Survivor of extreme poverty in Malawi transforms lives through Scottish education
A young man who grew up in a children’s home in Malawi has harnessed the power of university education in Scotland to truly transform his life and build relationships between young people in Scotland and Malawi.
Gift Thompson, who spent much of his adolescent life living at STEKA (Step Kids’ Awareness), an orphanage for vulnerable children rescued from abusive situations or living alone on the streets of Blantyre, Malawi, has just graduated with a BSc (Hons) Public Sociology degree from Queen Margaret University (QMU), Edinburgh. This inspirational young man, who has experienced extreme poverty, intends to use the knowledge that he’s gained during his time studying at QMU, to lead the development of a Scottish/Malawian skills-based centre which will provide vulnerable people, particularly girls and women, with a way of escaping poverty.
STEKA Centre for Vocational Skills and Community Enterprise in Malawi is being built and sustained largely through the Scottish based STEKAskills charity. Gift is the youngest trustee of STEKAskills and his focus is on harnessing partnership opportunities in Scotland and Malawi to create sustainable skills development which could help people from Malawi to build sustainable futures for themselves.
Despite his humble beginnings, Gift’s resilience, intelligence and leadership qualities were recognised when Lilidh Aveyard, a young Scots student from Portobello, volunteered at the STEKA orphanage. She felt Gift should have the same opportunity of a degree as she had, and lobbied her mother, Emma Wood, a senior lecturer in Communications at Queen Margaret University, on his behalf. When Emma, who is also a community activist in Portobello and Musselburgh, subsequently visited STEKA in Malawi, she met Gift and worked with Godknows Maseko, who runs the children’s home, to create a plan which would facilitate Gift’s degree level education in Scotland. Godknows, who is a survivor of human trafficking, felt that this life changing opportunity would give Gift the skills needed to work with him to create transformational opportunities for other young poverty-experienced people in Malawi.
Seeing the value of Gift’s potential to transform hundreds of lives in Malawi, and to influence research and learning for their students in Scotland, Queen Margaret University waived the tuition fees for his undergraduate degree. Emma Wood invited Gift to live with her and her family for the duration of his four-year degree. The combination of family and University support, as well as support from St John’s and Mary Magdalene churches in Portobello, where Gift sings in the choir, has made Gift’s time in Scotland possible, whilst ensuring he receives the love and encouragement he needs to succeed.
Gift has contributed to university life in numerous ways, but his most significant contribution has been collaborating with Emma Wood, Godknows and his ‘brothers and sisters’ at STEKA to co-create the unique experience for young Scots who visit Malawi on school trips. The ‘Critical Dialogue for Youth Solidarity’ approach attracted funding from The Scottish Government International Development small grants scheme and has been described as life changing by both the Malawians and the young Scots who took part in it. This dialogue work provides transformational opportunities for marginalised young Malawians so that they can get their voices heard and build sustainable futures by reducing their donor dependency. At the same time, it allows young Scots to see beyond stereotypes of global south countries, and learn from their Malawian peers about resilience, community and structural inequality.
Emma Wood explained: “Gift is the most impressive, intelligent young man. Despite experiencing abject poverty in his formative years, Gift has demonstrated tremendous resilience, strength and determination to succeed and to help others. He has had to develop his English to a high standard, adapt to the Scottish culture, and rise to the challenge of degree level education. He has been central to all of our dialogue research projects and has helped establish STEKAskills which provides opportunities for QMU students to gain hands on learning experience by working on live STEKA projects while they are studying in Scotland or on location in Malawi. He is an essential partner in our research and dialogue practice, which is an excellent example of co-production between academia, NGOs and people with lived experience of trauma and marginalisation. Gift is living proof that we shouldn’t make assumptions about people based on where they come from or how affluent they are.”
Emma continued: “Though his involvement with STEKAskills, Gift has helped transform practical learning opportunities for many of QMU’s film, media, public relations and digital content creation students, and has facilitated their growing understanding of structural inequality, social justice the value of relationships with countries in the global south.”
