It is World Water Day. Our Staff Writer JAMES CHAVULA highlights how water is transforming a school once left behind.
In 2016, villages along Kalambe stream in Salima completed the first steps to make education safe for children who used to walk long distances to school.
They moulded bricks and constructed a school block to liberate young children from swelling streams to get to Demera Primary School, almost five kilometres away.
“During the rainy season, pupils, from Standard One to Three, couldn’t go to school. They were afraid of being washed away.
“Many children were starting Standard One much older than their peers from the other side of the stream. Some were quitting school because of long walks to Demera,” says Stanley Belekena, the headteacher at Kalambe Junior Primary School.
But the 300 pupils spread from Standard One to Three at the emerging school had no safe water in sight.
This presented a new cause for worry to both parents and teachers at the school without a staff room.
Sitting in a shadow of a new classroom block taking shape at Kalambe, the head teacher looks back to “dangerous days” when learners often missed classes due to waterborne diseases and long walks to fetch drinking water in surrounding villages.
“The pupils used to walk long distances the size of five football fields to get to an overwhelmed borehole in the community. They were wasting a lot of time queuing for water instead of being in class,” says Belekana.
Sometimes, he explains, they would be away for 20 minutes, missing two thirds of the lesson underway.
Not any longer.
Unicef Malawi, with funding from UK Aid, drilled a borehole at Kalambe in response to requests from the school committee.
“We approached Salima District Council to demand safe water because our children and teachers were sitting on a time bomb,” says Belekena.
The five teachers are elated because the learners no longer flee classes to drink water. They remain in class to learn. Absenteeism has also dropped, they say.
“Previously, up to six pupils were missing classes due to diarrhoea. Now, only one or two absentees complain about the disease,” says Belekena.
Now, the pupils wash hands after using the toilet and before they start eating food.
In this way, the borehole is improving learning, sanitation and hygiene.
However, over half of the world’s schools lack access to safe water.
“Children everywhere need access to safe water and decent toilets at home and at school. Those living without these two are at higher risk of waterborne and sanitation-related diseases. We thank Unicef for giving us the greatest gift for our children,” says school committee chairperson Masulani Tayani.
His committee and community members are constructing six latrines at the school.
“Like water, toilets are essential to keep children healthy and safe in school. More latrines are needed as we seek to expand the school up to Standard Eight,” states Tayani.
In January, the pupils at Kalambe started receiving porridge in a national school-feeding programme credited with reducing malnutrition and increasing enrolment, attendance and performance.
“Our children were lagging behind. We wanted them to start eating porridge in school like their colleagues at Demera. We have water and toilets. Why should poor pupils fail to learn because of chronic hunger in their homes?” Tayani asks.
Registers show absenteeism accounts for up to 20 pupils during the growing season, especially in January, February and March when hunger bites hard.
“Some drop out because of hunger,” states Belekena, explaining: “The school-feeding programme will keep pupils in school regardless of where they come from.”
The borehole has not only improved the learning environment at Kalambe Primary School, but also liberated a community left behind in the global push for Sustainable Development Goal (SDG)Six: ensuring everyone uses safe water.
It serves some households from the neighbouring Gomonda Village who were drinking water from stagnant pools in the floodplain before Unicef installed the borehole.
According to Salima district water officer Wakimati Mchungwa, the shoreline district will achieve the global goal and end cholera if ongoing investment and partnerships persists.
“With 85 percent of the district’s population having safe water, SDG6 looks achievable if we maintain concerted efforts. We cannot talk about this success without mentioning partners like Unicef which has drilled five boreholes in Salima this year alone,” he says.
Away from Kalambe, the United Nations (UN) children fund provides safe water to Mndewere and Mtenje villages, which were affected by cholera because people were drinking contaminated water from Lipimbi River.
The children’s organisation, bankrolled by UK Aid, drilled 46 boreholes in Salima, Lilongwe, Karonga and other districts affected by the outbreak which hit about 1 000 people and killed 33.
“Increased access to safe water can reduce cholera outbreaks. With improved sanitation, sources of cholera will be contained. We are supporting government to improve provision of water, sanitation and hygiene,” says Patrick Okuni, chief of water, sanitation and hygiene.
At Kalambe, Feniya Makuluni is happy that her two children have water within reach when they go to school.
“Our children are learning in a safe environment. They no longer arrive at school tired or miss lessons. As parents, we are proud of what we have achieved to ensure children. Safe water is part of this success story.”
And the tale continues with a new school block taking shape brick by brick using water from the borehole. n