By Francis Thawani:
From poverty, hunger, inadequate school facilities to sexual and gender-based violence, schoolchildren in Malawi face multiple challenges that prevent them from accessing quality education.
The World Food Programme (WFP) has been the largest provider of school feeding in the country since 1999. In 2019, WFP supported 786 primary schools, including Nkanda School in Mulanje District, and reached 1.1 million preschool and primary school learners with meals. The meals enabled the learners to stay in school and concentrate better.
So, despite the odds, children such as Faith Mhanda are rising to the top. The 13-year-old is from a rural village at the foot of Mulanje Mountain.
She emerged the best performer in her primary school examinations for 2019.
With 450 marks out of 500 in the national tests, Faith scored better than nearly 219,000 other learners, including those who attended well-resourced urban schools with better learning environments.
Among learners selected to attend various institutions, she came first out of 82,072, winning a place at Providence Secondary School, one of the best girls’ schools in Malawi.
Various kinds of support helped Faith to achieve the feat.
She is the younger of two children in a family of teachers. Her father is the Head teacher at Chambe Secondary School while her mother heads Milonga Community Day Secondary School in the border district. “My parents supported and encouraged me.
They taught me that it is possible to be selected for a good and reputable secondary school,” Faith says. “They told me that better secondary schools are not just for learners from rich families and urban schools.”
Nkanda School has 14 classrooms against the needed 21, a situation that means children across three grades must take lessons under the shelter of trees and in old rooms without desks.
“My teachers took the extra time and effort to teach us beyond their normal and compensated hours so that we could pass our examinations with flying colours,” says Faith.
Her school has 3,500 learners who are taught by 47 teachers, and the learner-teacher ratio is nearly 25 percent higher than the recommended 60:1. Despite being overstretched, teachers went the extra mile to prepare Faith and her classmates for the examinations outside their working hours.
There were also daily meals which made sure that even those who left their homes hungry had something to eat while at school.
“Above all, I worked very hard to do well in my examinations and to never disappoint those who assisted me. I had some challenges on the way, like poor learning facilities and not enough teaching, but these did not put me off. I kept going,” Faith says. She aspires to become a doctor when her hard work pays off, but that is not all.
“I will pursue further studies so that I work at a medical school to train others. I know I have to work very hard to achieve my goal. This is a reputable school, but I don’t take that for granted. I must do well in all subjects, particularly sciences, to get where I want to be,” she concludes.
Providence Secondary School has produced renowned individuals, including Malawi’s first female president Joyce Banda, a doctor Susan Kambale, and lawyer-cum-human rights activist Seodi White. WFP’s school feeding programme supports the
Government of Malawi’s the National Education Sector Plan and the National Social Support Programme, where school feeding is one of the five priority social nets.
Studies estimate that for every $1 spent on school feeding, at least $6 are returned in better health and productivity when learners reach adulthood.