I first met Israel in 2016 at a primary school in rural Malawi. I remember introducing him here on this blog, telling of his penchant for my sunglasses and the sparkle in his eye. He was nine years old. I wondered whether I would ever see him again.

Malawi, Africa, children, education, farming

But when my son and I revisit the school over three years later, at the end of our recent trip, we only have a few hours. We wander the school grounds early on a Sunday morning and, of course, all is quiet; the students are elsewhere.

We find the borehole where Israel once succeeded, by sleight of hand, in acquiring both my sunglasses and my phone. No one is there and the earth around it is dusty dry. The teacher who has accompanied us on our walk explains that the borehole pump has been broken for some months. Fortunately, there is another one not far off – and long may it last.

I ask the teacher whether he knows a boy called Israel, aged about 12. It’s a silly question, as this is a school of some 700 students, and the teacher shakes his head.

We stroll on, following a narrow track leading to a tiny settlement where the sole working borehole is. Girls help each other to fetch water which they share into big buckets, ready to carry back to their families. The youngest girl is too small to help, so is enjoying just playing at domestic chores (for now).

Malawi, Africa, children, education, farming, work

I try to describe Israel’s quick, sunny nature to the teacher – hoping this might jog his mind – could he really not have noticed this funny, bright boy with the flash of a smile who darted everywhere barefoot? In 2016 everyone knew Israel.

Malawi, Africa, children, education, farming

For various reasons, such as the need for children to work on family small-holdings and/or a lack of money to pay for basics (pens, exercise books, uniform), class sizes decline further up the school. I hope that Israel’s own attendance rate has not suffered.

As we walk on and join the main track leading back to the school, we step aside to allow an ox cart pass by. It carries a heavy load as well as a bunch of people.

And there at the front – taking charge – sits Israel, his face only slightly changed. It’s unmistakably him – take a closer look – he’s the boy in blue:

Malawi, Africa, children, education, farming, agriculture

It’s Israel! I exclaim to my son and the teacher, as the wagon jolts past.

Immediately, the teacher calls out to the fast-moving vehicle (it’s surprising how quickly cattle can shift).

A rapid exchange in Chichewa, the cart stops, and Israel hops down. He greets us shyly as an older child now, taller and more self-conscious. He smiles at the photos I show him from 2016, but his reserve hides anything more.

I realise that in my excitement at spotting him, I have been clumsy in singling him out. While his ox cart disappears into the distance, Israel maintains our slow pace, understanding that he must not go until he’s been dismissed. In 2016 things were different – Israel’s confidence had sought us out and our encounters had been on his charming terms.

Malawi, Africa, children, education, farming, agriculture

I suggest to the teacher that perhaps Israel should run after his companions on the cart, and without hesitation he is gone, dashing through the dirt with his familiar speed and agility.

We don’t see him catch up, but are quite sure he does, ready to take the driving seat again. It’s clear that Israel still could go far, given half the chance. And he’s not the only one.

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