This quote, from Winston Churchill, is a favourite of Martha Khonje, who is Regional Representative at the Roger Federer Foundation. Perhaps it reflects the determination that has shaped her own life and now that of the Foundation.
Martha was raised in a rural village in Malawi, where girls were expected to leave the education system early and marry at a young age. But Martha’s family did not see it that way. Her father advocated for Martha and her sisters to be educated, and when her older sister successfully went through secondary school, it showed Martha that this path was possible.
“It’s like a cycle, and we need to break that cycle,” says Martha. “If girls marry young and are not educated, it is likely that their children will have the same experience. By breaking that cycle, and showing what is possible, we can inspire others. For me, my horizons became wider and wider. Seeing my sisters made me realise I could go to secondary school. Once I was in secondary school, I realised university was an option. Education expands your horizons.”
The vital importance of education has been a guiding light for Martha ever since, as has the desire to empower others. She spent 17 years working for ActionAid, the international charity focusing on programmes advocating for women's rights, education, health, and empowering citizens. In 2017, Martha joined the Roger Federer Foundation, coordinating the Foundation's work in Malawi and Zambia.
The Roger Federer Foundation supports educational projects in Southern Africa and Switzerland. The programmes focus on the improvement of the quality of early learning and basic education. At the heart of their work is the School Readiness Programme. Research shows that a key reason for children in developing countries dropping out of education is the lack of access to quality early childhood (preschool) education. The transition from home or preschool to primary is a highly sensitive time and full of challenges – it can make or break a child’s school experience.
“Our goal is to give children a good start to their education, which includes access to at least one year of organised learning before starting school,” says Martha. “It’s recognising what motivates children at that age – for example, learning through play. And we are fully focused not only on improving children's readiness to go to school, but also on making schools more ready for children. It’s really about focusing on the child and supporting the educational journey of the child.”
Re&Act – the independent charity that manages the donations raised from the Children’s Walk – has partnered with the Roger Federer Foundation since 2015. Re&Act supports the School Readiness programme as well as other ad-hoc initiatives, such as emergency relief during the Covid-19 pandemic in Malawi.
The School Readiness Programme in Malawi has enjoyed great success, ensuring children from 1700 rural preschools are ready for school, families are ready to support their children's learning and schools are ready for children. The pass rate in grade one forprimary school for children who have benefitted from the programme at Senga Bay primary school is around 95%, compared to 50-60% of children who came straight from home to grade 1, without going to preschool. This is the common performance trend.
For Martha, seeing the impact of the programme in her own country is particularly rewarding.
“It’s a great honour and privilege to do this work and it's very inspirational when you see the impact it is having,” she says. “The sense of great joy and pride one feels at being able to make a difference in your country.”
Martha knows the job is not complete and there is further work to be done. But, like the Churchill quote that inspires her, she will certainly have the courage to continue.
With the support of Re&Act, the Roger Federer Foundation and ActionAid have built >25 early development centers and provided quality early education to thousands of children in Malawi.
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