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Young people of Malawi striving for better future

'That's when my life turned upside down," says teenager Victor Sawasawa talking about the death of his father in 2012.

Victor is explaining how he came to be at Chance for Change, a youth project based in a compound down a rutted track in Area 23 - one of the poorest districts of Lilongwe.

"My mother, brothers and sisters moved back to the village in Chiradzulu when my dad died, but I chose to live here. I had no home and either slept in friends' houses or in a church. I was sleeping rough. I started drinking and going to pubs, people were trying to get me to deal drugs. Everything was messed up."

Moments before telling his story, Victor had played one of the leading roles in an outdoor play devised by the young people: a Witch Doctor.

His friend, Cynthia Bandah, also had a starring role. Before coming to the project she tells me she was "a troublemaker".

The play was a straight-to-the-point performance which was gripping, funny and educational, dealing with the thorny issue of child marriage and why young Malawian girls should not just do what men and boys want, but can have a bright future, given the chance.

Victor explains how when he was first approached by Chance for Change, through a facilitator, Grace - who was an old neighbour - he refused. He said: "I thought it was just a waste of time - I'd be better going down the pub where maybe I could make some money. However, Grace approached me four times. On the fourth time I said, 'Okay, I'll come' and I went and was introduced to the topic of global citizenship.

"After that, I understood I can affect my society, family, my country and the world. I am a global citizen. I realised if you go into the wrong behaviour, and end up getting Aids your family have to help you, and the nation would spend on drugs to help me instead of on other projects.

"After six months, I know I can make effective decisions and I have gained entrepreneurship skills."

Cynthia displayed a similar reluctance at first. "I was against them, I thought it was useless, but they told me about behaviour change, making the right decisions, and I now have the skills of entrepreneurship."

Both of these young people are impressive - and they are just two of many involved in this project. Ninety have graduated from the project so far, with more than 180 more joining the next phase.

In Malawi - one of the world's poorest countries - there are very few safety nets when things go wrong, and your only recourse can be to rely on family.

In Victor's case, this has been his uncle, who has taken him in to stay in his house - but as he is unemployed himself it's hard to get by.

Having learned new skills, Victor is thinking of the next steps. "The challenge I am facing is to make a business to save a little money to go back to school," he said. "I'm surviving selling jewellery but not saving. I only make 500 Kwacha a day (67p). If I can go back to school I can then go to college and be a journalist. That is my dream."

Cynthia is also considering her future. She wants to be a doctor or a nurse, but meantime is earning money hairdressing. Again, she wants to save to go to college. "The project was good for me because I changed in so many ways - now I can't go in bad company. I want to start a small business so I can save to go to college to study nursing."

Chance for Change is an international NGO registered in Scotland and receives funding from the Scottish Government's International Development Fund. They realised that there was a gap in provision for teenagers trying to make the transition to adulthood. Many young people here are unsupported, and all too often were experiencing problems with drugs, drink, crime or high risk behaviours.

It has been one of many highlights in my first visit to Malawi - the nation which has so many links with Scotland, dating back more than 150 years since the days when David Livingstone from Blantyre, Lanarkshire, founded the Blantyre Mission in what is now Southern Malawi.

It is clear that there are still huge challenges in a country where less than 10% have access to electric power, where 10 women die in childbirth every day, where millions live on less than a pound a day. Indeed no one could fail to be shocked at the levels of poverty here.

But there is also hope and enthusiasm, not least among the delegates to a meeting of the Malawi Scotland Partnership I attended. More than 600 Scottish organisations are involved - from churches to schools, communities to charities, universities and the Scottish Government.

But what next for Chance for Change, Victor and Cynthia and their peers? It's clear there is a danger that despite having a totally changed outlook on life they are still in a difficult place in terms of earning enough money to really turn round their lives.

Louis Parkinson, Country Director for Chance for Change explains: "The programme has been extremely well received by the local community leaders and youth, the next challenge we face is gaining access to micro finance to enable our graduates, like Victor, to realise their entrepreneurial dreams."

As the Queen's Baton relay arrives in Malawi en route to the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, it's clear that, despite the challenges, the country also has a chance for change. But it's vital friends and allies from Scotland remain engaged and work in partnership with the Malawians.

As for Victor and Cynthia? Despite the huge hurdles they still have to overcome to reach their dreams, I wouldn't be in the least surprised if, on future visits to Malawi I read news reports by leading journalist Victor Sawasawa, and learn that Cythnia Bandah has realised her dream of being a nurse or a doctor.

These are exactly the sort of young people who can help build a stronger and more prosperous Malawi.

* The Herald and Sunday Herald Children of the Commonwealth series will run over the coming months as the Queen's Baton travels the world on its way to Scotland. As well as bringing our readers inspiring stories from key locations on the baton route, we're also raising money for UNICEF, an official charity partner of the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. There are a number of different ways to donate: you can call 0800 044 5777; or you can click on unicef.org.uk/herald; or you can text 'CHILD' to 70111 to donate £3. If you prefer, there is a coupon in the Saturday Herald magazine and in the Sunday Herald. UNICEF is the world's leading children's organisation, working to save and change children's lives.

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