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A dream dumped in inclusiveness

He feels lonely in a class of 60. Very few teachers attend to him as they go around assisting other learners.

At the end of the day, he goes back home, where he faces yet other challenges. On a lucky day, he finds a balanced meal, which he has to share with other four siblings. He then goes to the nearby lake to swim.

What he does not forget everyday is to gather infants within his village and imitate the act of teaching them. In his village, he is a teacher. He must, surely, have dreamt about becoming a teacher some day.

Surely, the future of 15-year-old Chikondi Mdala, a multiple-challenged Standard Three learner at Nansenga Primary School in Mangochi, remains dark.

Chikondi goes to school because he wants to be there. But while his friends learn and progress in their education pursuits, Chikondi has been stuck in Standard Three, despite going to school every day.

He has intellectual disabilities that require special support from teachers, a luxury he does not have at his school. He has mental, hearing and speech impairment challenges.

While in class, he is mostly alone while his friends busy themselves with books. He can neither write nor read. He is actually learning how to hold a pencil and bend letters and numbers. All this because, at his school, there are no specialist teachers to attend to him as well as other pupils with special needs.

His mother, Margret Joseph, is widowed. To compound her worries, she fears for the future of her child. She explains that, from the look of things, Chikondi has a passion for learning because, out of her four school-going children, he is the first to get ready for school everyday. He does not need to be reminded about getting ready for school.

“Sometimes, when I look at him, I shed tears because I know that he will always be a burden for his relatives once I am dead,” Joseph says.

Ironically, Chikondi’s younger brother, who is three years younger than him, is in Standard Seven at the same school.

The mother elaborates that, unlike other Standard Three pupils, Chikondi does not know how to write or read simple words.

As such, the mother believes that the boy is in Standard Three because teachers do not want to disappoint him by keeping him stuck in Standard One.

But the fact is that Chikondi is not progressing in terms of knowledge acquisition.

“It is painful for me that, unlike other children in the country, my child will not have a chance to learn because of his condition. I wish I had money to send him to school, where he can be assisted by experts,” she sums up her fears and hopes.

Sadly, Chikondi is among a hoard of children who are dumped at the school without being attended to.

Nansenga Primary School has a total of 12 learners that require specialist teachers. But, out of 11 teachers at the institution, nobody has Special Needs Education skills.

Again, specialist teachers just do not visit the school to assist the learners.

Linda Banda is a Standard Three teacher at the school. Her challenge is to deal with pupils with special needs as she indicates that she has not received any training to help her deal effectively with learners who have the will to learn but are let down by circumstances.

The school, registered as a junior primary in the books, has about 600 pupils, most of them concentrated in the infant section where Banda teaches.

She explains how hard it is to reach out to special need pupils in a class full of other learners who demand attention.

“Often times, we even forget that we have cases that require special attention. Our work is too demanding. The situation is out of our hand. But it pains us to see that we are failing, not because we want to fail, but because we cannot do otherwise,” she says.

Headteacher Joseph Chipanga concedes that lack of specialist teachers at the school is proving to be a setback to children with special needs because, when they come to school, they expect to be attended to, but end up being secluded due to the unavailability of teachers.

“We used to have a lot of children with special needs here. But some of them have stopped coming to school after their parents noted that they were not being attended to here. This is worrisome because we are creating a problem we will not be able to find a solution to,” Chipanga says.

In a desperate attempt to reach out to all learners, Chipanga says the school encourages teachers to place children with special needs in front of the class so that they can be noticed whenever they have a need.

But this, he says, does not offer a guarantee that the learners will be able to understand the teachers because the teachers are, themselves, not skilled enough to communicate with such children.

The case for Chikondi and Nansenga Primary School is not isolated. Despite Malawi having an inclusive education policy, findings on the ground reveal that implementation remains a challenge.

For instance, Mangochi has 12 specialist teachers against 291 primary schools, a development which is said to be disadvantaging children with special needs.

Coordinator for Special Needs Education in Mangochi, Clara Njawala, says the situation is dire.

“We need to increase the number of specialist teachers in our schools because there is an increased enrollment of children with special needs,” Njawala says.

Apart from this challenge, stigma and discrimination seem to be deep-rooted in some communities.

Some parents are also reported to be locking up children with impairment due to sigma that is also suffered by the parents. Some of them are ashamed of their children as some parts of the society continue to view disabled people as sinners.

However Malawi, as a member of the United Nations, is obliged to honour article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which, in part, orders member countries to recognise the right of people with disabilities to education.

Director of Special Needs Education in the Ministry of Education, David Njaidi, admits that the inclusive education policy is facing some challenges such that it has not started bearing desired fruits.

However, Njaidi says, as a Ministry, they see some changes in the attitude of parents and teachers as regards support to learners with special needs, as opposed to when the policy was not in place.

“We have seen an increase in enrollment of special needs education learners, a development that has resulted in enrollment figures moving up from 90, 000 in 2015 to 120,000 in 2016. This is encouraging although we are aware that some children are not getting support from teachers due to lack of skills,” Njaidi says.

Whatever the case, at least learners such as Chikondi have shown willingness to remain in school.

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