Sociology professor Dr. Linda Semu, born in the small southeastern African country of Malawi, knew from a young age that she wanted to pursue a higher education.
“I was influenced by the fact that my mom was one of the first women to graduate from the University of Malawi when it first opened in 1965,” she recalled recently, still remembering the enchanting atmosphere of her mother’s graduation. “All the gowns and everything! I thought, ‘that’s what I want to do!'”
With the support of her mother, Semu’s dream to become a college graduate came true, graduating from the University of Malawi and then completing her Masters and Ph.D. here in the U.S. But Semu never lost sight of where she came from, always aware that she was one of the very few lucky women who were able to get an education.
“Women’s education in Malawi is still a problem; many women don’t have the same opportunities as I have had,” she said. Her mantra today – as well as the mission of her colleagues at the Washington Malawi Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping impoverished families in Malawi – is “making a difference one person at a time.”
A survey from the Malawi National Statistics Office in 2016 found that only 3 percent of women in Malawi have had more than a secondary education, with a reported 12 percent having no education at all. These statistics are exactly what Dr. Semu and her colleagues at the Malawi Washington Foundation hope to change.
“Friends and I would talk about how we wanted to give back,” Semu said, describing the humble beginnings of the foundation. “Initially, we’d just get together socially and collect some money and then eventually we decided we need to formalize it.”
One of the main goals of the organization, according to its Facebook page, is to “support the education of youth (especially girls) at all levels of education, from primary to tertiary levels, and to support vocational training.”
“What’s interesting now is we’re also getting more and more requests from male students, especially university-aged males,” Semu said. “There are a lot of needy people in Malawi, especially those who are coming from rural areas whose parents have no jobs or who are orphans.”
In partnership with an organization that has worked in education in Malawi for many years, the small, U.S. based foundation is able to cater to the needs of their scholarship holders and interact with them despite being hundreds of miles away.
“Basically, they are our implementers…we provide the funding and they send us the bios. We liaise with them in terms of who should be supported and we funnel the funds through them,” Semu said.
What makes the Malawi Washington Foundation unique compared to other charities and organizations is the way they continue to monitor and support those who they assist financially.
“Every semester we get a report on how the students are doing. It’s not like you just send the money over and forget about it, we want to follow through and see that they have graduated,” Semu said.
Using this technique has resulted in their having a number of recent graduates, including a student who just graduated from the College of Medicine in Malawi and is now a pharmacist.
While focusing on improving the accessibility of education to young girls in Malawi, the foundation also strives to provide relief wherever and whenever it is necessary.
“2 years ago there were floods in Malawi and some houses were destroyed and people were displaced,” Semu said, “so we teamed up with other organisations and did some fund raising for food and other supplies. We have also provided funds for famine relief.”
Attributing her interest in humanitarian work to her studies in sociology, Semu is a strong advocate for the underrated social science. “You can do so much with sociology,” she said. “I’ve done research projects for the World Bank, the United Nations and other organisations in the U.K. and Germany.”
“It gives you the opportunity to do good work that has a real impact on people’s lives,” she said.
As for the future, Semu and her colleagues at the Malawi Washington Foundation hope to continue to send more aid back to Malawi. When asked about the foundation’s goals for the future, Semu said they “are working towards having a bigger financial base so we can help more people. We always get more requests than we can possibly support.”