Jesuit Encounters “Warm Heart of Africa” Through New Educational Efforts in Malawi

Fifth grade students from Our St. Joseph Jesuit Parish Primary School in Kasungu, Malawi visit the site of the future Loyola Jesuit Secondary School with their headmaster (back left), Fr. Peter Henriot, SJ, development director of Loyola Jesuit Secondary School (back center) and Fr. Alojz Podgrajsek, SJ, project director of Loyola Jesuit Secondary School (back right).

Serving in Zambia on sabbatical in 1989 had a life-changing affect on Jesuit Father Peter Henriot. “Working in a village development project with local people and doing simple tasks did almost more for my education than all the other learning I gathered while studying and working in the United States. And at the end of that year, the people there gave me the best gift – the desire to stay.”

And for the next 21 years that’s exactly what Fr. Henriot was able to do, having joined the Zambia-Malawi Province (transferring from the Oregon Province) while working with the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection in Zambia after having spent the previous 16 years with Center of Concern in Washington, D.C.  And, then in 2010, he was assigned to another purpose – to help establish Loyola Jesuit Secondary School (LJSS) in Malawi.

Although it is a country rich in natural resources, Malawi, whose nickname is “The Warm Heart of Africa,” continues to be one of the poorest countries in the world in terms of human development. It ranks a somber 153 out of 169 on the United Nations Human Development Index, which is largely caused by lack of educational opportunities for its youth.

“There simply is no future for Malawi without better education for the young people,” Henriot states.

With encouragement from the Catholic Bishops of Malawi, the government of Malawi officials and local families, the Zambia-Malawi Province of the Society of Jesus decided to establish LJSS in the poor rural city of Kasungu.  As its Director of Development, Henriot is charged with fund-raising for this enormous educational project.

“People often ask me ‘what’s an old man like you doing in such a new and demanding job’, to which I reply ‘Jesuits might get tired, but we never get retired!’”

Henriot and the Jesuits of the Zambia-Malawi Province are working to provide a secondary education to young Malawian women and men that will embody the characteristics of a Jesuit education of intellectual and spiritual excellence, and a curriculum dedicated to life skills, character development and community service responsibilities.  Their vision is of a school that could accommodate approximately 500 students; a 50/50 mix of girls and boys. Run in cooperation with the Malawian government, LJSS will be a “grant-aided” school, helping to offset teacher salaries. This will make it more widely affordable to students from families of modest means.  In addition, significant employment opportunities will be generated throughout the community of Kasungu during construction, and through servicing and maintenance of the facility.

As a boarding school, the goal is to create a learning environment that is genuinely Jesuit in all aspects of life, with a required community service program in place so that students learn in many practical ways what it is to be educated to be “a person for others.”

“We want to set up an ‘elite school’ of the best educational values and structure, but not an ‘elitist’ school only open to the rich. I think this can be a practical implementation of something we all talk a lot about, the ‘preferential option for the poor’,” says Henriot.

Having done a lot of work over the years with the church’s social teaching, Henriot sees Loyola Jesuit Secondary School as a major contributor to what true development is all about: enabling the human person to become more human in community. What that means while facing Malawi’s very poor economic environment will be a big challenge for the school administrators and its students to overcome.

Right now, the Zambia-Malawi Jesuit Province now has a large financial task ahead of them, and has already begun to seek large donations from foundations and institutions to help fund this school project, as well as small contributions from individual supporters of this effort.

“To raise money in a time of global economic decline has been no easy task,” says Fr. Henriot, “but what particularly encourages me are the small amounts coming in from friends and others who have learned what we are about.”

There have been some very generous grants from Jesuit Provinces in Europe, who see the value of this educational effort at this time. But the project still has a long way to go – the goal is to start construction in 2012 and to be ready to welcome the first year students in 2013. Henriot is hoping that this immensely important task will be made possible by future donations and volunteers, and will enable a well-rounded Jesuit education for the children of Malawi to not just be a dream but to ultimately become a reality.

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