School-in-a-box kits ease Cyclone Idai’s devastating effects

Delivering in emergencies

By James Chavula
Sekeni Primary School deputy headteacher John Kulomba (C) with Nelah Kaphatikiza, 14, and Mayamiko Mphepo
UNICEF Malawi/2020/James Chavula
01 December 2020

“Each box is a tale of hope for the affected children; an assuring story of enthusiasm and partnership to get schools back to speed after being hit by humanitarian emergencies,” says John Kulomba, deputy headteacher at Sekeni Primary School at Nchalo in Chikwawa District.

Delivering basic teaching and learning materials to the school which is persistently affected by devastating floods, proved a game-changer for learners after Cyclone Idai affected nearly one million people in southern Malawi in March 2019.

 Sekeni Primary School was among 174 schools in Malawi supported by the Education Cannot Wait Fund through UNICEF to immediately establish temporary learning spaces following the disaster. The school  received seven boxes of basic educational materials and 195 school bags during the humanitarian emergency which affected almost half a million learners in more than 400 schools nationwide.

The school-in-a-box kit is part of the UNICEF standard response in emergencies the scope of Cyclone Idai which hit Malawi, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

As torrents battered settlements in the floodplain that hosts Malawi’s largest sugarcane plantation of Nchalo, teachers at Sekeni picked waist-high heaps of soaked textbooks in a flooded staff room.
“This is an annual misfortune. The school is located in a low-lying area. In 2019, the floods reached the window level, destroying all books and teaching material in the staff room. We cannot tell the number of textbooks destroyed in the homes of teachers and learners,” Kulomba states.

Nelah and Mayamiko carrying notebooks that are found in the school-in-a-box
UNICEF Malawi/2020/James Chavula
Nelah and Mayamiko carrying notebooks that are found in the school-in-a-box ©UNICEF Malawi/2020/James Chavula

This worsened the shortage of books as five children at the rural school share one textbook. All but two classrooms at the school were occupied by displaced people. The two rooms were reserved for Standard Eight learners who were preparing for primary school leaving examinations and Standard One learners deemed too young to have classes outdoors on wet grounds in the midst of the rainy season.

Almost twenty months later, teachers and learners commend development partners Fund for giving them a hand when the area was recovering from the floods.

“A friend in need is a friend indeed. The arrival of educational supplies during the 2019 disaster showed that UNICEF really cares about children’s wellbeing. At our school, we appreciate the support we got when we needed it most. The boxes we got were boxes of love. They made the teaching and learning environment better for everyone. Some of the materials from the boxes are still in use today,” says the deputy headteacher.

Learning under tree shadows, one of the students Nelah Kaphatikiza, felt relieved when her school received 16 aluminum boxes containing basic teaching and learning materials. Each box contained assorted education materials for one teacher and up to 40 learners to schools hit hard by the floods.

“When a disaster strikes, learning suffers as our minds switch to things we lost and the immediate problems we go through,” Nelah says. “When classes resumed, I expected to be fighting for books with my classmates, but we did not only receive new textbooks but also notebooks, pencils, pens, erasers, mathematical sets and play things of different shapes.”

Nelah and Mayamiko reading maps together— beside them are school bags that were part of the materials provided following the floods
UNICEF Malawi/2020/James Chavula
Nelah and Mayamiko reading maps together— beside them are school bags that were part of the materials provided following the floods

She says extra support, including balls and sporting kits, helped the affected children to keep playing together and shake off their agony. “After classes, we used to play different games instead of thinking about problems. This brought back smiles on our faces,” she explains.


Another learner, 11-year-old Mayamiko Mphepo, remembers getting more than just learning essentials when his teacher unlocked the box. Every box also contained teaching a wooden clock, colourful cubes for counting, a radio receiver as well as laminated alphabet, multiplication and number tables.The lid of the box doubled as a chalkboard in makeshift classes, easing the agony of learning in tents and tree shades.


“When floods happened, I lost hope of returning to school because my books and pens were gone, the school was closed, and our classroom was filled with people. The boxes came at the right time because everyone, including our parents, was worried about other things they lost during the floods. Our educational needs were not the first thing on their minds.”
Nelah and Mayamiko still use the school bags, sports kits and school-in-a-box supplies they received following the national disaster. They implore authorities to construct schools on higher grounds, not lowlands where floods ceaselessly disrupt their right to learn.