Perching on a hilltop at the end of a bumpy, dusty, winding road, some 170 kilometres from Mzimba Boma, is Mlewezi Primary School.
The remote school in the interiors of the country’s largest district is the centre of attention for both residents and passers-by.
For many old-timers, it is the epicentre of development, a source of education which many guardians consider a key for unlocking a brighter future for young people often seen at play in the rural locality.
For these children, schooling is not a luxury. Rather, they perceive it as a highway out of widespread poverty that forces many young Malawians in the interiors of Mzimba to flee to South Africa in search of better economic prospects.
The district is one of the major senders of casual workers to South Africa, who send back valuable money, electronics and other assets.
Some boys and girls quit school to join the exodus, missing on the limitless opportunities that education offers future leaders.
Mlewezi enrols 400 learners spread across eight classrooms and staff houses, some of which are not occupied due to shortage of teachers.
The school has five teachers, including Esther Mhone, 25.
Had she not worn personal clothes, the sole female teacher could easily have been mistaken for a learner.
Her age and gender make her ideal to help boys and girls remain in school despite the allure of child marriages and trappings from South Africa.
Being the only woman in the teaching staff makes her life challenging in the cultural setting where some men seem to look at women as sex objects to be exchanged for cash, livestock and the goods migrants send.
“I face numerous challenges, especially from men and boys. Men have approached me to be their second wife while boys want to date me for fun,” she says.
However, Mhone is determined to remain a role model for girls at risk of sexual encounters likely to force them to stop schooling or get pregnant, married or exposed to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
Her focus is to keep empowering the young learners to remain in school as half of the women in the country marry before their 18th birthday, the marriageable age.
The youthful teacher says: “I advise them to look at me as their role model. I tell them that when I was a learner like them, many boys and men coveted me to be their sexual partner, but I concentrated on schooling.
I withstood all temptations from primary school to college. I didn’t have a sexual partner even in secondary school when I was an adolescent.”
Mhone hails from Nkhata Bay, where many girls marry young. She is a third born in a family of four which has relocated to Mzuzu.
She teaches in senior classes—Standards Five, Six and Eight—due to a shortage of teachers.
At her school, she has become a go-to teacher for girls most likely to slide into illegal marriages if not supported to appreciate the importance of education and the dangers of marrying young.
She said learners get married at an early age in the area because they are not encouraged to remain in school and concentrate on their studies.
“It is disappointing that many girls who should be in school tell you they are married. It saddens me that their future is permanently disrupted,” she bemoans.
Mhone urges boys and girls to work hard in class until their dreams come true so that they can transform their lives, families, communities and country.
However, she laments that organisations working to keep girls in school keep shunning hard-to-reach areas like Mlewezi, where culture, indifference and poverty exert pressure on girls to marry young.
She laments: “It is a pity that most change agents that support the girl child concentrate on urban centres.
“I want to appeal to them to come and empower these girls and their parents. It is not fair to exclude these girls, who need more help and support. I can’t do this alone. We need more girls saved from child marriages and unwanted pregnancies.”
Mhone has been teaching since September 2018. She dreams of going for further studies though her focus remains on the agenda to protect schoolgirls from exploitation by showing them the benefits of education.
Headteacher Banda praises the lone young female teacher for becoming a confidante and role model for girls likely not to reap the dividends of education if left alone.
He describes her as a trusted voice and ear for girls still in school and dropouts gearing to enrol.
“Her age and sex make her a reliable friend for girls going through the tricky changes that adolescence entails. She helps them remain in school,” he says.
According to the 2015 Malawi Demographic and Health Survey, about 47 in 100 women marry before they turn 18. Besides, about 30 percent of adolescent girls were carrying a pregnancy during the nationwide survey.