Poverty, hunger, inadequate school facilities, sexual and gender-based violence—schoolchildren in Malawi face multiple challenges that prevent them from accessing quality education.
World Food Programme (WFP) has been the largest provider of school feeding in Malawi since 1999.
In 2019, the United Nations agency supported 786 primary schools, including Nkanda Primary School in Mulanje District and reached 1.1 million preschool and primary-school learners with meals.
The meals enabled learners to stay in school, concentrate better, and learn more.
So in spite of the odds, children such as Faith Mhanda persevere. The 13-year-old is from a rural village at the foot of Mount Mulanje, the country’s tallest mountain.
Despite all the obstacles in her way, Faith finished top in the 2019 Primary School Leaving Certification of Education (PLSCE) examinations countrywide.
“They told me I could compete against the privileged,” she says.
With 450 marks out of 500 in the national tests, Faith scored better than nearly 219 000 other pupils, including those who attended well-resourced urban schools.
Among pupils selected to various secondary schools, she came first out of 82 072, winning a place at Providence Secondary School in her district.
What helped Faith reach this pinnacle in her pursuit of education?
Four factors, she says.
1. Supportive parents
Faith is the youngest of two children in a family of teachers. Her father is the headteacher at Chambe Secondary School while her mother heads Milonga Community Day Secondary School in the same district.
“My parents supported and encouraged me. They taught me that it is possible to be selected to a good and reputable secondary school,” says Faith. “They told me that better secondary schools are not just for learners from rich families and urban schools. They told me I could compete against the privileged.”
Nkanda Primary School has 14 classrooms, but needs 21. Children across three grades take lessons under tree shades and in old classrooms without desks.
2. Dedicated teachers
“My teachers took extra time and effort to teach us beyond their normal and compensated hours so that we could pass our exams with flying colours,” says Faith.
Nkanda Primary School has 3 500 learners who are taught by 47 teachers, and the learner-teacher ratio is nearly 25 percent higher than the recommended 60:1. Despite being overstretched, teachers went the extra mile to prepare Faith and her classmates for the exams.
3. Food and nutrition
“Some days I would come to school hungry, but the daily school meals helped me to start my classes full and energetic,” says Faith. “A healthy diet keeps one going all the way to achieve their dreams.”
4. Hard work
“Above all, I worked very hard to do well in my exams and to never disappoint those who assisted me,” she said.
“I had some challenges on the way, like poor learning facilities and not enough teaching, but these did not put me off. I kept going strong,” said Faith. She aspires to become a doctor when her hard work pays off, but that’s not all.
“I will pursue further studies so that I work at a medical school to train others.” Faith spoke with determination.
“I know I have to work very hard to achieve my goal. This is a reputable school, but I don’t take that for granted. I must do well in all subjects, particularly sciences, to get where I want to be,” she concludes.
Providence Secondary School has produced renowned individuals, including Malawi’s first female president Joyce Banda.
WFP supports the government’s National Education Sector Plan and the National Social Support Programme, where school feeding is one of the five priority social nets.
Studies estimate that for every $1 (an equivalent of K750) spent on school feeding, the country gains at least $6 (at least K4 500) in terms of better health and productivity when learners reach adulthood.