Schools are credited with giving pupils a solid start in life. However, a prevailing shortage of latrines in some primary schools across the country does not only put the learners at the risk of disease outbreaks caused by poor sanitation and hygiene.
It also nurtures a cadre of citizens who underrate the importance of sanitation to the nation where ‘a healthy nation is a wealthy nation’ has become a ceaseless buzz.
Lulindo in Karonga is a setting of this shocking story of how sanitation keeps receiving little attention in learning institutions and other vital facets of the Malawian society.
The most populated school in the shoreline district plays home to massive scrambles for toilets as almost 3 328 pupils rely on pit latrines that are few, dilapidated and filthy.
“There is one latrine for 1 773 boys and one for 1 555 girls. This leaves the school comprising over 3000 learners on its roll call with pupils queuing for the dirty toilets. It is difficult to keep the latrines clean and this pushes some learners to lean against the walls and trees when nature calls,” deputy head teacher Austin Mulonga said.
This violates the learners’ right to a clean and disease-free environment. According to Unicef, one latrine is supposed to serve no more than 60 pupils—and government’s ambitious ratio prescribes one latrine for 16 boys or 25 girls.
The shocking sanitation picture at Lulindo, which has pushed Malawi Red Cross Society to construct two five-roomed toilets at the school, has left the teachers with several questions.
But the deputy in-charge wonders: “How can we save the pupils from the raging cholera outbreak this way? How can we convince them that sanitation is vital for public health when their schools, where they learn most values in life, have no toilets?”
The district, where toilets are few and usage is low, is grappling with a cholera outbreak which has killed almost 15 out of about 200 patients since January.
District environmental health officer Lewis Tukula may have attributed the ending public health crisis to fishing villages along Lake Malawi where migrant fishers stay in overcrowded shacks with no latrines in sight, but pupils formed a significant population of those infected.
In Mwahimba, a populous township which was hit the worst at the heart of Karonga town, Mindolo Mhango endured some week by the sick-beds of four members of her households–two of them being school-going children.
“We could be in this predicament because our latrine serves almost eight households, the pressure which leads to unhygienic tendencies. Having suffered the hardships cholera entails, we want each household to have a latrine. Yet our main fear is the unsanitary conditions where the children learn, play and go,” the granny said.
It is against this background the Red Cross has embarked on an integrated water, sanitation and hygiene project to build latrines in some schools in Karonga.
Lulindo aside, construction of the modern latrines is underway at Baka Junior Primary School.
The intervention, funded by the European Union in conjunction with Netherlands Red Cross, also involves the construction of five water kiosks and rehabilitation of 10 existing ones by Northern Region Water Board (NRWB).
“When we arrived in July 2014, studies showed that almost four in 10 people had no latrines. Ever since, we have been working with 30 villages, 30 schools and businesspeople within Karonga to ensure they have the vital facilities and use them correctly,” said the humanitarian society’s area programme manager Sunduzwayo Mashunga.
Red Cross seeks to prevent a disease-related humanitarian crisis in low-income urban settings of Katolora, Mweniyumba and Mwahimba, he says.
The interventions involves emptying 180 filled-up toilets in public facilities, including schools, health centres and marketplaces.
At Baka, 930 pupils have to do with four latrines as they wait for the opening of two modern toilets under construction thanks to Red Cross.
In fact, 486 girls at the junior primary school tussle for two toilets just as 462 boys do with another two.
From a distance we saw how the battles for a turn plays out when schools have inadequate toilets compared to its enrolment.
First to arrive was a Standard Two girl. As she disappeared into one of the twin toilet, her Standard Three counterpart arrived, knocked on the door she had just closed, opened and apologised for disturbing her as she switched to a free room. The door had just been slammed shut when a third girl appeared, knocked on the doors, encountered the rude awakening that they were engaged and stepped aside.
She was waiting for a turn when three more girls joined her on the line. The wait continued for almost five minutes when the first girl emerged from the room, but she had scarcely started washing hands when the girls waiting for a chance started pushing and shoving each other, each wishing she was the first to go in.
It is survival of the fittest.
Head teacher Kingsley Khamise describes the battles for toilets as a major setback to provision of quality education.
“We need more toilets to make sure the learners stop wasting a lot of time queuing for a turn outside pit latrines. This is why we feel highly indebted to Red Cross for the new toilets under construction. We want our school to be disease – free so that the children can concentrate on learning and not seeking treatment,” he said.
Khamise asked government agencies and nongovernmental to emulate Red Cross’ example by constructing more toilets, saying the massive enrolment points to the need for more latrines.
“The school may be Standard One to Five, but we obviously have more learners than the toilets. It’s sad watching them as they queue for a turn as if it is polling day.
A similar situation plays out at St Peter’s boys and girls’ primary schools in Mzuzu. One goes in, the other wait. The numbers outside grows as the wait continues.
Such is the situation in which almost 4 000 pupils have been relying on rundown latrines built in 1958 when the school opened. They are filled up. They stink. n