STEM Build in Malawi

Fresh back from her STEM trip to Malawi, our Leeds based colleague, Laura Smith tells us about the many adventures she had on the two week voluntary project. The work was carried out as part of Orbis Expeditions, an organisation that has already achieved a huge amount working with schools and orphanages in the Mangochi District of Malawi. Laura undertook the project as part of OFR’s Better Days initiative – enabling colleagues to give time to support causes they chose.

“After my 34 hour, three flight journey, I joined the rest of the STEM Build Malawi team at Mgoza Lodge in Cape Maclear. The team which included other women engineers, project managers, designers and medical professionals, had all come together to design and build a STEM classroom alongside the existing Rainbow Hope Secondary School, a school situated in Mangochi, on the shore of Lake Malawi.

Getting stuck in

The first skill we had to master was brick-laying. Luckily, we had the most patient site foreman who was more than willing to teach us, and before long the brickwork was coming along nicely.

After brick-laying in the sun all morning I joined the furniture crew where the work mainly consisted of priming, painting and assembling 30 desks and 60 chairs, during which every person on the team regretted not bringing a power drill!

Whilst the furniture was being assembled, sanded and varnished, the clean-up operation and decoration began inside. There had been some delays on site due to the limited materials and equipment available, along with the work at height being carried out by the local construction team. Despite these setbacks the classrooms were beginning to take shape.

The team were all hands on deck to paint and decorate the classrooms ready to handover the new building on the Wednesday of week two.

Wellie’s Legacy

Unfortunately, on the morning of handover day, our tour guide, Wellington Chisambo collapsed on site unexpectedly. Our two expedition nurses gave him first aid and took him to the nearby hospital but sadly he could not be revived. This was a huge shock to everyone involved; Wellie had been our guide and companion for the entire trip, and was the first person to greet us when we landed in Malawi.

As a tribute to Wellie, we decided to name the IT lab in his honour in the hope that he will be remembered for the important part he played during the expedition.

Due to a few delays on the build and issues with safe access, we had to leave the science lab to be finished by the local team. In the IT lab, the walls were decorated, all the desks and chairs were moved in, and we welcomed a group of parents and teachers to see the finished product.

It was a bittersweet end to the build, we were all still coming to terms with the sad events of the morning, so we decided to cut short the planned celebrations. Although we felt a little deflated, the teachers, parents and students were all over the moon with what we’d managed to achieve in the short time we were there. We were quickly reminded that it was more than just a building; it was a means to offer opportunities that would otherwise be out of reach to many of the students.

Sharing knowledge

As part of the expedition, several of us took part in workshops with the students and teachers at Rainbow Hope. These included bridge building, water filtration, and model car making amongst others.

I assisted with the electronics workshop in which the students had to make a telegram machine using basic household items. They followed the instructions without much difficulty and were all so excited when their machines worked.

I also helped with the first aid workshops, run by our two brilliant expedition nurses. We covered basic first aid for issues such as choking, cuts and burns, and heat exhaustion. The first session was an eye-opener for all three of us, as we quickly realised advice such as ‘run under cold water for 10 minutes’, was probably redundant in most of the villages the students were from!

When we weren’t working on the build or workshops, we were able to visit the local primary school and orphanage connected to the secondary school. The primary school visit involved telling stories, playing games, and one-on-one reading lessons. We quickly discovered how much the children loved balloons and bubbles (almost as much as I do!).

A desire for change

During the expedition we found out a great deal about the culture in Malawi, including the different cultural practices adopted in different tribes. I was amazed by how open and honest the pupils, teachers, and local residents were, especially when discussing harmful practices such as FGM and child marriages that are still very much active in many areas. We watched a play by the Drama Club and heard presentations from students about such practices; each story underlined by the desire for change, particularly from the younger and more educated members of the tribes.

We also spent time in some local villages, hearing about a scheme called “No Sex for Fish” in which women are taught about basic finances and investments in order to become less reliant on their husbands, or other means, to feed their families. These women were, to put it bluntly, awesome! They were all heads of their families and were taking charge of their lives and their children’s futures. Much of the money they build up using this scheme goes towards school fees, uniforms and essential supplies.

We finished the trip with two days of animal-spotting in one of the beautiful national parks; this was definitely the perfect end to an amazing, exhausting, eye-opening two weeks. While half the group continued their journey to the idyllic Mumbo Island, the rest of us started the long trip back to the UK, South Africa, and Australia. After another 30+ hours of travelling, I was actually pleased to land back in Leeds and be greeted by pouring rain!

Back to Reality...

Now I’ve had chance to unpack, cool down, and reflect on the expedition, I’d say it was well worth the time and effort it took to get there. There were several setbacks before we even landed and even more during the trip, but one thing that worked perfectly was the team. I had my doubts about 25 women (most of whom had never met) spending 24hrs a day working, living and eating together. But it was clear from the start that I’d met an amazing group of people, each and every one of them bringing something to the team. The reunion is already being planned so watch this space...!

For more information about Orbis Expeditions and its next trip in September, please visit