Some rural teachers could be unsung heroes. Unicef Malawi’s ANDREW BROWN writes about Esther Ndiwo-Banda who is happy when it comes to ensuring every girl learns.
Makankhula Primary School in Dedza is typical of Malawi’s rural schools. While older children learn in classrooms, their younger counterparts sit in the shade beneath giant trees, watching teachers write on portable blackboards leant against a tree.
When the break bell rings, the children run onto the football pitch or set up skipping ropes under the trees. Six children carry a blackboard on their shoulders to one of the buildings.
The outdoor classrooms highlight the challenges faced by a school with only 16 teachers and a handful of classrooms for over 1 200 children.
“We don’t have enough classrooms, textbooks and pens for all the children,” head teacher Bernadetta Chikalenda says. “It’s hardest for the classes outside. Instead of listening to the teachers, the children watch the cars on the road. The teachers’ salary is often late and some are not receiving the rural teachers’ allowance.”
Despite all these challenges, the school works hard to provide quality education for the children.
“It’s about the passion,” deputy head Hetherwick Phalira says. “We treat them as if they are our own children. We’re not just here for the salary.”
Skills for life
Esther Ndiwo-Banda, 30, is one of the teachers at the school, which is supported by the UN Joint Programme on Girls Education. She teaches life skills, expressive arts and Chichewa to 87 pupils in Standard 7.
“It’s not easy,” she says. “The classroom can be very crowded and it’s very difficult to assist every learner. I’ve split them into two groups of fast and slow learners. From next term, I will have a smaller class but will need to teach nine subjects.”
Partly because of these large class sizes and poverty in the surrounding area, dropout rates are very high.
But now the school is working to prevent dropouts by linking up with the local community.
Teachers work with the parent-teachers association, local mothers’ groups and village heads to identify children at risk of dropping out and persuade their parents of the benefits of keeping them in school.
“If we notice learners are not coming to school, we go to their houses to find out why,” Ndiwo-Banda says. “We tell the parents about the importance of education. We talk about the problems they’re facing and help them find solutions.”
One of the children Ndiwo-Banda has helped is 16-year-old Sophilati. Two years ago, Sophilati’s father left her mother Mary for another woman—leaving her with eight children to look after and no financial support. With only occasional farm work to support the family, Mary could not cope. Sophilati dropped out of school to help her.
“Sophilati is very intelligent, she’s one of the best learners in my class,” Ndiwo-Banda says. “I went to see her mother and explained that this is not the way to solve her problems, it will only create more problems. I said that Sophilati has potential; she can do a lot in life. If she is educated now, she can help you more in the future. And if she is at school, we can seek support for her.”
Mary agreed to send Sophilati back to school and Ndiwo-Banda secured exercise books and pens for her.
Despite earning just K75 000 a month, including the rural teacher allowance, Ndiwo-Banda also provides financial support to the family from her own pocket.
Later, when Sophilati suffered malaria and pneumonia, Esther secured K4 500 from the school budget to take her to hospital.
There is obvious warmth between them.
“I was very happy when Sophilati came back to school because I remembered how people encouraged me when I was her age,” she says with a smile. “Last year, she came third out of 87 in the class. I thought ‘this is the work of my hands’. If I hadn’t helped her, she would have got married and had a very different life. I try to help her become what she wants to be in life, to help her become independent.”
Advocating for change
Unicef is working to keep children in schools, with a particular focus on adolescent girls.
The UN children’s organisation is lobbying government to address class sizes and teacher shortages by increasing the rural teachers’ allowance in hard-to-reach areas.
Unicef is also calling for free basic education to be extended by two years to age 15, and for full implementation of national school standards, including identifying and working with the families of vulnerable children to prevent school dropout.
“What we see in Makankhula School is a great example of the child-friendly approach,” Unicef education specialist Kimanzi Muthengi says. “Rather than just focusing on academic performance, teachers like Esther take account of the child’s entire situation, including their home environment, and intervene to prevent dropout. This requires support from school management. We would like to see this approach taken in all schools in Malawi.”
For Sophilati, being back at school provides a second chance for her whole family.
“When Ndiwo-Banda came to my house, I knew I had to go back to school,” Sophilati says. “I feel much better now, I’m more settled and I know how to avoid problems. When I leave school, I’d like to be a doctor or nurse so I can provide for my family and help people in the village who are sick. To succeed these days you have to be educated.” n