Sawako Nevin—Working to make a difference in Malawi

Sawako Nevin—Working to make a difference in Malawi

Sawako Nevin started a girls education promotion project ‘Send Your Girls to School’.

[INTERVIEW]

Sawako Nevin

Sawako Nevin accompanies her husband Michael Nevin, a British diplomat, in his post to Malawi. She undertakes many activities in order to promote national development.


—You have been assisting projects under JOCA in Malawi where the main goal is to help countries to cultivate their own human resources to promote national development. Can you tell us more about your work with them?

When I came back to Malawi in September 2012, JOCA (Japan Overseas Cooperative Association) was looking for someone to help launch their school feeding project in Mzimba South, which is a 4-hour drive to the north from Lilongwe (the capital of Malawi) where I stay. I used to work at JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) in Malawi so I was interested in JOCA’s work. My first task was to get the MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) signed by the Malawian Ministry of Education. It took me four months to achieve it. Yes, things move very slowly here. By that time I only had five months to do all the preparation work in order to start the programme on schedule. Applying for a licence to import rice flour from Japan, selecting a school to support, briefing the community on the project, getting the school to build a kitchen, setting up a Food Committee, allocating jobs to its members, organising a launch ceremony, etc. It was a busy and sometimes very frustrating time with many sleepless nights but I still enjoyed watching the project gradually taking shape. On the first day of feeding in October 2013, when I saw a child receiving the very first cup of porridge, my eyes were tearing up with joy. The project is now supervised by my colleagues who are trying to extend agricultural skills to the community so the community can support the feeding programme through providing maize, soya and vegetables. We are hoping that the community will eventually be self-sufficient and able to feed their children at school with their local products.

—You are a director of “Seibo Japan”. Where did the idea of creating this NPO come from? Can you tell us more about the NPO?

The idea of launching NPO in Japan came from Tony Smith, who used to be the Chairman of Mary’s Meals. Mary’s Meals is a charity organization, which runs school feeding programmes for underprivileged children all over the world. I met Tony in Malawi through work when he had just decided to set up NPO in Tokyo. He was looking for a name for the NPO, which can relate to the Virgin Mary as in Mary’s Meals. When I suggested ‘Seibo’ (name of my primary school in Osaka), Tony immediately liked it. So I’m a godmother of Seibo Japan!

Sawako with her husband Michael (left) and Malawi’s No 1 musician Lucius Banda (middle).

Seibo Japan is run by my colleagues Declan Sommers and Akiko Hirosawa who are very passionate about helping Malawian children in need. They have just launched their first fundraising campaign using the popular Japanese crowdfunding website (www.readyfor.jp).The campaign focuses on building feeding shelters and providing Likuni Phala (corn & soya blend to make porridge) to feed over 750 children in nursery schools in Malawi. This campaign will cover 30 nurseries in partnership with the Mother Teresa Children’s Centre. Seibo is currently introducing some of the beneficiary nurseries on their Facebook Page (facebook.com/seibojapan). You will be surprised to know that as little as 60 yen can provide a child with a school meal.

—You are actively involved in other projects in Malawi such as “Send your girl to school”or protection and conservation of wild life parks. How does your position as the wife of British Commissioner help you to fulfil your own goals and ambitions?

‘Send Your Girls to School’ is my own campaign’s song project to promote girls education. The song is called ‘Msungwana Shaina (Girl, Shine)’, which I made with Malawi’s superstar Lucius Banda. I discovered through my work with JOCA that there is a group of women in villages who discourage their girls from going to school when they turn 8-9 years old and instead getting them ready for marriage. Girls’ parents look for a wealthy older husband and receive money in exchange for the young brides. Girls’ early marriage is a serious problem in Malawi causing a high dropout rate from school, teenage pregnancy, severe poverty for women, and, at the national level, the rapid increase in population, which is hindering economic growth. The song tries to change older generation’s traditional mind-set against educating girls. It goes ‘Girls can do lots more than house chores, Send your girls to school, Give them time to grow, Give them time to think what’s best for them, Let your girls shine. For the bright future of girls, for the bright future of Malawi’. The song is now played by UN agencies including UNICEF and UN Women. Whenever they have girls’ empowerment activities, and the message is spreading. Please watch the music video on YouTube ‘msungwana shaina’.

Another project I started here is a fundraising ‘Lilongwe Dream Dinner’ to support a local NGO Girls Empowerment Network (GENET). GENET tries to empower girls through a variety of projects including a ‘reusable sanitary pads’ initiative. Most of the girls can’t go to school whenever they menstruating just because they don’t have sanitary pads. This is one of the factors leading to girls’ high dropout rates. GENET distributes a set of handmade washable sanitary pads to adolescent girls so they can go to school during the period. In order to draw people’s attention to this important issue, I wanted to organise a fundraising dinner. We don’t have many good restaurants here and therefore ambassadors’ residences are said to serve the best food in town. I spoke to four ambassadors, including my husband, and got their chefs to cook a course to make a nice four-course dinner. The first ‘Dream Dinner’ took place at our residence in October 2015 with a starter course (sushi) cooked by the Japanese Ambassador’s chef, a fish course by Norwegian, a meat course by British and a dessert by American. It turned out to a big success. We raised US$4,600, which is enough to provide 500 girls with a set of pads and a hygiene training session. I’m planning to organise ‘Dream Dinner 2’ in 2016 so we can help more girls.

Along with promotion of girls’ education, animal protection has always been my personal priority in Malawi. I recently started working as a volunteer at Lilongwe Wildlife Trust in Malawi to help with their anti-poaching projects.

Along with promotion of girls’ education, animal protection has always been my personal priority in Malawi. I recently started working as a volunteer at Lilongwe Wildlife Trust in Malawi to help with their anti-poaching projects. Poaching of elephants and illegal ivory trade are big problems in Malawi, which relies on wildlife tourism for its development. 20,000 elephants are illegally killed for their ivory every year. At this rate, elephants will go extinct within 20 years. The project is currently focusing on raising awareness about wildlife crime among the Chinese community in Malawi, in cooperation with the Chinese Embassy. It will eventually involve all Lilongwe-based Ambassadors as the Chinese ivory market is only one of many ivory markets all around the world.

JOCA’s school feeding programme encourages children to come to school.
JOCA’s school feeding programme encourages children to come to school.

This is my husband’s first time to be the British High Commissioner in Malawi. At the beginning, I was very reluctant to use my position as ‘the High Commissioner’s wife’ to get things done because I didn’t want to take a ‘hey, who do you think I am?’ kind of attitude. But I gradually came to think that it’s ok to use whatever I’ve got if it’s for a good cause. My status helped me a lot by giving me automatic credibility especially when I was calling on companies to ask for their sponsorship to support my projects. So, I’ll keep using my title for the welfare of girls and animals!

—Who is/was your role model?

All the female newsreaders on NHK in 1960s/70s. As a child, I admired their intelligence, calmness, dignity and elegance. And my mum for her sense of humour!

—As a Japanese-international woman would you have some advice to other Japanese women who wish to follow your path?

Have faith in yourself and be strong! But don’t forget your Japanese femininity. It’s a natural gift in you.


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