What it’s like teaching refugees in Malawi

By Dede Buloba

Everyone agrees that education is important in a refugee camp to help those who have had to drop out of school to move across borders. I can speak about this from my experience as refugee, now teaching other refugees in Dzaleka, Malawi.

My name is Dede Buloba. I’m Congolese. I arrived in Malawi in 2007. I taught in secondary schools in the DRC for 8 years, and for 6 years I taught French as a foreign language for adult refugees from various countries (Ethiopia, Somalia, Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Malawi), and for a further 6 years I taught French to 18-25 year olds in Malawi.

There are currently more than 23,000 refugees in Malawi. I believe strongly from my time teaching refugees that education is particularly important because it protects them from trafficking, illegal adoption, child marriage, sexual exploitation and child labour.

Over the course of the last three years, almost 22 young girls between the ages of 14-18 years have become pregnant. When you ask them who the father is, they say he’s not there, but is in South Africa. The young boys between 7 and 15 years old are often used by families to pump water and earn less than $1 a day (500 kwaha Malawi). They end up giving up their studies. They say they have no alternatives.

Understanding the situation refugees are placed in is complex. In general, we know very little about where they’ve come from, their status as a refugee, and all that welcoming them into a new country entails. And this fact of not fully understanding their backgrounds can lead to tensions between communities. Sometimes there are tensions between the Ethiopians, or even the Malawians, or the Congolese, from Babeme and Bafuliro tribes.

Dzaleka Refugee Camp, Malawi

In the Dzaleka camp where I work in Malawi, children make up more than half of the refugees. We should prioritise their needs. Vulnerable, and subject to sickness and malnutrition, these children are dependent on adults, physically as much as psychologically. Having fled conflicts, or persecutions, they are running away from all sorts of dangers. Separated from their families, in a fragile state, and subject to discrimination, they can also end up victims of being recruited by armed forces, of sexual abuse and their access to education suffers. Some of the girls end up even being prostituted out to the older men.


We welcome some of the pragmatic programmes being run by World University Service of Canada, Jesuit Refugee Service and UNHCR who help these young girls. These programmes help young girls study abroad, and they have even helped them to open a restaurant and a crèche where some of the young girls have been able to find work.

One important role education plays for these people is to teach them about the importance of tolerance and democracy, and also about the culture of different populations: their religion, their diets, their ways of living and, in the case of refugees, the different reasons why people might have fled their countries.

After so many years working in this camp, I understand what is meant when it is said that education can be a solution to religious and cultural hate. Learning another language is the starting point to integration. It’s an essential step for helping refugees.

As for teachers, they must be experienced and qualified to take on this responsibility. But unfortunately, here in the camps, training teachers is not a priority for various reasons. Whether a teacher can speak and write the language of instruction – English – is all that counts. As a result, children’s learning suffers. I know one child in the 7th year who can’t even read or write.

Teaching these children is not just about getting them a good job: their skills and knowledge learnt through school can alter their futures in so many ways. “Education is the key to development” said Nelson Mandela. If we include education in all aspects of life, change will follow.



  1. Unless teachers are given adequate training, then the program of teaching in refugee camps in Malawi may be a flop.

  2. This is rather pathetic being an African myself. I do hope more international Organisations will look that way and ensure adequate training of teachers. In the main time, you could find some very resourceful content here http://www.kidsfront.com . It has really been beneficial to me in my teaching career. Thanks

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