Monday to Friday, Thokozani Mbisa spends two hours walking up and down Mchokera Hills to get to Mitsidi Secondary School in Blantyre.
The 15-year-old girl endures the shattering two-hour hike because she wants to become an accountant—and it appears she will stop at nothing to realise her colourful dream.
Thokozani comes from a poor family, with her mother being the sole bread-winner. The Form One learner is a model for her peers in group village head Mulanga, a rural setting in Traditional Authority (T/A) Somba, Blantyre, where many girls marry before they reach their 18th birthday.
She is the first among her six siblings to go to secondary school. She is the fourth born in her family.
“Climbing those hills every day is extremely hard for me. How I wish I had an opportunity to go to a boarding school. If an opportunity doesn’t arise, I will persevere until I finish Form Four,” she says.
Thokozani also struggles to source school fees, clothes and food. Her mother bakes mandasi [fritters] for sale, the only source of Thokozani’s tuition fees.
“My mother tries her best, but being a single parent is very disturbing. Sometimes, I fail to attend classes due to lack of school fees,” she explains.
There are many girls in Malawi facing similar challenges.
Some of them drop out of school because they cannot cope with the long walks to school and financial hardships exerted by rising school fees.
In 2015, the Global Partnership for Education reported that about 70 percent of children of school-going age do not have access to education due to an array of barriers, including long distance to school as well as lack of school fees, clothing and guardians’ support.
To retain more learners in school, government last year abolished school fees, textbook revolving fund and general purpose fund.
Despite the abolishment of tuition fees in public secondary schools, long distances, inadequate infrastructure, teaching and learning materials and teachers persist.
Ministry of Education, Science and Technology spokesperson Lindiwe Chide says government is working “very hard to ensure that education is accessible to all learners through construction of more classroom blocks and provision of both teaching and learning materials”.
She says:“A lot of work is being done and, shortly, government will start constructing seven secondary schools in each district of the country. This is meant to cut short the distances that learners travel to school.”
According to Chide, government is also constructing boarding facilities for girls in secondary schools.
Civil Society Education Coalition executive director Benedicto Kondowe applauds strides towards ensuring every girl learns, but says there is need for government to hasten the efforts to “save the suffering students” like Thokozani.
“The reason some learners drop out of school is lack of support and long distances to school. We need to make education accessible to fight school dropout rates,” he says.
The number of girls dropping out of school slows the national campaign to end child marriages and teen pregnancy.
According to the 2015 Malawi Demographic and Health Survey, nearly half of girls in the country marry before they reach 18.
Thokozani’s village is home to numerous women who married before reaching the legal marriageable age.
Child marriages and school dropout rates in Mulanga Village are high, but she is geared to complete her education and uplift her family and the country.
She has vowed to stay away from risky sexual relationships and the false allure of marrying young until she completes her education and her dream comes true.
“I have learned a lot from my three sisters who are going through tough time in their marriages. Some girls from our community, who completed their education, are doing better. They inspire me to keep learning,” she explains.
Thokozani wishes her transfer to a boarding school occurred before she sits Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) examinations in four years time.
“I really wish Mitsidi Secondary School had boarding facilities because the distance I cover everyday affects my performance in class,” she says.