THE playground is a mass of energetic chaos as a hundreds-strong rammy of children clamour for their morning meal. 

It's just after 6am and breakfast time in Umodzikatubza Primary, pupils lining up with a thrust of bright coloured cups to make sure they receive a portion of porridge to set them up for the day. 

A row of patient volunteers, local mothers, bend to scoop the maize mixture, again and again, missing no one.  

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The smell of firewood winds its way through lively queues that reverberate with the sounds of the many languages spoken by these learners, children who have come seeking refuge from four war and famine scarred countries. 

Umodzikatubza Primary, opened in 1995, is part of Malawi's largest refugee camp, Dzaleka. The children here have come fleeing troubles in Rwanda, Burundi, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and most, if not all, live with trauma.  

Teaching here comes with unique challenges but many of the teachers have first hand insight into the young people's experiences. 

In the school library, Esther Sengo describes the flight from the DRC with her three young children. The 34-year-old is luminous, slender and so quietly spoken I have to lean forward, just barely able to catch her words.  

Later I will see her in her classroom where she commands the attention of her 70 pupils, a firm, engaging presence. She is two different people. By then I have heard her story of fear and desperation; of cruelly stymied talent and uncertain future. She will have told me of witnessing the murders of her sister, father and husband by militia and of knowing her mother is alive but having no idea where. 

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She gathers her little charges together and they sing. "If you're happy and you know it clap your hands." Esther dances round the room, hands on hips, urging them all on with smiling encouragement. Clap, clap.  

You would cry, if it weren't so self-indulgent. 

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As in the UK, refugees in Malawi are not allowed to engage in paid work. Before she came to Malawi in 2015, Esther was a teacher. In 2017 she began volunteering in Umodzikatubza Primary full time, working side by side with the other teachers, doing the same job but unable to take a salary.

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She loves teaching, and speaks all five of the languages of her pupils along with fluent English and French. She says: "I know the parent languages and also I am patient because to teach these little children is my purpose, to make them understand."  

When she and her children left the DRC they initially went to Tanzania only to find the country had shut its borders. They continued on and ended up in Malawi. "I wanted to be far away where the people who I was running away from could not find me," Esther said. 

But now she is stuck. She cannot return to the DRC but there is no way to leave the camp. Education is her hope for herself and her children, two boys aged 16 and 14, and a daughter of 12. Her middle child earned a scholarship to boarding school, which is an untold relief, but she worries constantly for her daughter being alone in the camp while she is at work. 

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Esther said: "I find it so hard, so hard indeed living in the camp. I have a teaching certificate but being a refugee I am not considered a qualified professional. 

"Therefore I cannot compete on the job market. I am not entitled to a salary but just a stipend. Yet you have your fellow teachers who have the same qualifications and sometimes you dedicate yourself even more than that person but he gets paid a salary as an employee but you have to get paid as a refugee. 

"You are only a refugee. No matter what qualification you have you are not considered equal." 

Esther is studying for a diploma in social work and continuing a degree she had started in business leadership. "But I know that if I continue as a refugee then my opportunities are limited," she added. "I can have ideas but as long as I am a refugee I cannot expand my life outside the camp." 

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There is a sense of community in Dzaleka camp and skills are shared. Esther teaches a group of women to read and write so they can, in turn, help their children learn. She also tutors students outwith school hours and helps neighbours with letter writing. 

"We support each other in different ways. If food is scarce, I say to my neighbour please, come and borrow it, you are welcome," Esther says. 

"When I am sick they come and visit me. Sometimes I don't have water so they help me." 

In last year's rainy season her house was washed away and the neighbours gave her shelter. She added: "Can you imagine your house just collapsed? They give me a place to sleep and in the morning some young boys from my place come and started rebuilding it." 

Food is scarce in the camp but relief comes in the form of Scottish charity Mary's Meals. Esther said her pupils would fall asleep in class, if they made it to class at all, before the feeding programme of porridge began. 

Education gives them hope for the future. Esther has hopes for her children's future too. "Without my children I couldn't be what I am.  

"I want them to be people who can help themselves and everyone around them, to be the type of people who create change, to help their communities and bring solutions to the challenges of their communities," she said. 

"For myself, I want to become a citizen so I can explore all my abilities, my skills, freely."    

The children I speak to in the camp also have clear ideas for their futures - and clear ideas about the feeding programme. Samuel Mundusa came with his family, mum, dad, brother and sister, from the DRC five years ago.  

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The 13-year-old uses his free time to hang out in the school library, giving himself extra English lessons. I ask him what he hopes his future holds.  

"I would like to be a pilot," Samuel says. "A pilot is someone who learns much and I want to learn much, like how to build an aeroplane and how to fly an aeroplane in the skies. And the best thing would be to get income."  

