From Monday to Friday every fortnight at 11am, Lilongwe-based 17-year-old Linda Phiri starts off for Mkwichi Secondary School located about 15 kilometres from her home in Area 25.
With a mother who teaches at a nursery school and a father who is not fully employed, life is hard for Linda as sometimes she has to walk to and from school.
“My mother gives me K500 everyday as transport money which is not enough as it excludes lunch. Every time my friends are enjoying their lunch, I have to focus on other things because I do not have money to get myself anything to eat,” narrates Linda.
Courtesy of support from a well-wisher, Linda’s parents are not burdened with school fees.
She says: “Every term, I receive K70 000 for school fees and other needs from my sponsor, but I divert it to other necessities in the house.
“My parents are not well-to-do and we lack a lot of things and I cannot let them suffer when I have money. So, the supposed to be transport money is used to cater for other basic needs at home.”
Walking to school becomes a challenge when Linda is supposed to be in the second shift which starts at 12:30 pm.
From Area 25 to Area 47 where the school is located, it takes her about one hour to reach her destination.
“With the rainy season here, my fear is how I will be walking from school. We knock off at 5pm and I am normally home between 6pm and 6:20pm,” adds Linda.
To reduce congestion in schools, government introduced the double shift policy in some secondary schools which at some point has managed to fulfil the needed purpose even though almost 98.3 percent of schools in the country still cling to the single shift.
Mkwichi Secondary School head teacher Besta Kabula says being one of the best government schools in the city, most students do not want to transfer to other nearby schools.
“It is true that some students come from far places within the city because they find the school better and affordable than the rest. As such most of them have difficulties when it comes to transport since their parents cannot afford to offer them money every day.
“Our major worry comes when its rainy season as some students fail to make it to school for fear of being soaked in the rain and it slowly affects their performance,” she says.
Findings of the 2017-2018 Annual Education Statistics Bulletin looked at how accessible schools are to each other in the country.
The survey assumed that closeness of schools in terms of distance acts as a support element of promoting continued interaction and sharing of education information and facilities among schools.
In most cases, a large number of schools have distances of less than five kilometres (km) apart with Central West Education Division having most schools with the shortest distances, that is, of less than five km apart, followed by schools in the Northern Education Division, Central East Education Division and South West Education Division.
For students like Linda who lack basic needs, there is need for motivation if they are to continue with their studies as the distance and time factors are not making their education ride easy.
The 2013 National Education Policy indicates that the introduction of free primary education in Malawi in 1994 resulted in an increase in primary enrolments and this had put pressure on places for secondary education which did not expand at the same rate as the primary sub-sector.
Education activist Steve Sharra says inadequate school infrastructure and inefficiencies in the deployment of teachers has made the double shift policy to have its disadvantages and advantages.
“Some schools have shortage of classrooms so they create two shifts and also the deployment of teachers has been an issue due to lack of data on teachers, subject specialisation and number of schools. Otherwise, there are about 390 000 secondary school students and about 15 000 secondary school teachers in the country.
“This gives a teacher to pupil ratio of 1:26 which is not that bad, but due to other issues secondary schools continue to face various challenges and to avert them government need to increase the number of infrastructure and number of teachers,” he says.
True to Sharra’s observations, many organisations in the country have been helping government in building school infrastructure but the need is still much as they are inadequate.
Action Aid Malawi country director Assan Golowa says the organisation has dedicated much of its projects to building hostels to reduce the challenges faced by students when they travel long distances to school.
“It is no longer a secret that those who cover long distances to reach the next secondary school risk their lives and it’s time for government to upgrade the general community day secondary schools to boarding schools for our children to be safe and access their education,” he says.