Girls return to “friendly” school, yet not without sacrifices
Children in her neighbourhood were keen to take advantage of the UNICEF-supported school. Unlike most other schools, it had newly-constructed, brightly painted brick classrooms, separate latrines for girls and boys, football pitches, teachers trained in child-centred methods and the pupils received school kits with basic learning materials. Moreover, there was an education ethos that involves community participation.
Yet Lefa had given up on her education because of family circumstances. “My mother went to live in Blantyre with her new husband,” she says, twisting her fingers in her lap. The mother left Lefa and her two siblings to fend for themselves. Their father died in 2007 and they had no extended family in the neighbourhood who traditionally would have supported them. So instead of an education, Lefa focused on earning money to survive by carrying out domestic chores like fetching water and cultivating plots. Her situation was typical of many girls in Malawi where only 16% complete primary school. A month after she dropped out of school, Lefa received a visit from Stella Nyambo, a member of the school's mothers' group, who persuaded her to return to school. Lefa, who clearly loves school, did not need much persuading and is now in standard 5.
Since Nyambo was elected in 2004 as a member of the mothers' group, she has managed to persuade 15 girls to return to school. “Some girls drop out to get married or because they are pregnant, but most leave so that they can earn money for food.” The mothers' group plans to start a school feeding programme to keep children in school. “We hope that the community will contribute to this,” she adds.
Fourteen-year-old Jennifer Mbaisa is a peer outreach worker who does similar work to the women in the mothers' group, except she has the advantage of being able to communicate more easily with her peers, being a child herself. “I was elected by the other pupils, and I was so happy. I can visit friends who have dropped out of school, and help them return to school.” She uses the example of Theresa. “She comes from a poor family, so her mother made her drop out of school to work in homes of other families. We talked first to her mother and then to Theresa. After a while, her mother agreed that she would work extra hours so she could afford to let her daughter return to school.”
Nineteen-year-old Lexa Chimwala left school because she was pregnant. “I was in standard 8. I felt that it was the end of my schooling. Before I became pregnant, I had wanted to be a nurse.” A peer educator told Lexa that she still had a place at the school. She returned to standard 8 while her grandmother looked after her baby. Lexa worries about her future because life has become a struggle since her parents died in 1999. She is not alone. At least 83 pupils at the school have lost at least one of their parents, many due to AIDS.
Despite the poverty, the community is more committed to education than they were before. “We give talks to the village head and we hold meetings in the community, explaining to the parents about the importance of school,” says the group village headman, Letherford Verevere, a member of the school management. He works with the pupils, the mother's group, the Parents Teachers Association and the school management committee in a programme that aims to encourage girls to stay in school.
Jackson Chithokonya, a Primary Education Advisor, adds that enticing children back to school is now easier because the conditions are so much better than in most other schools in the area. “Many of the schools are just shelters made of grass and some of the pupils are even learning under trees.” The school's headmaster Lameck Chauluka is clearly excited about the improvements to his school, which has given it the status of a “child friendly” school. He has witnessed numbers mushroom from 600 to 1,037 pupils in just one year, but that has brought problems too. In standard 1, there are 230 pupils to just one teacher. “We cannot put desks or chairs into the classroom because the pupils will not fit,” he says.
Although the comprehensive hygiene education sessions conducted at the school every week have reduced illness, the school still needs more latrines. Only eight latrines service the entire school and there is no running water.
Lefa's problems are also not over. “We can eat only once a day after school,” says Lefa, who is extremely thin. They eat nsima (a thick porridge made from maize flour) and usually pumpkin leaves. “I feel hungry in class and when I go to bed. We don't have school uniforms and no shoes, and I have to share my friend's pen,” she says softly.
Her mother came for a brief visit six months ago, but the person who checks up on Lefa regularly is Stella Nyambo from the mother's group. “She visits me and my sister and brother twice a week. She sees what problems I have and gives us soap when we need it,” says Lefa.