Parents often flock to books dispensing advice about how to rear children who possess both the social skills to be well liked among their peers and the academic chops to make it to the Ivy League.
Hyde Park residents Grayson Kachingwe and Donna Larrieu managed to succeed at both with their two daughters, but in a pretty unconventional way.
Marsella Kachingwe, 23, is working on her master's degree in geophysics at Brown University. Olivia Kachingwe, 21, is about to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in public health. Last month, she was accepted into Brown's master's degree program in public health.
"We didn't plan any of this," said Grayson Kachingwe, 52, who owns and manages real estate. "But it just worked out well."
Very well, indeed, but let's start at the beginning:
Larrieu, who teaches chemistry and physics in the Chicago Public Schools system, grew up on the South Side in the Chatham neighborhood. Kachingwe grew up in Malawi, an African country on the southeast portion of the continent, north of Mozambique. Once a British colony, Malawi's official language is English and its national language is Chichewa.
The couple met and fell in love at a small college in eastern Tennessee and then married in 1985. Although Kachingwe had introduced Larrieu to his siblings living in the States, she wanted to meet the rest of his family. So, in the summer of 1986, they traveled to Malawi. Larrieu was captivated by the place and the people and, by Christmas of that year, the couple moved there.
Although Malawi has pockets of middle-class residents — Kachingwe's father was a journalist and author — a large portion of the country's residents (about 9 million in 1990) was poor. Malawi had no television station, no access to the Internet and only one radio station.
"For entertainment you had to use your social skills," said Larrieu. "You had to read. You had to engage in face-to-face conversations."
Daughter Marsella Kachingwe was born in 1989. Olivia Kachingwe arrived two years later.
Marsella Kachingwe said that when she and her sister were young, their family would visit the United States, and their mother would videotape shows such as "Barney and Friends" for the girls to watch back in Malawi on the family's one television set.
But there wasn't much time for TV.
"My mom was always like, 'We have to learn vocabulary words and do math problems,'" said Marsella Kachingwe. "And we'd go outside and read Isaac Asimov books together."
Larrieu said Malawian culture helped shape her daughters. Church was a family staple, along with the after-service tea. Education also was a top priority. The girls attended an international private school with children of diplomats, expatriates and wealthy tobacco farmers.
"In African culture, education is respected and the teacher is held in high esteem by African children," said Grayson Kachingwe. "In Malawi, as in a lot of developing countries, there was no welfare system. The only way out of poverty has been through education."
By the early 1990s, the country was in flux, changing from a dictatorship to a democracy. By the late 1990s, democracy had taken root and satellite television had finally made its way to the country with a feed from South Africa.
"But we still didn't have the Internet," laughed Olivia Kachingwe. "I remember typing a paper on a typewriter."
In 2003, the family moved back to the States because Kachingwe and Larrieu wanted their daughters to attend high school and college here.
Olivia recalled that her seventh-grade class was preparing to take the U.S. Constitution test and she was concerned that she wouldn't do well because she'd grown up abroad.
"I remember crying to my mother and telling her that I didn't know anything," she said. "When I took the test, it was so easy. That first test showed how much I was going to be challenged here versus what was expected of me in Malawi."
She later attended Morgan Park High School with her sister. They both were enrolled in the school's rigorous International Baccalaureate program. Marsella Kachingwe said their schedules were filled with studying and extracurricular activities.
"We were on the swim team in high school," said Marsella Kachingwe. "I hated swimming but my mom would always say that a test of character is not doing the thing you want to do, but doing what you don't want to do.
"Someone else, a teacher, wanted me to be on the academic decathlon team. But what I really loved was being on the soccer team. That was the part of me from Malawi. Soccer is huge there."
As I said earlier, Marsella Kachingwe is now in graduate school and Olivia Kachingwe is on her way there. She's also learning how to speak Chichewa.
Grayson Kachingwe and Larrieu told me what we parents know but need to hear every now and then: Children don't come with guarantees. You do the very best you can and hope everything works out.
They said Malawi has changed dramatically over the last 20 years and it might be difficult to replicate their daughters' experiences.
"Because of political freedoms and democracy, things have modernized so much," said Grayson Kachingwe. "They have satellite TV, the Internet and cellphones. Even the young men are wearing their pants low. It's a beautiful place, but not like it used to be."