Breaking disability boundaries, courting success

Agnes NyaLonje

By Feston Malekezo & Richard Chirombo

When, six years ago, Malawi started implementing the National Inclusive Education Strategy, little did public officials know that they were putting 14-year-old Ellen Mwazembe on the path to success.

Before the launch, the Nahayombo Primary School special needs learner was wondering how she would meet her dream of becoming a nurse.


“Nursing has always appealed to me because I like reaching out to others, bailing out those that need the help of others. Medicine offers such possibilities,” said the Chitipa-based Mwazembe.

It has, however, not been smooth-sailing for her.

“I once dropped out of school because, as a special needs learner, I was facing a number of challenges. I was very scared when I first enrolled for classes because I was facing some resistance and stigma. My problem is that I don’t see very far. I also have diabetes mellitus.


“Fortunately, when I dropped out of school, some people reached out to me and encouraged me to enrol for classes again and I am hopeful that things will change for the better,” she said.

Ironically, she was facing challenges when, as far back as 2007, the Government of Malawi introduced Inclusive Education in its bid to ensure that every child, including those with physical challenges, had unhindered access to education services.

The problem is that, despite having requisite policies, things have not changed much.

Take, for instance, Lwakwa Primary School in the Northern Region district of Chitipa.

Ten years ago, there were about 20 learners with physical disabilities.

In 2021, the number had risen to 28. Despite this, there was, as of last year, no single special needs teacher.

Further, only one classroom block has a ramp at the doorstep to enable learners that use wheelchairs and crutches to have access to classes.

“We are pleading with the government to send us a special needs teacher because we are struggling,” lamented school head teacher Hellings Mwambeni.

One of the people that are aspiring to become special needs teachers, Fanizani Potani, laments that the government has taken a casual approach to issues related to the training of special needs teachers.

“Despite that special needs teachers are in high demand in the country, the government does not shoulder costs of their education. It is the teachers themselves [who have to raise funds] to get such training,” he said.

Despite having a total of 187 primary schools, Chitipa District has six trained special needs teachers, which only exposes the huge gap in the implementation of inclusive education in the country.

Annually, the office is also given around K5 million, which is not enough, according to one of the education officials in the district.

“There are about 3,000 learners with various forms of disability in Chitipa District but the number of teachers is small,” the official said.

Recently, Chitipa District Monitoring and Evaluation Officer Franklin Mwalwanda indicated that learners with disability were facing challenges because some parents and guardians were not showing interest in educating children with disability.

For Karonga District, the case is not different.

Last year, Lughano Lweya Binga, a special needs teacher, indicated that the district had 3,417 learners with special needs that were attending regular classes, instead of having their own teachers and specialised setups.

He said, while they were on course to meeting inclusive education goals, stigma was one of the stumbling blocks.

Fortunately, partners such as Church of Central Africa Presbyterian Synod of Livingstonia Education Department are implementing a four-year inclusive education project dubbed Promoting Equal Access to Education in Malawi using about K1.1 billion from the Scottish Government.

The synod is implementing the project in three districts of Nkhata Bay, Chitipa and Karonga.

Livingstonia Synod Inclusive Education Project Manager Thomas Nkhonjera said before project implementation started, some parents had a negative attitude towards their special needs children but now most of them are sending their children to school.

“We have a lot of learners with disability in schools but the money allocated towards special needs education is a pittance, which makes it difficult to address all challenges learners are facing.

“We plead with the government to increase the budget allocation to district councils. If more funds would be channelled to the cause of special needs and inclusive education, that would be great. At the same time, the government should strive to build the capacity of learners, considering that we have very few special needs teachers in the country,” he said.

Ministry of Education spokesperson Chikondi Chimala said the government was training 155 specialist teachers in a three-year diploma course in special needs, with another 200 undergoing a Certificate in Inclusive Education Course at Montfort College in Chiradzulu District.

“Machinga TTC [Teachers Training College] is also training 200 specialist teachers through ODL [open distance learning] mode. These teachers will, upon completion of their training, be deployed to all the education districts countrywide, including Chitipa,” he said

Under secondary education, Chimala said the ministry was planning to come up with a postgraduate certificate tailored specifically for secondary school teachers.

“In addition, the ministry has oriented science secondary school teachers in Inclusive Education through the EQUALS Project. We are planning to reach all Secondary school teachers in Malawi, including in Chitipa, through this initiative,” he said.

Education Minister Agnes NyaLonje said the current administration had put education on top of its agenda.

She said, in development, every individual matters.

The hope is that, by and by, the road for learners with special needs will be paved.

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