He appreciates the porridge from Mary's Meals but wishes it came with sugar. He'd also like to be allowed to eat it in class so there was less of a rush at the start of the day - teachers take note. 

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Volunteer and mother-of-seven Christina Yohanna has lived in the camp for 18 years and there is no sign of her being able to leave. She helps with the Mary's Meals feeding programme to give back for all the support the charity has given her family. 

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The 45-year-old is from Burundi and fled the brutal conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi. She is one of a group of volunteers making the porridge every day, supporting the staff and head teacher Josephat Kavuta.  

The school now has 4306 children, which Josephat described as "very low". There used to be 6500 simply because Mary's Meals did not operate in any of the local schools so Malawian children came to Umodzikatubza to eat. As soon as the charity expanded to others in the region, the roll dropped. 

Josephat has plans to move from using firewood for cooking to biogas as he worries about the sustainability of finding 18 tonnes of firewood per month for the porridge.  

But he talks about the effect the porridge has had on his school and the fact that, very unusually, girls stay on until the upper grades in Umodzikatubza.

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"It is simple," he said. "It has had a very huge impact. Children can now concentrate and with that, they can learn."  

 

UP ahead a group of women wait by the road with slight impatience, their bright blue chitenje telling us we're in the right place.  

The cloth wrap skirts are patterned with the logo of Mary's Meals, which now feeds more than a million children in Malawi every day, including the thousand or so who will receive porridge made by these volunteers when they finally finish their long walk to Samama Primary School.  

It's the day after we visit Umodzikatubza Primary and not quite 5am but this is a late start for these women, volunteers who rise every weekday morning at 2am to begin their vital task. Some walk for close to two hours to reach the school and our visit has held them up. 

They stride on in front holding straggling sticks of eucalyptus bound in bundles on their heads. Their chatter trails into the fields around. The landscape is flat, solid and dry with nothing to block the sound carrying.   

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The early morning light is extraordinary, so vivid it should be viscous, but still gentle enough to match the welcome coolness of the very early morning. Later in the day the temperature will smooch its way closer to an unbearable 40 degrees but for now it's fresh.  

As the sun begins her lazy rise, the sky turns a pallid milk grey and purplish blue with luminous orange fingers prodding their way into these calm pastels.  

We reach the school, in rural Blantyre, and the volunteers, most of them mothers of pupils, are immediately at work. The vats of porridge take two hours to cook but first the bundles of eucalyptus must be set alight to create a fire.  

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The cooking pots are cleaned, filled with water and the Likuni Phala, a porridge formulated with maize, soya and sugar and fortified with vitamins and minerals, is sprinkled in from pink Mary’s Meals sacks. 

It's quiet outside – though this will be shattered when the pupils begin arriving – but inside the mud brick kitchen the chatter is fierce. Every so often singing breaks out and the women cook to a chorus, dancing and laughing. 

The smoke from the burning eucalyptus lazes its way upwards, lingering around the pot and our nostrils as the women take turns stirring and stirring the porridge.  

Earlier, to reach Chitika village, we'd set off in 4am darkness, bouncing along dusty roads, trying to avoid potholes. The dust is pervasive. Even a smoothly tarmacked portion of road is being slowly reclaimed by dust blowing across the surface like it’s trying to quietly swallow it up before anyone notices. 

At first we past businesses: the God is Good Shop; Elizabeth's Hair Salon, a mud brick hut with thatched roof; Uncle Wister’s Barber Shop, Oh So Heavenly Medicine Store. Then the trees take over, fat trunks propping up branches heaving with oval, unripe mangoes. Trim leaves drape from eucalyptus trees, brown bark cleaving from bleached trunks.  

The land is so dry and hard it looks as though everything was placed upon it, that surely nothing could have sprung from within.  

It's rush hour for the charcoal sellers who are heading in the other direction, towards the town. Their livelihood has recently been outlawed for environmental reasons. Malawi is one of the least electrified nations in the world so Malawians depend on charcoal for cooking and other day to day activities. 

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But to make charcoal requires burning trees, leading to deforestation and a loss of vegetation that has left the land bare, without resistance to drought or floods – so it has been banned. For those who sell it, however, it's their only source of income.  

The men carry charcoal in conical bundles on the backs of bicycles, an improbable balancing act. We, the photographer and I, point them out to our driver and ask how they get away with so openly pursuing this illegal activity.   

"Oh," he says, "The police fear them because they've got magic." We press for more details. "They can turn the charcoal full of blood. So if the police take it they are worried something will happen to them." 

Mary's Meals is marking its 20th anniversary in Malawi, two decades of executing a simple but effective method: encourage children to come to school by feeding them breakfast and watch them reap the rewards of an education.  

