Tears well up in Doris Kihaule’s eyes as she speaks of how she and her grandmother struggle to raise money her school regularly demands for its ‘development’ work.
Doris is concerned because without the money the school needs ostensibly to carry out development activities, she does not see herself bringing to fruition her cherished dream of becoming a nurse.
And so she and her grandmother, who despite walking with the aid of a stick, have to toil in other people’s gardens to raise K550 needed for the school’s development fund.
“If you do not pay, you are not allowed in class or even to write terminal examinations,” laments Doris. “My grandmother and I have no choice but to work in people’s gardens to raise the money.”
Given her frequent learning disruptions as she looks for money to contribute to the school development fund, Doris is now uncertain about completing her education and realising her dream.
Doris, 14, a primary school pupil in Karonga, is not the only one who finds herself in such a predicament—countless other school children in the district regularly face a similar difficulty.
It is 21 years since the country abolished primary school fees, a move that saw a surge in enrolment.
Whereas there were about 1.6 million primary school pupils in Malawi in 1993, the figure jumped to three million the following year when the United Democratic Front (UDF) took over government and introduced free primary education after winning the country’s first democratic elections.
Besides the huge impact on enrolment, free primary school education has also contributed to the dropping of the country’s illiteracy rates over the years.
But the country now risks losing its free primary schoo education gains if nothing is done to stop the informal contributions pupils are forced to make to their schools on a regular basis.
Karonga is one district where the practice of asking pupils to bring money for various school projects is widespread, resulting in many pupils having to stop learning to go and look for money.
The practice started in the north of Karonga early 2014 and has spread to the entire district, according to Hesco Mtonga, a community-based facilitator with Malawi Carer, a non-governmental organisation (NGO).
Malawi Carer [Centre for Advice, Research and Education on Rights] is working in the district with financial support from the Democracy Consolidation Programme (DCP) of the Malawi Government.
Funded by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), DCP works through local NGOs to create an empowered citizenry that is ready and eager to participate in governance processes, demand governance and realisation of the right to development and hold public bodies accountable.
One of the mandates of Malawi Carer is to ensure that people, especially the underprivileged, know, claim and defend their rights.
Parents in Karonga are not amused that their children are being forced to bring money for various school projects and that, worse still, those who fail to contribute are barred from attending classes.
“Government says primary education is free, yet there are so many contributions children make that many of them are missing lessons,” Mtonga told Mana when this writer visited some concerned parents around Kakoma along the Karonga-Songwe Road in the area of Traditional Authority (TA) Kilupula.
Mtonga says the practice is bad and that if it is not stopped, the country will return to the old fee-paying-days when there were many children of school age staying idle in homes for lack of money.
“This practice started in Mwenitete [education] Zone in T/A Kilupula, but has now spread to the whole district. Pupils who fail to contribute are not even allowed to write examinations for the next class,” he says.
The contributions, whether cash or food crops, disrupt pupils’ learning since when an instruction is given to the learners to make a contribution, often half of the school’s population gets affected.
Mana learnt that contributions include money for school projects, for production of terminal examination papers and for producing report cards. Some teachers even ask pupils to bring food crops in return for favour in class.
The contributions—ranging from K300 to K1 000—may seem insignificant, but in a country where the majority of the people live below the international poverty line of less than $1.25 (about K560) per day, it can take days or weeks to find that money for a child to return to class. But the district’s education manager (DEM) Scotch Kondowe while acknowledging the concerns, denies that primary schools in Karonga are demanding money from pupils for development projects.
“The truth is that schools do not demand money,” Kondowe told Mana. “But communities may agree on a development project they may wish to undertake.”
He says what communities are supposed to do is agree on how to implement the project and that once that is done, they agree to collect money from the parents, and not pupils.
“Issues to do with development must concern parents and not learners,” says Kondowe. “Both my office and the Ministry [of education] do not condone this and penalising learners is unacceptable.”
And he says teachers should not in any way get involved in handling money collected for a school project, stressing: “That must be left to school structures.”
Malawi Carer paralegal officer for Karonga, Felix Katemula, condemns schools that force pupils to contribute money for school projects. He says his office quizzed the DEM about the malpractice.
Katemula says every child has a right to education and that children are vulnerable groups that need to be given a chance to go to school and this is what Malawi Carer has been demanding all along.
Doris lives with her maternal grandmother after her mother remarried following the death of Doris’ father. She says it was last year, while she was in Standard Six, that an announcement was made at the morning assembly for pupils to be paying money.
“We had earlier been asked to bring K550, and the teacher said every pupil who had not paid would not sit their end of year examinations,” she recalls and adds that about 100 pupils were sent home, including her.
When Doris told her grandmother that she had been sent back to collect money for the school development fund, the granny said there was nothing she could do and suggested she just stayed home.
“I told her not to bother going to school again because as you can see, I am a helpless person with a disability,” Doris’ grandmother, Feggie Namukonda, told Mana.
She said it was only when Doris started crying—after being told there was nothing she could do—that she decided to raise the required money.
“I literally had to crawl to do piecework in people’s gardens so that I could raise money for my granddaughter,” said Namukonda who is in her 50s and also cares for Doris’ three siblings.
“My fear is that if this continues, I will not manage to educate her. My hope is that when she finishes school, she will look after me when I am too old to work in the garden or perform household chores,” said Namukonda.
According to a recent report on out-of-school children produced by Unesco Institute for Statistics and Unicef, the world has missed the United Nation’s Millennium Development Goal (MDG) number two of achieving universal primary education by 2015.
The report says there are currently 58 million boys and girls of primary school age worldwide who are out of school, of which 53 percent are in sub-Saharan Africa.
Mtonga, speaking as a concerned parent, said traditional leaders in areas where the malpractice is widespread seemed to have given up after trying to stop the practice.
“Chiefs say they are helpless as teachers tell them the directives are from the ministry headquarters,” Mtonga said in the presence of other concerned parents.
“The government should come out in the open and say it has reintroduced primary school fees so that we should be ready to pay.
“We are appealing to authorities to do something as soon as possible. I hope the government will listen to the concerns of its people,” he said.
Mana also heard complaints about some teachers, especially those in schools around Mwenitete Zone, regularly asking pupils to bring them food crops, especially rice after harvest, as an incentive for the teachers.
That some teachers allegedly ask their pupils to bring them rice is not entirely surprising as Mwenitete Zone is located in an area famed for growing rice, especially the aromatic Kilombero type.
Doris corroborated the reports, alleging that some teachers tell learners to bring rice.
However, Kondowe defended the paying of fees for terminal exams, claiming that it helps teachers to complete their syllabuses and also helps the pupils not to be nervous during actual primary school leaving examinations.
He says: “But, I repeat, it is not the policy of my office or ministry that learners should pay money.
“The leaner must always be given an opportunity to learn. I am also aware that there are children who are orphaned, some with aged guardians. Please do not penalise them.
“If the school has a small fund, they can use it to cover underprivileged children. They have a right to go to school. It is unfortunate if children are being sent back. They should not be disturbed.”
The DEM’s words certainly are encouraging, but it remains to be seen whether schools in the district will take heed and stop the contributions so that ambitious pupils like Doris can fulfil their dreams.
Meanwhile, Doris’ grandmother says it would be better if she used the hard-earned money to buy food and clothing for her four needy grandchildren who all look to her for support.