In the midst of chaos a school struggles to survive

By: Karissa Gall and Richard Chirombo

Criminology is not a subject well-suited to primary school students, but in the absence of a secure perimeter wall young learners at Nyambadwe Primary have been getting an untimely lesson in acts of trespassing, theft and vandalism.

According to school headmistress Charity Kathyanga, without a perimeter wall hundreds of people travelling between Nyambadwe, Blantyre and Ndirande, Malawi’s most populous township, have been cutting through the school grounds every day, disrupting the classes that are in progress.

“We have also people from Ndirande, who have stolen,” Kathyanga told The Sunday Times.  “They would come up through here because it’s a shortcut.  They run away through here because there is a police station.”

The school, originally built in 1974 by the Blantyre Lions Club, is bordered to the west by the prestigious St. Andrew’s International High School and to the east by the Ndirande police substation.

“The students, they get affected because when (the thieves) pass through, they stop listening to the teacher; they look at the (thieves),” explained Kathyanga.  “Some pass through making a lot of noise, some pass through quarreling, and then the learners go to look and see what has happened outside, they hear the noise rather than hearing from their teacher.

“The noise is uncontrollable,” she continued.  “The noise is sometimes caused by people taking a crime suspect to the police station.  The people often use this as a shortcut, and suspects sometimes run away (from the police station) through this place.”

One of the school’s secondary students, Dave Phiri, confirmed that the foot traffic makes learning difficult.

“Without a wall, there are so many distractions,” Phiri said.  “The situation of the toilets is another problem; I think it is not conducive to learning.”

Over the years the traffic has marked the school with more than an intersecting footpath – the unprotected school grounds have been vandalized and robbed and now lack adequate classrooms, electricity or sufficient sanitary facilities.  At present, Nyambadwe’s 3,000 primary school students are being made to share the toilets that were already underserving the school’s 360 secondary school students.

According to Blantyre Lion Johnnie Nicolau, who has been working with school staff to rally support and render Nyambadwe conducive to learning despite the club having handed the institution to the Malawi government over two decades ago, it is impossible to replace electrical cables, repair toilets or furnish the classrooms until a secure perimeter wall is fully constructed.

“The electrical cables were cut, (thieves) stole the pipes, they stole everything,” Nicolau told The Sunday Times, adding that the toilets and electrical cables have been out of commission for over ten years.  “Today, you fix up; tomorrow, they come and break the windows again.

“There’s no point in fixing these things up if, the next day, they’re going to vandalize them again.  It happens at any time, be it day or night.  Whatever is in there, they’re going to take whatever it is.  We can’t do anything until we secure the school with a wall because there’s no point.”

To address the situation, Nicolau said that the Blantyre Lions have undertaken a multi-phase project to erect a secure wall around the school grounds and then refurbish the school itself.

Phase one of the project – the completion of the wall – has already begun with the Lions donating approximately K170,000 in cash and K130,000 in-kind.

While Kathyanga said that by beginning to enclose the school grounds with a perimeter wall “the noise has been minimized by 95 percent,” Nicolau emphasized that challenges still exist in completing the construction of the wall and restoration of the school.

He said that while the walls have “made a difference to the school immediately” they “haven’t been popular with the people.”

In fact, on a visit to the school on March 15 to appraise the progress of the project Nicolau along with the headmaster and support staff discovered that a hole had been created in a patch of existing wall.  “It’s actually gotten worse,” said Nicolau after making the discovery.  “Now they’ve come and made a hole over there.  Then we’ll fix the hole up and they’ll come and make a hole in the middle.  We can’t keep plugging the holes.  We need to enclose the whole area.”

In the meantime, Kathyanga said the school has been forced to use money from the K200 that students pay for school fees to employ guards.

According to Nicolau, the school is “looking at about K50 million” to complete the project to secure and restore the school – approximately K15 million for the completion of the wall, K10 million for desks and chairs, K10 million to repair the toilets, K1 million to restore electricity, and K12 million to renovate dilapidated classrooms.

“We’re looking for someone to help us out,” he said, sounding an SOS to potential corporate partners.  “Ten thousand dollars goes a long way.”

***

In 2002, the World Bank launched the Education for All (EFA) Fast Track Initiative (FTI) to help low-income countries meet the second MDG of achieving universal primary education.

In September 2009, the FTI Malawi Local Education Group produced a Draft Appraisal of the Government of Malawi’s Education Sector Plans, the 2008-2017 National Education Sector Plan (NESP) and 2009-2013 Education Sector Implementation Plan (ESIP).

In its overall comments, the appraisal found that the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology “continues to experience limited capacity in planning, procurement and financial management” and found there was “inadequate allocation of funds to education and proportion of resources to primary education” and a “limited capacity for school infrastructure development”.

“The budget allocation for education is still low when compared to other African countries,” reads the appraisal.  “Total education public recurrent expenditures in the 2007/08 fiscal year represent(ed) 19.4% of total government recurrent expenditures.  In the ten low-income African countries that most highly prioritize their education system, the share for education equals an average of 28.8%.”

In the newly announced 2012/3 budget, education was allocated K74.7 billion, about 22 percent of the budget.

According to the UN website for the MDG indicators, 91.3 percent of children of official primary school age in Malawi were enrolled in primary education in 2009, and only 59.2 percent of pupils starting Grade 1 reached the last grade of primary.

***

This article was originally published in The Sunday Times on June 10, 2012.

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About karissagall

Karissa Gall is a Canadian journalist.

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