The south eastern African country struggles with high levels of food insecurity and widespread malnutrition; four in 10 children under the age of five experience stunted growth. 

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We visit several schools in the south and north of Malawi and the story is the same everywhere: as soon as the school feeding programme begins, the school roll rises.  

For some families, Mary's Meals provides hope against all odds. 

In her home not far from Samama Primary School, Miriam Venasio is putting her uniform on, a long blue pinafore over yellow polo shirt. Her older brother, Emmanuel, is there to oversee the morning routine. 

Emmanuel, at just 20, became the head of the household earlier this year when their mother, 40-year-old Alufa Chibiyira, died of what is thought to have been cancer. Their father, Harold Sinkadziwa, 37, was killed in a motorcycle accident in 2018. 

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Alufa and Harold had five children and Emmanuel was determined to keep them all together but it was impossible. His youngest siblings, Godfrey, five, and Kingsley, 12, were taken to live in a local orphanage and he and Miriam miss them dreadfully.  

They are allowed to meet once a month. While it's barely enough for the close-knit family, Emmanuel admits a sense of relief knowing the smallest boys are cared for.  

His 17-year-old sister, Nizziah Vanasio, chose to ease the strain on the household by marrying and now has a little boy aged one, Ethan. She was selling mandazi – an African donut – and he was a regular customer. In Hollywood this would be a meet cute, but this is not Hollywood.  

I ask if she's happy and she laughs, but without humour. Nizziah is not happy but she is taken care of, she is not a burden on her already over-burdened brother and so that is enough. 

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"It's still hard," she said, "Because I am not able to meet all my baby's needs and I don't have the support of my mother. 

"I thought when my first baby was born I would have my mother." 

Nizziah lives a 30 minute walk from the family home and visits often. She misses her brothers.  

Miriam, 14, is the family's hope. Like Emmanuel, Nizziah wants more for her sister. Emmanuel, a muted, quietly spoken young man, dropped out of classes to take up work as a motorcycle courier in order to keep Miriam in school. 

He had planned to be a doctor and says he would one day like to return to education but now he works and runs the household, earning around $1 a day once he's paid the rental costs on the bike. 

Emmanuel said: “I miss school and wish that I had an opportunity to go back." He pauses.  

"I have dreams," he added, "That I feel were not realised.” 

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Occasionally he cannot afford for them both to eat but the school feeding programme ensures Miriam has one complete meal a day.  

“She usually leaves without eating so the meal that she has at school brings me comfort," Emmanuel said. 

“There are occasions when I cannot fetch enough money for both of us to eat but I can give it [to her] so that she can have something.” 

The children have two photographs of their mother, in both she is smiling and caught mid-motion – maybe she was dancing – giving her the air of being about to step from the picture. Alufa volunteered with Mary's Meals, Emmanuel says; she was one of the women rising at 2am to ensure all the children were fed.  

Back at Samama Primary School the porridge pots are bubbling and a murmuration of learners are eager to eat. The children bring a plastic cup with them and queue up class by class for it to be filled with their breakfast. 

As soon as they get the green light they speed towards the kitchen, laughing and shouting and eager.  

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Dorica Mjolomole helps to dish up. The 42-year-old is the longest serving volunteer at Samama Primary and the four youngest of her five children have benefited from Mary's Meals. Her oldest girl is in form four, the highest level of school, and she is proud. 

"She has just wrote the exams," Dorica says, "And when the results are out that will let her know if she can apply for college. I am proud because most of the girls do not make it that far."  

Mary's Meals began in Samama Primary in 2014. Dorica said: "I remember when there was no porridge most learners were malnourished and they looked unwell and they weren't that strong. 

"But now they are eating porridge they are strong, energetic and they actually rush to come to school." 

It's almost 7.30am and the children have all been served and are sprinting to their classrooms to take part in the day's lessons. The sky is a relentless blue now and the sun is turning violent. 

In the kitchen, the eucalyptus has burned to ash and fading embers send fine fragrant specks floating from the kitchen, nourished by the breeze, out beyond the school yard to who knows where.  

Dorica remembers Alufa with fondness, her huge personality is missed during the morning kitchen sessions. "Everybody was very sad when she died because she was a very hard worker and she was very supportive of the school feeding programme," she says.  

"She was a very important person, someone who was always there, pushing for things that were needed.  

"It is a very sad situation." She is impressed by how Emmanuel has coped with his loss.  

He leaves work to go home at lunchtime every day and make lunch for Miriam coming back from school. She is thinking about preparing food, nourishing others. She looks up from her now-empty pot and adds, "That's love." 

 

It costs just £15.90 to feed a child with Mary’s Meals for a whole school year.

Donate at marysmeals.org.uk or freephone 0800 698 1212.