At the foot of Chambe Peak on Mulanje Mountain lies Nkanda Primary School, which has produced the highest performer in the just released Primary School Leaving Certificate of Education(PSLCE) examinations.
Faith Mhanda, 13, defied the odds at the 64-year-old school to score 450 marks out of 500 in the national examinations.
She beat pupils from urban schools—with more teachers and learning materials—than that institution founded by the CCAP Blantyre Synod in 1955.
For her feat, Faith, born and raised in Kazembe Village in the hilly setting, has been selected to Providence Secondary School in the district.
Always top of class
According to Malawi National Examinations Board (Maneb), Faith tops the list of 82 072 learners selected to various schools across the country—after 218 756 Standard Eight learners sat the exams in May.
This constitutes a 77.46 percent pass rate, down from 79 percent last year. Mulanje district came third, outshone by Phalombe and Zomba Urban.
At Faith’s school this year, out of 247 pupils who sat the examinations, 236 passed and 37 have been selected to secondary schools.
According to her teacher, Faith has always been top in class, since Standard One, even though she did not go to a nursery school.
Her rise started at six, when she enrolled at the school which has 3 500 learners served by 47 teachers. There are 14 classrooms, falling short of seven to accommodate all. Learners in Standards Three, Four and Five learn under trees, in a CCAP prayer house and old classrooms without desks.
Faith was among 129 learners in Standard Eight B. They had four teachers.
Her top secret
Shortage of teaching and learning materials could have slowed her, but she worked hard. She maintained the passion to learn, scoring over 90 percent in all subjects on her way to the top.
Says Faith: “I strived to excel in my studies. So, I always loved reading, solving arithmetic and discussing lessons with friends.”
She also chose her friends carefully, most of whom have also been selected to various secondary schools.
“I thank my parents for the support I received at home. They used to tell me to work hard and always gave me what I needed for school,” she explains.
Unlike many, Faith is one of two children in a family of civil servants. Her father is the head teacher at Chambe Secondary School and her mother heads Milonga Community Day Secondary School (CDSS).
Martha Kapalamula-Mhanda says she noticed that her daughter had a burning urge for education at an early age, and they gave her full parental support.
Equally speaking the same language, teachers at Nkanda say Faith was exceptional both in class and outside.
“She was attentive and always had hunger for success. She never shied away from asking for help where she did not understand something,” says Standard Eight teacher Sophie Chakuwa.
But for a rural school to beat the best, there had to be special measures.
Says head teacher Justin Kachala: “At the start of the 2018/19 academic year, we met with parents and told them to encourage their children to attend classes without fail, study at home every night, monitor their progress and support them with what they needed.”
Kachala says Standard Eight teachers introduced extra lessons—every afternoon—during holidays.
“Through these lessons, teachers covered the syllabus and had enough time for revision,” he said.
Aiding the teachers, Nkanda Parents and Teachers Association (PTA) has remained active to reduce the number of learners playing truant.
“We always made sure learners were punctual and maintained discipline. We patrolled the surrounding areas, ensuring no learner absconded classes,” says PTA chairperson Samuel Tikhiniwa.
Chiefs in the area have adopted by-laws to protect girls from child marriages, which are widespread in Mulanje.
According to Malawi Demographic and Health Survey, nearly half of girls in the country marry before their 18th birthday, with a third of adolescents getting pregnant every year.
“We introduced fines for parents marrying off girls aged below 18. Now parents are supporting their daughters to remain in school,” says Chief Nkanda.
Tribute to teachers
In an interview, Civil Society Education Coalition (CSEC) executive director Benedicto Kondowe says other learners should emulate Faith.
“We urge all learners to be symbols of hard work, good discipline and excellence. For this reason, we further encourage parents and guardians to support their wards, for no one achieves their dream without support from their parents or guardians,” he says.
Kondowe commends the teachers for their dedication to ensure girls such as Faith succeed in school.
“We say ‘bravo’ to the teachers of her school. They should remain committed to their calling,” he said.
And Faith promised to keep soaring until her dreams come true.
She says: “I’ve already started preparing for secondary school and I will continue to work hard. I want to become a medical doctor.”