Astronomer Helps Children in Africa Reach for the Stars

UC Riverside’s Gabriela Canalizo volunteers several weeks each summer in an orphanage in Malawi to raise awareness of science

Photo shows Gabriela Canalizo surrounded by Malawian children.

UC Riverside’s Gabriela Canalizo is seen here teaching astronomy to Malawian children. Photo courtesy of G. Canalizo, UC Riverside.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — In Malawi, a country of about 16.3 million people in southeast Africa, 11 percent of adults have AIDS/HIV. According to 2009 estimates, 51,000 deaths occurred in that country due to AIDS/HIV, one result of which is a high population of orphans.

So when a summer opportunity first arose in 2006 to work in a Malawian orphanage, the University of California, Riverside’s Gabriela Canalizo did not hesitate.

An associate professor of physics and astronomy today, Canalizo has now visited Malawi’s Passion Center for Children for seven consecutive summers, not only to spend four to six weeks each time with its 220 children and encourage them to stay in school, but also to excite them about science — and astronomy in particular.

“A good number of the children there live with relatives, but it is getting unmanageable for these relatives now because of the high number of orphaned children,” Canalizo said. “Only those children who have absolutely no home to go to qualify to reside in the orphanage.”

According to Canalizo, the children — ranging in age from about 5 years to about 20 years — are fascinated by astronomy and marveled at the telescope she took with her last summer.  They appreciated the astronomy books she left behind for them in past years and enjoyed the short movies she showed them on the collision of galaxies and of star clusters in formation.

Photo shows a Malawian child peering through a telescope.

A child in Malawi peers through a telescope for the first time. Photo courtesy of G. Canalizo, UC Riverside.

“None of the orphanage’s children and staff members had seen a telescope before I took one there,” she said.  “Still, they had excellent and imaginative questions.  For example, when I explained that stars eventually die, one child asked if the stars die because of disease.  Some wanted to know how big the largest star is and how the moon got its craters.  From the donated books, they have gotten to learn about Pluto and the other planets.”

Canalizo has traveled to Malawi with groups comprised of volunteers from California, Texas, Nevada, Minnesota, Georgia, Colorado, Michigan and Ohio.  The volunteers are led by Pastor Eric Sythoff of the Crest Community Church, Riverside, who also leads the fundraising effort to support the Malawian-run orphanage. Once in Malawi, Canalizo helps the pastor by leading a team of volunteers.

“Several UCR alumni and students and a staff member have come to Malawi with me,” she said. “We’ve been involved in painting homes, teaching English, teaching science, simply playing with the kids and spending time with them, organizing Olympic-style games, and visiting hospitals.”

To communicate better with the children and others, Canalizo has picked up a lot of Chichewa, a language spoken in the region where the orphanage is located.  She has learned to do without reliable electricity.  She has learned, too, to teach in classrooms that have no desks or basic school supplies, where children have to sit close to each other on the floor.

Photo shows some of the Malawian children Canalizo has worked with.

Seated are some of the orphans at the Passion Center for Children, Malawi, Africa. Photo courtesy of G. Canalizo, UC Riverside.

“In the United States, we are much privileged in comparison, and are given much,” she said.  “The trips to Malawi are an opportunity to share a little of our wealth of knowledge, our many and abundant resources.  I thoroughly enjoy working with the Malawian children.  It’s fascinating to see how eager they are to learn, to see how, with increasing knowledge, they have started to think about careers.  Already, four of the children I have worked with are in Malawian colleges now.”

Inevitably, Canalizo has formed close friendships with several of the children at the orphanage over the years, many of whom call her by her first name — an unusual practice in Malawi.

“They’ll cry, ‘Gaby! Gaby!’ when they see me arriving at the orphanage,” she said. “And every once in a while, some will call me mom.”

Media Contact

Tel: (951) 827-6050
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Additional Contacts

Gabriela Canalizo
Tel: (951) 827-5310

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