tells me English is her favourite subject in school. I tell her that I study journalism and joke that she should consider it because the world always needs more journalists but she laughs and says she hopes one day to become a nurse. Rebecca is a beautiful looking young woman but what catches my attention is her evident intelligence. I ask her about her family and she tells me about her sister and brother. Rebecca seems to be well educated and I assume her family are one of the elite few who can afford the fees but she skims over the issue of fees saying “my parents did some business” and I decide not to question any further.

It is getting late in the evening and I wonder about the things Rhoda has told me. I have travelled to Malawi many times, met many people and read extensive reports by the UN and have only ever heard hushed whispers about Kupimbira. Like most, I believed with international laws and the advances in human rights and education, that such practices must have ceased and that it can’t really be that common. Yet, this is not the first time I have been surprised in Malawi, and it’s certainly not going to be the last either. In an effort to return to more upbeat and casual conversation I turn to Rebecca and ask “and do you like school?”

“Yes of course!” she says with hurriedly “I like it, I like school”, she pauses “I want to stay in school”. Rebecca seems to have defied the statistics. But then Rebecca speaks again and I am quickly reminded of the unfortunate truth of Malawi.

“We have problems too though. I want to stay in school so that I do not have to get married like my sister”.

Like all the girls here, Rebecca’s future is uncertain. What is palpable though, is her intelligence.

“I want to stay so that I can assist my mother and my sister. Like my sister, I don’t want to leave school because of our problems; I want to solve our problems because I stayed in school”.

Back in Rhoda’s office I mention Goal 2 and ask does she think such a goal is achievable.

She laughs.

“One hundred per cent of boys and girls in school by 2015? No that is not even tangible. I doubt this very much. Why? Because we will always have these problems with the girls. We will always have the girls dropping out. We need to solve the problems with the girls before we can solve the problems with education”.