Despite all the amazing opportunities that Gift has had during his time in Scotland, he remains focused on returning home to the STEKA home in Malawi. Emma confirmed: “Gift has never wavered in his determination to help STEKA director, Godknows, achieve his vision for enabling people living in poverty to gain the skills they need to build brighter futures.”
Gift has used every opportunity throughout his degree course to focus his learning on ways which will create positive change in Malawi, including his dissertation focusing on Malawian’s evaluation of the dialogue groups. His work investigated the effectiveness of peer-to-peer dialogue between Scottish and Malawian teenagers, has built real understanding of different cultures, as well as tackling the ‘white saviour’ attitude often associated with people travelling from the global north to ‘make a difference’ to people in the ‘undeveloped’ global south.
Achieving a 2:1 in his BSc (Hons) Public Sociology, Gift is determined to be the best he can be. This autumn Queen Margaret University will support him to achieve his MSc International Leadership, waiving his course fees on the understanding that his master’s will focus on developing a dialogue centre in Malawi. The project will see Gift partner with QMU and STEKAskills to extend the University’s dialogue research and establish a dialogue centre as a social enterprise which could have a big impact on even more young Malawians and Scots.
"This opportunity has been beyond the wildest dreams of anyone born into the type of poverty we experience in Malawi. I am so grateful to everyone who has helped make it happen and am determined to use it so that I can truly ‘make a difference’ in Malawi. My degree has taught me how to understand the causes and impact of the huge inequalities which most Malawians, especially women and girls, experience. It has also taught me about ways in which communities can build the capacity, from the bottom up, to try and bring about change. Once I learn the project management, business and leadership skills from the MSc I will study next year, I am determined to put all my learning into action, with Godknows, STEKA and STEKAskills to help people in poverty attempt to transform their lives too. I’m grateful that everyone involved didn’t judge me according to stereotypes of what poor people in the global south can or can’t do – but instead treated me like an individual."
Sir Paul Grice, Principal of Queen Margaret University, said: “It has been extremely rewarding to see this inspirational young man grow in confidence and rise to every occasion during his time at Queen Margaret University. Gift epitomises the values of Queen Margaret in his aim of making a difference to the world around him, and we are delighted that the University has been able to support him in realising his potential and positively influencing the lives of others. He is a leader in the making, and we look forward to seeing his progress during his MSc International Leadership and the impact that he will go on to have in Malawi in the years to come.”
You can find Gift discussing the impact of peer-to-peer dialogue between young people in Malawi and Scotland in our case study. The dialogue research led by Emma Wood, and co-created with Gift, was recently rated as world leading or internationally excellent in the Research Excellence Framework 2021.
Notes to Editor
NOTES TO EDITOR
Mary’s Meals connection
An additional connect to Scotland is that Gift was only able to go to primary school in Malawi due to the help of the charity Mary Meals, which provided free lunches for children there.
STEKA is a grass roots Malawian NGO which creates sustainable futures for homeless and vulnerable children and young people. It is led by grassroots activist and social entrepreneur, Godknows and his wife Helen, who campaign for children’s rights, gender equality and against early marriage. Godknows is a survivor of human trafficking and our work is driven by his mission to save children from this fate, and help young survivors build positive futures.
STEKAskills is a QMU based Scottish charity partnered with the Malawian charity STEKA (Step Kids Awareness) to support STEKA''s ambition to build a Centre for Vocational Skills & Community Enterprise in Malawi. Together we empower marginalised young Malawians so that they can get their voices heard and build sustainable futures by reducing their donor dependency and helping them gain high quality employment. In Scotland, we ensure our communities (especially young people) see beyond stereotypes of Global South countries and learn from their Malawian peers about resilience and community as well as structural inequality, so that they are inspired to join together to campaign for change.