Janet Littlefield, founder of Go! Malawi, teaches young Malawians—especially girls—to believe in themselves
The biggest cultural shifts start small.
“It started with one kid who needed to go to school, and I just started paying,” says Janet Littlefield, a 42-year-old special education teacher from Hebron who has changed the educational landscape in a dozen rural villages in Malawi, a country in southeastern Africa. “Then it was two kids, three kids… I started working second jobs and tutoring so I could pay for kids to go to school.”
When Littlefield graduated from Skidmore College in 1998, she joined the Peace Corps and was sent to rural Malawi. “I’d been placed in a school, and there would be over 100 kids just sitting on the floor,” she says, describing the year that changed the trajectory of her life.
“We are all citizens of this one world, and if anyone is in a position to help someone else they must do so regardless of their birthplace,” Littlefield says. “I don’t think a Malawian’s life or future is any less valuable or important than an American’s. I have five children: three Malawian and two American. My American children are not more important than my Malawian children. I look at any person who needs assistance as an equal member of this world and who has the right to live free of hunger, suffering and poverty.”
What she saw in Malawi 20 years ago—malnourished children in tattered clothes—wasn’t something she could leave behind at the end of her year of Peace Corps service. With public education ending after the eighth grade, Littlefield saw girls marrying young, having more children than they could support and living their lives with their eyes averted, hands over mouths, shoulders slumped, as if they were “trying to take up less space.”
By 2004, Littlefield had gathered a team of volunteers who established an orphanage, which, at its peak, housed and educated 80 children.
“It was a snowball effect where I didn’t know how to say no,” Littlefield says. “For two years, it was just my own money going to the orphanage. I was running with my heart and not really running an organization in a way that wouldn’t exhaust me.”
By 2006, Go! Malawi was an established nonprofit with a board of directors and, by 2010, the organization had completely moved away from the orphanage model. Most of the “orphans” had a relative—sometimes even a father—who couldn’t afford to care for the child and keep them in school but would do so with some financial support.
“Data shows that the education of an area matches to the health of the area,” Littlefield says. “If you can keep a girl in school until she’s past 18, the odds of her getting pregnant or married young are lower. Personally, I’m really driven to help girls. I want to break down that learned helplessness and help kids understand that they can do what they want to do with their life.”
When local students pass the eighth-grade exam, Go! Malawi provides scholarships to high school, colleges and trade schools. A dozen students have already graduated from postsecondary education, while 20 more are in college and 70 are in high school.
“When a woman thinks she is only supposed to be a wife and stay home cooking and cleaning, she will fulfill that prophesy,” Littlefield says. “But, in the eight years in our new location, I’ve seen a change in the elders and the males in believing that, yes, women can get jobs. Employed women are less likely to accept domestic abuse and more likely to encourage their kids to go to school. I want them to know, ‘You can be of value. You can be whatever you want to be. If you want to be a wife and mother, that’s wonderful. I’m both of those things, too. But you can also be independent.’ Women can change the village and can change the nation.”
A group of volunteers goes to Ntchisi, Malawi, each summer, and typically a few educators travel each spring to lead training workshops for the Malawian instructors.
Argy Nestor, director of arts education for the Maine Arts Commission, had been Littlefield’s art teacher when she was in middle school in Union and followed her efforts in establishing Go! Malawi. In 2016, Nestor and Lindsay Pinchbeck, director of Sweet Tree Arts in Hope, went to Ntchisi as volunteers, leading a 13-day workshop in arts integration.
“Arts integration impacts engagement in learning and achievement,” Nestor says. “And, if we teach teachers, they in turn impact dozens, hundreds or even thousands of students. As adults, we plant seeds with young people and we never know how a seed will germinate.”
Nestor sees Littlefield as a model of what can happen when education, self-confidence and heart come together.
“It’s wonderful that one person can be influenced by opportunities and turn around and make such an impact,” Nestor says. “Janet is a great example of having opportunities as a child and being encouraged to reach her potential and do something wonderful in the world.”
Go! Malawi is leading an effort to not only educate young Malawians but to encourage them to believe in themselves and that it’s possible to follow their dreams. A new gender equity summer camp brings in Malawi women who are trailblazers in male-dominated fields, showing village girls that, yes, they can be a pilot or an even a judge, if that’s what they want to be.
One of Littlefield’s adopted Malawi children, Jenni, arrived in Maine when she was 6. At the time, Littlefield had a 16-month-old and was six months pregnant and going through a phase of her life that more closely resembled the traditional female role common in patriarchal societies like the one in Ntchisi. But, over the years, Jenni began to see that her adoptive mother was also a special education teacher here in Maine and that she led an organization across the globe that was lifting up a generation of young villagers.
“When she first came here, she was learning ‘What is family?’” Littlefield says. “She would say she wanted to help a man run a restaurant, and now she wants to run a restaurant. She has seen that she doesn’t have to be employed by a man. When a woman or a girl can say to me, ‘I’m standing on my own two feet and I never thought I could do that’—that, to me, is a gift.”
To learn more about Go! Malawi and how you can help, go to go-malawi.org
Amy Paradysz is a freelance writer based in Scarborough.