Makankhula Full Primary School in Dedza is typical of Malawi’s rural schools. A row of brick and concrete buildings front onto a wide playing field between a range of low hills and the main road from Lilongwe to Blantyre. While older children learn in the classrooms, their younger counterparts sit in the shade beneath giant trees, watching teachers write on portable blackboards leant against the trunks.
When the break bell rings, the children run onto the football pitch or set up skipping ropes under the trees. A group of six children hoist a blackboard onto their shoulders and carry it to one of the buildings. It’s a mild sunny day and a pleasant, welcoming environment but the outdoor classrooms highlight the challenges faced by a school with only 16 teachers and a handful of classrooms for over 1,200 children.
“We don’t have enough classrooms, text books and pens for all the children,” Headmistress Bernadetta Chikalenda says. “It’s hardest for the classes outside. Instead of listening to the teachers, the children watch the cars on the road. The teachers’ salary is often late and some are not receiving the rural teachers’ allowance.”
Despite all these challenges, the school works hard to provide the best education they can for the children. “It’s about the passion that we have for our learners,” Deputy Head Hetherwick Phalira says. “We are only here because of them. We treat them as if they are our own children. We’re not just here for the salary.”
Skills for life
Esther Ndiwo Banda, 30, is one of the teachers at the school, which is supported by the UN Joint Programme on Girls Education. She teaches life skills, expressive arts and Chichewa to a Standard 7 class of 87 students, aged between 12 and 18. “It’s not easy,” she says. “The classroom can be very crowded and it’s very difficult to assist every learner. I’ve split them into two groups of fast and slow learners. From next term, I will have a smaller class but will need to teach nine subjects.”
Partly because of these large class sizes, as well as poverty in the surrounding area, dropout rates are very high. In 2016, 37 children sat the final exams, of which just 3 were selected for places at secondary school. But now the school is working to prevent dropouts by linking up with the local community.
Teachers like Esther work with the Parent Teachers Association, local mothers’ groups and traditional chiefs to identify children at risk of dropping out and persuade their parents of the benefits of keeping them in school.
“If we notice learners are not coming to school, we go to their house to find out why,” Esther says. “We tell the parents about the importance of education. We talk about the problems they’re facing and help them find solutions.”
One of the children Esther has helped is 16 year old Sophilati. Two years ago, Sophilati’s father left her mother Mary for another women, leaving her with eight children to look after and no financial support. With only occasional farm work to support the family, Mary couldn’t cope. Sophilati dropped out of school to help her.
“Sophilati is very intelligent, she’s one of the best learners in my class,” Esther says. “I went to see her mother and explained that this is not the way to solve her problems, it will only create more problems. I said that Sophilati has potential, she can do a lot in life. If she is educated now, she can help you more in the future. And if she is at school, we can seek support for her.”
Mary agreed to send Sophilati back to school and Esther was able to secure exercise books and pens for her. Despite earning just 75,000 kwacha a month (around $100 USD) including the rural teacher allowance, Esther also provides financial support to the family from her own pocket. Later, when Sophilati got sick with malaria and pneumonia, Esther secured 4,500 kwacha from the school budget to take her to hospital.
There is an obvious warmth between Esther and Sophilati. Mary says she is “like a member of our family” while Esther regards her student as a success story and sees in her a reflection of her own younger self.
“I was very happy when Sophilati came back to school because I remembered how people encouraged me when I was her age,” she says with a smile. “Last year she came third out of 87 in the class. I thought ‘this is the work of my hands’. If I hadn’t helped her, she would have got married and had a very different life. I try to help her become what she wants be in life, to help her become independent.”
Advocating for change
UNICEF is working to keep children in schools, with a particular focus on adolescent girls. The children’s organisation is advocating with the Malawi Government to address class sizes and teacher shortages by increasing the rural teachers’ allowance in hard to reach areas. UNICEF is also calling for free basic education to be extended by two years to age 15, and for full implementation of national school standards, including identifying and working with the families of vulnerable children to prevent school dropout.
“What we see in Makankhula School is a great example of the child friendly approach,” UNICEF Education Specialist Kimanzi Muthengi says. “Rather than just focusing on academic performance, teachers like Esther take account of the child’s entire situation including their home environment, and intervene to prevent dropout. This requires support from school management. We would like to see this approach taken in all schools in Malawi.”
For Sophilati, being back at school provides a second chance for her whole family. She lives with her mother and five siblings in a small brick house the other side of the hills from the school. The main industry in the area is tobacco farming and rows of tobacco leaves hang out like washing on a line, drying in the midday sun.
“When Mrs Nidowo Banda came to my house, I knew I had to go back to school,” Sophilat says. “I feel much better now, I’m more settled and I know how to avoid problems. When I leave school, I’d like to be a doctor or nurse so I can provide for my family and help people in the village who are sick. To succeed these days you have to be educated.”
Although life is still hard for her mother, Mary is also pleased how things have turned out. “I feel so happy,” she says. “Esther has done things for us that I could never do on my own. When Sophilati was sick and she came to take her to hospital, I thought ‘this is love that we have never seen before’. She is like a member of our family now.”
This story was first published in The Nation.