Marie Da Silva has never had children of her own. But she is known as a mother to 412 orphans. She shares her challenges on being a nanny outside Malawi and running a school of orphans. She finally tells us that she has found love. Here is her story that she shared with Paida Mpaso.
What is your academic and professional background?
I did my primary and secondary at Dharap and Our Lady of Wisdom Convent in Blantyre and Limbe, respectively. Then I went to London to study secretarial at Pitmans College. Then I studied Marine Insurance at City Of London Polytechnic.
I then worked as an intern at Willis Faber and Dumas in London. I moved to New York for three and a half years and then to Tokyo, Japan, for three years. On my return to New York, I decided to work as a nanny. I did that for 19 years.
Tell us about your family?
My mother Aisha Tayub-Da Silva, from Chiromo, Nsanje, had 11 children. She was married to John Moses and then to my father Armando Da Silva, a Mozambican, after being divorced. We were an average family, with lots of struggles, but surrounded with love and many friends. We grew up under the Kamuzu era. We lived in Chigumula and would spend our holidays sometimes in Nsanje with my grandmother Polodina Chintedza. All my sisters are married and live abroad. I have one brother who lives in Lilongwe and another in Portugal. But three passed away.
Please describe your upbringing?
I grew up in Chigumula and Blantyre CBD. My father worked for Brown and Clapperton (B&C). My parents worked very hard to provide for us. They firmly believed in education. We were from an average family. I would not even say middle class. My family did not have a lot of money. We never had a car until I was a teenager. They could not afford to pay our school fees in full; always in instalments. Sometimes we would go for days without eating meat at home. But we felt loved. My teachers played an important part in my upbringing too. School was my second home.
What inspired you to start the school for orphans?
In 2002, while I was in America, the school in my village of Chemboma was closing. I was concerned, 50 children would be out of school. Most of the children were orphans. At this time I had lost many members in my family to HIV and Aids; including my father, brothers and their wives, nieces and nephews. My mother opened the house I was raised in as a child, to let the children study. From then on, each month I sent her money to pay teachers, meet school expenses, and food for kids who had no food at home.
We had no desks, chairs, blackboards, we painted the walls black to use as blackboards. Each year the number of children grew. By 2007, there were 230 children learning for free in both primary and secondary.
When my mother suddenly passed away from a heart attack, it became very difficult running the school from abroad. So a friend, Luc Deschamps, whom I had met in Malawi in 1994 decided to come to Malawi to help me with the school. He is now the director of the school. He has been in Malawi for the past six years and has been working tirelessly to run and develop the school.
Do you have biological children, or is this by choice?
I do not have biological children. I was once married and had a miscarriage at six months. We later divorced. I chose not to marry again. I have stayed for 20 years. But now I am engaged to be married next year. Right now I see myself as a mother of 412 children. I feel like a biological parent to these children.
How did you get nominated by CNN for the award?
In 2007, Luc Deschamps wrote to CNN Television in the USA and told them my story (being a nanny, I was able to keep 230 children in school and provide them with a daily meal of phala and some food for their homes). So CNN beamed my story and the people nominated me as Top 10 CNN Hero of 2008. That was when I started receiving donations from the public which was a big help in what I was doing.
Today there are 412 orphans at The Jacaranda School, all of them learning for free from Standard One to Form Four. Those that pass MSCE well, I send them to college with their fees paid. Every child gets porridge daily. And families of such old grandparents and sick parents who cannot work receive a monthly allowance of K4 000 and a bag of maize. We have built a clinic so they have medical care since most children were born HIV positive. Many children at the school are orphaned by Aids. We also provide them with school uniforms, school supplies, examination fees, shoes, clothing and phala.
How else are you teaching children to be self-reliant?
Children work in the garden during their agriculture lessons and plant just about every vegetable. They take the veggies home and sell some for school fund just as we do with the eggs from our chicken farm. Children are now making their own solar lamps. Each studentâ€™s home has a solar lamp and we distributed some to the villages too. We also sell some. We have renovated and even built many childrenâ€™s homes. From the seven books in our library we now have over 6,000 books. We have computer classes, art and music drama. All our teachers are Malawians from colleges such as Domasi, Soche, Blantyre Teachers Colleges and Chancellor College. These are role models for them.
We have sent more than 25 children to college, four are working; one with ICB bank in Limbe, 2 with Concern Universal, and another one is with Maryâ€™s Meals.
Tell us the ups and downs of this journey.
Losing my mother who helped me run the school as I was in America. We still face the challenge of continuously raising funds, especially to pay for our teachersâ€™ salaries. Nevertheless, some companies in Malawi such as Steelcor or Makandi Tea Estates help us by supplying building materials. The Hindu community and the Ganatra family continuously support us, as well as Dossani Trust, Arkay Plastic, FMB Bank, Maryâ€™s Meals, and Sky band.
What challenges do these orphans face?
This is a day school where children go home each day to their guardians. Sometimes the older kids are sole caretakers of the younger ones. But most of these orphans face abuse, physically and sexually. So it is up to us to counsel them. Protecting the children once they out of school is a challenge.
Did you ever dream of doing this?
No. I wanted to be an architect or a designer. My parents did not have enough money. They could only afford secretarial studies. But my love for children led me to become a nanny for 19 years in America. Thatâ€™s why it was easy to come up with this initiative.
What did getting the recent Great Mothersâ€™ Award mean to you?
I have received several awards abroad. But since this comes from my country, it means a lot. It was an honour to receive this award with amazing women who have made history in our country. I never look at myself as doing something exceptionally different.
What are the other awards you have received?
I have received the CNN Heroes 2008 Award, Proclamation Key to the city of Los Angeles, from the mayor Antonio Villarragossa. The City of West Hollywood Award, â€œOur People Our Prideâ€ Lifetime Achievement Award in Malawi, The signed picture with wishes to Jacaranda from President Obama, The Etchmaidzin Childrenâ€™s Fund Committee Award, World Affairs Council in Philadelphia, and many others from universities in America where they honour me e.g. one from Harvard and USC and UCLA.
Tell us about your life as a nanny?
I was a nanny in America for 19 years. It was not easy at all. At first I lived in with the family 7 days a week. In a small room in their big mansion. My room was besides their kitchen. They made me clean, cook and care for the kids from 6.30 in the morning to 8 pm at night. I was not paid a lot. But each month I sent part of that money to help my family here in Malawi. It was not easy being a nanny and being far away from your family. Some families treat you like a slave and some treat you well. I had them both in my 19 years. But I withstood it and prayed. I believed that my life would change one day and I would see a better light. And yes it did.