Charity Shouldn't End at Ramadan

Charity Shouldn't End at Ramadan

20 Jul 2015

Ahlan! Editorial Director Sarah Hedley Hymers on her trip to Malawi to see how Ahlan!'s helping to build schools

Throughout Holy Month we’ve handed out water to labourers, hosted free iftars for fasters and donated cash and clothing to good causes, and all the while been reminded to be thankful for our many blessings. It’s a very special, spiritual time of year – but our charitable endeavours shouldn’t end with Ramadan. Making the world a better place is the ongoing responsibility of us all.

I’m proud to say that Ahlan!’s publishing company, ITP, has partnered with UNICEF to fund the building of schools in Malawi, complete with teacher’s accommodation and library blocks. Recently, I headed to Africa to see the sites and meet the amazing children who’ll be schooled there. It was a humbling and heart-warming, and I hope more UAE-based businesses will support UNICEF in the years to come. Why not propose a UNICEF partnership to your CEO today? You could changes hundreds of lives – your own included.

Sarah’s UNICEF Diary

Charity Shouldn't End at Ramadan

DAY 1: First Impressions
Despite occasional patches of landscaped garden and a few real-life scenes often depicted in African art (think women in colourful wraps with baskets on their heads, sashaying along the roadside), the drive from the airport to the Sunbird Capital Hotel in Lilongwe, Malawi was pretty bleak. On the parched sand, several young men sat huddled in groups in the partial shade of skinny trees while others slowly strolled along like they had nowhere to be. One entrepreneur brandished a stick at our car window; it was skewered with a row of barbecued mice – rodents are food here.

As a reminder that our visit with UNICEF could take us to dangerous places, a huge antennae on the bonnet of our customised 4X4 spliced the view – our security guard and driver explained that the signal needs to be powerful enough to make emergency calls from anywhere, no matter how remote. 

My Lonely Planet guide lists the Sunbird Capital as “a cut above the competition” – “you can almost sense the ghosts of past presidents who’ve stepped down it’s swank corridors” reads the review, but it’s hard to imagine dignitaries staying here. It seems a little rough around the edges, but this is Malawi and its five-star digs don’t compare favourably with Dubai’s. However, what we’re about to see will slam into context any or our “first-world problems”.

Charity Shouldn't End at Ramadan

DAY 2: Life Without Electricity & Water
Anyone ever belted out an acapella track with their headmaster? That’s what we witnessed pupils at one school do with dramatic effect. The ensemble was outstanding, leaving the audience of ITP and UNICEF staff totally pumped. Two more students then presented us with an update on our building project in the style of TV news broadcasters – pretty cool considering these kids don’t have electricity in their homes, let alone TVs!

The location of our school in Mzuzu is breathtaking, up on hills overlooking plush green paddy fields and neatly manicured rubber plantations – the sort of vistas property developers and estate agents would rub their palms over, but here’s the real rub: besides being without electricity, there’s no infrastructure in these remote and beautiful villages to facilitate running water. Enjoy the view, but live and work here and you’ll need to get your drinking water from a shared borehole in the ground and use a bucket of the same to bathe in if there isn’t a lake or river within walking distance. Imagine that journey the next time you take a stroll to the water cooler.

Another convenience we take for granted are toilets. The ITP/UNICEF project includes building safe and hygienic latrines for schools starting with digging a 4m-deep pit specially designed to neutralise waste odour. Apparently, even while servicing the needs of the entire school, these pits won’t need to be drained for around 15 years!

Charity Shouldn't End at Ramadan

DAY 3: Inside the Mzuzu One-Stop Centre
En route to our next school site visit, our UNICEF guides show us a medical facility they’ve recently opened. The cheery title of ‘One-Stop Centre’ belies the purpose of this establishment. Police, counsellors and case workers here help victims of rape and abuse. Acting together in one venue, their aim is to ensure all cases are handled in the most efficient and sensitive way possible. Here, individuals can report an incident, be examined and receive counselling all under one roof, providing some respite for traumatised victims of crime, many of who live in remote villages without means of transport to get from the nearest hospital to the nearest police station.

In rape cases, pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases are among the key issues. On the grounds of the local hospital, those who come to the centre and need further treatment can be immediately referred. Counsellors will even mediate between victims and their families in cases where the victim is blamed for the attack or for bringing stigma upon the family.  This is another example of how UNICEF is working to improve the lives of young people in the developing world.

Charity Shouldn't End at Ramadan

DAY 4: Hand-ups Not Hand-outs
On our penultimate day we visited the poorest site of our project. Unlike with the other schools, the surrounding community wasn’t mobilised to support pupils. Elsewhere, independent mothers’ groups had been set up to provide school kids with a meal a day, such as a bowl of porridge, but here the lack of sustenance showed. Not being permitted to give food to the children we met here was the most harrowing aspect of the trip. Although UNICEF do offer nutrition packages to the most needy, the organisation is about giving people a hand-up, not a hand-out. The distinction is hugely important.

We were asked to consider, by way of an example, areas where children beg on the streets – they may occasionally get enough money for that day’s meal, but the long-term effect is to drive away tourism, the development of which may be critical to growing the economy and breaking the cycle of poverty. Ultimately, UNICEF believes breaking this cycle is the best way to help children.

Also, on a practical level, in a school-full of hungry children, it isn’t fair to share food with a select few. Unless you have enough snacks in your pocket for every child, in areas where the number of pupils ranges from around 400 to 3,000 per school, it’s unkind to reach for your sweets. However, knowing all of that does not make you feel any less vile when a little boy with a distended stomach asks you quietly and politely if he can please have something to eat.

Charity Shouldn't End at Ramadan

DAY 5: Goodbye, Malawi…
Despite moments of acute sadness, my UNICEF experience included many unforgettable heart-warming highlights. On our final day, at an established school that we visited, senior pupils had set up their own after-school club. It was both educational and engaging, even though resources were low. Sports were played with balls made from hundreds of elastic bands wrapped around one another, accomplished music and dance recitals were performed by the kids themselves, and obstacle courses were created for games. In one race, children balanced discarded bottles filled with sand on their heads as they ran with beguiling grace to the finishing line – first over the line wins, but drop the bottle and you’re out. We were invited to complete, but couldn’t even balance a bottle while standing still, which our competitors found hilarious.

The creativity, talent and swagger that was so evident in these children showed the positive impact of schooling in the region. To help with that in any way, no matter how small, is a huge privilege With the urge to spread the word about UNICEF’s good work, I returned home, hugely proud to be part of something so positive. [end icon]

Selena Gomez, Katy Perry, David Beckham and Sarah Jessica Parker are among the many A-listers who work as UNICEF ambassadors or supporters, but you don’t have to be a celebrity to get involved in the good work. Reach out to the big cheeses in your company to suggest supporting UNICEF.

Charity Shouldn't End at Ramadan

UNICEF believes in the power of partnerships and has a history of working with the corporate sector including small- to medium-sized businesses to identify, design and implement alliances to benefit the world’s children. In turn, UNICEF supports companies to achieve their Corporate Social Responsibility objectives. Log on to to discover how your company can join forces with UNICEF or contact the UAE-based UNICEF offices on 04 368 0707, (Dubai); 02 447 5060, (Abu Dhabi).