In a rare twist to the civil servants’ strike in Malawi, hundreds of pupils from some public primary schools in Blantyre and Lilongwe on Thursday took to the streets, asking authorities to meet their teachers’ salary hike demands so that they can resume learning.
In Blantyre, as President Joyce Banda flew to Malabo, Equatorial Guinea through Chileka Airport, pupils peacefully marched in the streets of the commercial capital to the Independence Drive leading to the presidency’s official residence, Sanjika Palace.
Clad in various school uniforms, the pupils from HHI, Blantyre Girls, Ndirande-Kachere, Nyambadwe and Namiwawa primary schools put business to a standstill as they chanted in unison: “Tikhonza bwanji! Sitikuphunzira! Apolisi mukatiphunzitse! [How are we going to pass examinations when we are not learning! Hey, police officers, come and teach us!].”
The pupils streamed into the streets of the Blantyre Central Business District (CBD), heading towards Sanjika, but they were restrained by armed police near Namiwawa Primary School and MultiChoice Malawi premises.
The pupils, aged between eight and 14, sang songs demeaning the Joyce Banda administration while demanding that they immediately go back to school where teachers had abandoned chalk in solidarity with the civil servants strike which started on February 11.
And in rare defiance, the pupils shoved their way past a police human shield, but they were eventually pushed back by the police officers who resisted using force.
A Standard Eight girl from HHI Primary School said she joined the march in solidarity because their missing classes will ultimately affect their performance during the Primary School Leaving Certificate (PSLC) examinations.
Minutes after they were restrained from proceeding to Sanjika Palace, the pupils brought business to a standstill in the CBD as people came out of their offices and shops watching in awe the comedy unfolding on the Victoria Avenue.
But as the pupils were in joyous mood while the police kept a watchful eye on them, the wailing presidential motorcade returning from escorting the President caused further mayhem as the pupils tried to block the road.
However, the escort police were seen shoving some of them to the sides while kicking others in the process.
Earlier, pupils at Catholic Institute (CI) Primary School off the Blantyre-Chikhwawa Road blocked the road with rocks and concrete blocks. They threw stones at moving vehicles damaging some in the process.
Blantyre Police station officer Dennis Katuya led a legion of armed and unarmed police officers and asked the teachers at CI Primary School to release the pupils.
As the situation subsided, chaos erupted in Zingwangwa Township where pupils and residents smashed glasses of a shop at Zingwangwa (Kudya) Puma Service Station before looting items, leaving shelves empty.
One of the co-owners of the shop and the service station, Mercy Nkali, valued the looted items at about K4 million. She said the shop and the filling station were closed after employees noticed a simmering tension.
In Lilongwe, there were running battles at Lilongwe Demonstration Primary School grounds where hundreds of pupils from several primary schools in Area 25 assembled in protest of the ongoing civil servants strike which has led to some pupils missing classes.
The situation nearly went out of hand and forced the police to fire tear gas at the protesting pupils after they were further incensed at the arrest of a student from the nearby Lilongwe Teacher’s Training College (LTTC).
The fight that ensued thereafter led students from the college to block with stones and tree branches all roads connecting to the primary school campus while singing protest songs.
The pupils, who earlier in the day marched from several surrounding primary schools, assembled at the school grounds as early as 8am to march to Mthunthama State Lodge, one of the official presidential residences, to protest against their not attending classes.
Apart from pupils from Lilongwe Demonstration, some came from as far as Karambo Primary School almost eight kilometres from the assembling point, while others came from Chiuzimbi, Kabwabwa, Mbvunguti and Malembe primary schools.
The Nation crew that visited the place found police officers having a busy time clearing the roads of the debris while the pupils continued blocking the other sides of the roads.
One pupil said the move was their own initiative after observing that while their colleagues from private schools were learning, they are being denied the same opportunity because of the strike.
Said the pupil: “Our aim was to march to the State Lodge so that the President should hear us out. The unfortunate thing is that we will be sitting examinations soon and we feel that this is unfair.”
Kanengo Police Station spokesperson Alfred Chinthere said the police blocked the pupils because they had no permission to demonstrate on the streets.