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April 2006: A trip to Huambo, Angola highlights education successes and malaria dangers

© UNICEF Angola/2006/Stark-Merklein
Students outside their brand new primary school in Dende, Angola, built with funds from UNICEF Germany as part of the Schools for Africa Initiative.

By Brigitte Stark-Merklein

Brigitte Stark-Merklein, a native of Germany, is currently serving as Communication Officer in the UNICEF Angola office in Luanda, the capital. She reports here on a recent trip to Huambo, Angola’s second city, located 600 km southwest of Luanda.

HUAMBO, Angola, April 2006 – We arrived in Huambo yesterday and though I’ve been in the country for two weeks only, I’m enjoying the break from Luanda’s heat and constant traffic jams. Today we are heading to Dende, a small village 20 km from Huambo, to visit a primary school built recently with funds from UNICEF Germany. We want to see the finished building and speak to some of the schoolchildren.

Just a couple of years ago, the dirt road we are travelling on could have been a death trap. Huambo was in the firing line throughout Angola’s civil war, and surrounding areas were heavily mined. But since the fighting factions signed a peace agreement four years ago, recovery has begun and mines have been cleared out of the region.

As we bump along in our 4x4, we see reminders everywhere of how things were before the war, bombed-out factories that used to manufacture construction materials, textiles, leather goods and foodstuffs. This region used to be the country’s breadbasket, but now people find it difficult to feed themselves.

Schools for Africa initiative

Our driver carefully negotiates large mud puddles as we pass women with children tied to their backs, walking toward Huambo to sell the wares they carry on their heads. Men on bicycles or scooters braving the rough terrain are overtaken dangerously close by petroleum trucks coming from the coast.

In Dende, we are greeted by dozens of children playing outside the new school building. They all want me to take their pictures, and the boys push and shove to get into the foreground. It takes some convincing to have them make room for a few girls.

Most of the kids remember Peter Kraemer, a German entrepreneur and sponsor of the Schools for Africa initiative  who visited Dende last year. Then, all that existed were an empty lot and children’s dreams of education. One year on, the new pink school building stands as a symbol of hope for a better future for the 262 boys and girls who are enrolled.

In the last 12 months, UNICEF has rehabilitated or constructed 142 schools in the country, of which 50 are in the province of Huambo.

I speak to Joaquina Munga and Severina Kachicusa, two 13-year-olds whose story is representative of many children’s lives in this area: They were born here but had to flee the fighting and returned only recently from Huambo, where they and their families sat out the war. They didn’t go to school before and, now in second grade, hardly know how to write their names.

“I want to learn everything they teach us at school,” says Joaquina. Her dream is to become a teacher and live in Huambo. In isolated areas like this one, female teachers are often the only role model girls see – so it is not surprising that Severina, too, wants to be a teacher.

© UNICEF Angola/2006/Stark-Merklein
Girls outside Dende primary school show off their notebooks, carried in plastic bags by those who can’t afford school bags.

The curse of malaria

Huambo province will be covered by the upcoming Measles Plus Campaign, a huge operation organized by the government, the World Health Organization, UNICEF and other partners to fight measles, polio and malaria (and to distribute Vitamin A and de-worming medicines). UNICEF will distribute over 1 million insecticide-treated mosquito nets to prevent malaria throughout the country during 2006.

A nurse at Huambo’s Central Hospital confirms that malaria is by far the most common cause for admissions to the hospital – perhaps unsurprising given that it is the leading cause of mortality in Angola, for both adults and children. He leads us to the Intensive Care Unit, where Alicia Manuel, 12, has been in a malaria coma for 22 days.

Alicia’s sister, Hilaria, who is holding vigil outside the hospital along with her two grandmothers and an aunt, tells us that Alicia had been complaining about headaches for a couple of days before the family finally brought her to the hospital. “She walked to the hospital by herself,” says Hilaria, “but since she’s been admitted things got worse.”

Hilaria and other relatives have been camping out under trees facing the emergency unit entrance throughout Alicia’s hospitalization. They, like several other groups of women who have family members in the hospital, will go home only when their loved ones are discharged, dead or alive.

As we watch the coming and going of scooter taxis dropping off patients, and mothers rushing freshly prepared food to the ill children inside, I think about the upcoming campaign and wonder about Alicia. Where would be right now if she had slept under a mosquito net the night she got infected?



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