It is a hot, dry and windy day at Nankhali school, on the edge of Lilongwe. Most of the school is outdoors, with classes held under trees. Wherever there is a tree, dozens of children in blue school uniforms sit on the bare earth ground around a teacher, with a blackboard leant against the tree trunk.
It is dry season and most of the trees have lost their leaves, providing scant protection from the elements. The hot sun beats down and dust blows continually into the eyes of students, teachers and visitors alike. At other times of the year, students face bitterly cold mornings or torrential rain, sometimes prompting teachers to send the children home.
But things are changing for the better at Nankhali, where UNICEF is building new classrooms, a library, toilets and other buildings. The school has been partially transformed into a construction site. Workers mix cement, push wheelbarrows and lay large concrete bricks to form the foundation of walls, which will in a few months’ time become classrooms. Women from a nearby village are clearing the ground with hoes, to make way for another building. Some carry sleeping babies on their backs as they work.
This is all thanks to the generosity of the German public. In November 2017, German football star Mats Hummels visited Malawi with RTL Television to make a fundraising appeal film. This was used in a telethon which raised over half a million Euros for reconstruction of Nankhali and one other school.
UNICEF wanted students involved in the project. Standard 8 learner Aness Rogers, 13, was one of those chosen to take part. “I remember when Mats came to our school,” she says. “He joined a class and played a game of football with students. There were lots of people taking photos.”
Once the architects had produced the first set of drawings for the new school, Aness joined a workshop where students, teachers and community members provided input on the proposals.
“UNICEF came with a map, showing where the buildings should be,” she says. “I agreed with some of the places, but suggested different places for others. For example, they planned to build toilets at the bottom of the hill close to the village, but I said they should be further up the hill otherwise the villagers will come and use them.”
“I was very happy to be asked my opinion,” she adds. “These will be our classrooms, so it was nice to have a say in the process.”
Aness is also blogging about the construction process and reporting on how students, teachers and villagers feel about the buildings that are rising up around them. The students write their updates by hand in a notepad, which UNICEF Malawi staff collect, type up, and post with photos to the organization’s blog site.
Watching construction workers lay the foundation of her new classroom, Aness reflects on the experience so far.
“I’m very happy that these classrooms are being built,” she says. “Soon everyone will have a classroom. It was hard learning under the trees, especially for the younger children. There were so many distractions and they would lose concentration. During the rainy season, we would get sent home and miss lessons. It was not nice to be sent home – I would rather be at school.”
School Headmistress Rose Phiri Mpasu agrees. “We are very happy that construction has started,” she says. “The first few days of construction caused some disturbance, as the children came out of lessons to watch. But we talked to the students and their parents and now they have gone back to their lessons. We will prioritise the younger children for the new classrooms, as this will encourage them to stay in school.”
As well as the buildings, UNICEF is also supporting construction of a school garden where vegetables are grown using water from a renovated borehole. Students help water and maintain the garden. “We have already planted pumpkin leaves,” Rose says “Next we will plant beans and eggplants. We’ll sell the produce to buy uniforms for poor students and pay their exam fees.”
To help with the garden design, UNICEF took teachers from Nankhali to visit ‘Living Schools’ in Blantyre that had improved their environments. “The visit was very instructive,” Rose says. “Those schools are doing very well. We realised that support from the community is key, so we have communicated with the local chiefs. They come regularly to check progress. Villagers have also lent us farming equipment and donate seeds.”
Aness adds: “I’ve helped with planting pumpkin leaves and watering the garden. I think it’s a good idea. The garden will generate funds and buy things we need for the school.”
Aness’ home is in a nearby village on the very edge of Lilongwe, where the houses thin out and then stop altogether. Beyond is a dusty valley with a few trees and some winter crops, leading to the hills south of the city. The house is small and basic, but has space for a lounge with a few threadbare sofas and calendars on the walls. Here, Aness’s mother Katalina shares her perspective.
“My husband and I grow and sell vegetables at the market for a living,” she says. “We sell them for 1,500 to 2,000 kwacha [around 2 Euros]. It’s not enough. We struggle to pay school fees for our eldest daughter Maureen, who is in secondary school.”
Katalina says that a lot of children in the area have dropped out of school, for reasons including lack of classrooms. “I’m very proud of Aness and my other children for staying in school,” she continues. “I encourage them to work hard. I tell them if they get an education, they will be able to find work and be independent.”
She adds: “I’m very happy that Aness has been involved in the construction project. There were not enough classrooms for the children, and the ones we had were very old.”
Despite the poor conditions, Aness is doing well at school and has hopes for the future. “My favourite subject is English,” she says. “I like to be able to communicate with visitors who come to the school. Next year, I want to go to national secondary school.”
Once she finishes school, Aness’s dream is to work in health care. “I’ve been to the local health centre five times with malaria,” she says. “My ambition is to be a nurse or doctor and help other people who are sick.”