While fellow students at the Polytechnic, a constituent college of the University of Malawi (Unima), are in class or in the library, Patrick Thalika from Namonde Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Nkula in Machinga, will be covering the distance.
Always clad in a white shirt, grey pants and a pair of black leather shoes—which clearly unmasks the distance he has covered—Patrick carries a small bag strapped on his shoulders. In it are dry beans he sells.
He walks around residential areas advertising the beans. Smiles are all over his face and barely would one associate the gesture with pain. But inside him, he is in deep pain that at times, he says, leaves him wondering what sin he committed to deserve what he goes through.
“I always have sleepless nights,” he starts his story. “Instead of thinking about school work, I am constantly planning how to make money to survive.”
Born 23 years ago, Patrick is a symbol of hope and strength to many that hold excuses because of their background. Raised by a single mother and being the first born, Patrick became a household head while in Standard Seven at Lisangala Primary School in his home district.
“I used to do piece work to support my family. To get food, they all rely on me and so I had to work extra hard. Thus, going for piece work after classes and also in the morning before school,” he explains.
But this did not affect his brilliance. He scored three As and two Bs in his Primary School Leaving Certificate of Education (PLSCE) examinations to make it to Malosa Secondary School. Life never got easier there. He says he lived on piece work, doing laundry for fellow students to raise money for upkeep.
Patrick says he sometimes wanted to quit, but perseverance paid him with an aggregate of 12 points during the Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) examinations.
He found his way into the corridors of the Polytechnic where he is studying for a bachelor of science in environmental science and technology.
Although that was reason enough for jubilation, Patrick has found himself sinking further into trouble. He continues to swim in poverty. When he applied for a bursary for his education, he ended up getting a part payment of K165 000.
He laments: “To register, the college wanted K70 000, but I could not raise it. I advised them to cut from my monthly upkeep of K50 000 and I owe the college K40 000.”
While it is evident that he would meet the balance, his concern is whether he will get a full bursary for his second year and the other years.
The life he lives already raises worry, more so with the kind of implications it may bring to his education. The upkeep allowance supposed to cater for accommodation, meals and stationery is being split.
This, he says, is what forced him to invest part of the money into business. He buys beans at K15 000 and sells them at a profit of K3 000, but says it takes time to clear the stock as most of his customers are fellow students.
“I started with Irish potatoes, but I was afraid they would rot before selling them and I resorted to beans,” Patrick says.
A visit to his rented house in the populous Ndirande Township in Blantyre exposes how he is fighting poverty. He lives in a one bed-roomed house and pays K8 000 per month.
At the living room a mat is spread and next to it are buckets of water and kitchen utensils.
He sleeps on the mat with his male cousin who joined him to rewrite the MSCE examinations next year. He followed the lure of staying in town. The bedroom too is now occupied by his female cousin who also thinks she can do well if she resits her MSCE examinations at a better school, in town.
The male cousin is at Chichiri Open Secondary School and Patrick is paying for him. He is also expected to pay for the female cousin expected to start school this September. They eat once a day.
“Without him I could not have seen the city of Blantyre. I do not want to be married earlier, but get educated first,” says the 19-year-old, Odiria Lipato, who scored 41 points in her MSCE at Chimkwezule CDSS in Machinga.
Apart from supporting his mother, Patrick looks after the two with proceeds from his business and upkeep as the key sources of income.
He says: “We have a mission to change the story of our family. I am the first from my village to make it to university. If I fail to obtain the degree and secure a better job, my clan will remain poor.
“I am the turning point that is why I am not giving up and you can read the desire for education in my relatives. They have accepted to live in these poor conditions for them to make it to university.”
Patrick adds though that what bothers him is the thought of running the house and performing in class.
He is not alone in this misery.
At Chancellor College, another Unima constituent college, and Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (Luanar), two female students told similar stories as well. But unlike Patrick, these girls live on laundry work which earns them about K500 after each laundry. Those who cannot handle such hurdles have opted out of college.
The 2015 Oxfam report titled The State of Inequality in Malawi exposes factors why poor people such as Patrick are in this state. Due to high economic and education inequality, the findings makes Patrick’s case an expected one.
The situation has been worse since government revisited the students’ loans programme from blanket grants to only needy students. However, under this system, on test is the selection criterion for beneficiaries.
Professor George Kanyama Phiri, Luanar vice-chancellor, said in an earlier interview that half of the students enrolling at the university each year withdraw due to financial problems.
The story cuts across public universities. Mzuzu University’s (Mzuni) deputy vice-chancellor Loveness Kaunda and Unima spokesperson Peter Mitunda confirm high dropout rates, attributing it to financial problems.
“We feel so sad seeing an intelligent, hardworking student dropping out of college because they cannot afford tuition fees, accommodation, food and other necessities,” says Kaunda.
Education experts have warned government to revise the students loans programme to ensure it covers everything for students to concentrate.
While advocating for a workable system that allows Unima to operate as mixed bag—public and private model—to generate additional resources, education commentator Roy Hauya calls for protection of students.
“I am worried that we are assuming that all university students are mature enough. Unlike in the past, most college students are under 18 and giving them the liberty to secure accommodation and meals is impractical,” he says.