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Leap of faith

Godfrey Masauli stood in front of a rapt audience of Ashland High School students earlier this month delivering the impassioned speech he has given many times in many countries.

"I told them of the struggles I had, the challenges I faced, and the belief of achieving my dream, even not knowing how it was going to happen," says Masauli, a 25 year-old man from the east African country of Malawi.

In a short three years, Masauli has gone from barely surviving — collecting firewood for pennies — to becoming an internationally recognized motivational speaker and champion for education.

His message is clear: You can achieve your dream, but only if you persevere in your pursuit of a high school diploma.

Masauli was almost a dropout himself. Beginning as a small child, he would often run away from school. During his truant hours, he would kill and eat field mice to supplement his inadequate diet and while away the time. Inevitably, he would be dragged back and whipped for his efforts.

"School never made sense to me," he says. "I never had a reason, never had a dream."

One day, his uncle rescued him from a beating and took him to an airport near Malora, the village where he grew up. He touched an airplane for the first time and was hooked.

"He said, 'If you really want to fly, you have to stay in school,'" Masauli recalls.

Returning to school with renewed zeal, Masauli graduated. Over the following seven years, he got discouraged. With his meager earnings, he calculated he would be 105 years old before he could save enough to afford flying.

But then, he was blessed with serendipity.

Canadian filmmaker and paraglider pilot Benjamin Jordan was traveling through Malawi and crossed paths with Masauli. They struck a bargain: Masauli would be the tour guide if Jordan would give him flying lessons.

Because Masauli lives in a flat area, his early paragliding training was spent simulating flights from the ground. One day he couldn't wait any longer and climbed 6,000 feet up his country's highest peak, Mount Mulanje, and ran off the mountain.

"I jumped off with the paraglider that I've never seen fly before, and I had to teach myself in the air, and hope that this paraglider would fly over the trees and carry me safely," says Masauli. "I was scared and excited at the same time, but being my only opportunity, I just did it afraid."

He became his country's first paraglider pilot.

The young Malawian soon began flying into schoolyards to inspire schoolchildren, none of whom had ever seen a paraglider. Masauli appeared to them as a mythical being. He hammered home his message of following dreams and staying in school.

"School dropout rate is about 74 percent in Malawi, I think because kids are not inspired," Masauli says. "That was the situation I was in."

Jordan produced a film in 2013 about Masauli's journey and dream, titled "The Boy Who Flies." The film subsequently was a finalist at the La Rochelle International Film Festival. It has been shown to packed venues around the world, and has provided Masauli the exposure that would lead him to give a TED Talk and speak in front of the United Nations.

"We screened the film at the Unitarian Church in Ashland a year ago November and it was packed," says Kevin Lee, Ashland resident and longtime paragliding instructor.

Lee sponsored Masauli's trip to Ashland and is hosting the young man during his four-month stay here. If Masauli was going to fly safely and perhaps become an instructor himself, he would need proper training, something Lee could supply.

An early part of Masauli's dream was to build the first paragliding school in Malawi, to help other young adults learn to fly.

"His idea has matured over time," says Lee. "Everyone was pushing him down that road, 'Oh, you've got to be an instructor and a tandem pilot so you can make some money,' and it was a big weight on his shoulders."

Masauli recently decided not to pursue the paragliding school idea. Instead, he will focus on trying to reduce his country's steep high school dropout rate. His new plan is to grow his nascent bracelet-making business to finance this newest dream.

He is teaching schoolchildren in Malawi to make cloth bracelets embroidered with the name of the customer or with the word Ndizotheka. This Malawian word translates as "It is possible," his message to schoolchildren.

Masauli is receiving business training in Ashland. His business plan calls for the children to make bracelets, sell them in markets or online. Masauli also serves as a salesman for the children, selling their bracelets for $10 each. Proceeds go to purchase notebooks and uniforms, items he hopes will help keep the children in schools, and to buy a paraglider to be used in his demonstrations in village schools.

It all started with a dream.


Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Email him at dnewberry@jeffnet.org.

Godfrey Masauli paraglides in Africa. Photo courtesy of Godfrey Masauli
Godfrey Masauli, of Malawi, Africa, with a paraglider in Ashland. Masauli is in Ashland for a few months to raise money for his efforts to keep kids in school in his country, where the dropout rate is 74 percent. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch