By Grecium Gama
When 51-year-old Ruth Mitete Njikho heard from the grapevine that a tree had fallen down after failing to stand the pressure of heavy rains 18 years ago, her face got washed by a fountain of tears.
“Without realising it, I started crying because the tree fell to the ground on a Monday, around 10am if I am not mistaken, and reports had it that it had collapsed at Chisambe Primary School, where my fourth-born daughter was schooling,” she says.
To her relief, the mahogany tree in question had collapsed some two kilometres from the school.
“I was relieved. I was happy,” she says.
What that incident did, though, was to open her eyes to the reality, as it were at that moment.
She, and fellow community members, realised that some infrastructure was in a state of disrepair, such that it would not only take the government to erect quality structures; community members, too, had a role to play.
That is how the mother of six saw the need to start taking part in community initiatives aimed at face-lifting the health, agricultural and education sectors in the country.
“Our children were running under trees because education infrastructure such as school blocks was not enough. Thanks to the Local Government authorities, the Central Government, development partners and community members, our children now have roofs over their heads and learn in relatively good structures although infrastructure cannot be enough,” she says.
However, while Chisambe Primary School has some structures, notably classroom blocks, that can compete with those in urban areas, the facilities are not enough.
For insight into some of the challenges the school faces, one just needed to visit the area a year ago, when there was no administration block.
It was as if the public school were a ‘briefcase’ organisation, with important materials such as textbooks being kept in members of staff’s houses.
To make matters worse, most staff members stay far away from school due to lack of teachers’ houses.
When it rained, therefore, teachers would be forced to, umbrella in hand, cover a long distance to school to teach and use the materials.
It was a situation that pricked community members, who saw no need to wait for ward councillors or members of Parliament to do the needful.
They, instead, sprung into action.
The fruit of their effort is a new administration block at Chisambe Primary School, which is under Mathambi Zone in Mulanje District.
One would be mistaken to think that the quality structure standing in the middle of nowhere has been put up using Constituency Development Fund allocations and other government initiatives. Far from it.
It is through community members’ contributions that the primary school has an administration block.
“We could no longer watch the head teacher and teachers struggle to store materials, let alone plan for their work, simply because there was no school block at this institution. An administration block serves a number of purposes, one of which being promoting social cohesion because teachers mingle, exchange ideas and discuss ways of improving their output. It also offers them shelter, which is needed when a teacher is preparing a lesson plan and the like,” says School Management Committee member Emanuel Malola.
“For your information, these members of staff were meeting under a tree. It was so embarrassing that we, as community members, decided that enough was enough. We, therefore, agreed to start mobilising resources so that we could construct an administration block,” he adds.
School head teacher Ramsy Mkwapatira says, following construction of the block, which cost community members K2.2 million, they will now be conducting stuff meetings, preparing lessons and doing other tasks in a proper block and not under a tree as they used to do.
“It is a dream come true for us. With this development, it will be easy for us to find mechanisms for improving learners’ performance,” Mkwapatira says.
Mathambi Zone Primary Education Adviser Sandra Gwilima breathes a sigh of relief.
“What community members have done is encouraging. I urge other schools to emulate this example to solve some minor problems that schools are facing,” she says.
Gwilima believes that, when community members embrace a spirit of awakening and rise to the challenge by constructing, in the case of the Mulanje-based school, an administration block, well-wishers notice and come to the rescue of those who have taken the first step towards addressing a problem.
“We need such coordination in our schools. What these people have done should be an eye-opener,” she says.
Community members say, to avoid a situation that happened in Zomba District, where learners died after a school structure collapsed on them, and in Chitipa District, where learners were recently injured in a school structure-related incident, they followed right procedures to ensure that the structure is of quality.
In Zomba District, at Nantchengwa Primary School to be precise, four learners died after a structure collapsed on them.
The accident, which happened in 2018, saw a classroom wall collapsing on about 60 learners, killing four and injuring 52.
However, compensation has been hard to come by, with one of the affected parents Wilson Bonongwe bemoaning that they were not being helped.
In a bid to promote the erection of quality infrastructure, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology last week ordered district councils in the country to play a proactive role in inspecting schools built by community members to avoid risking lives of learners and teachers.
Education Deputy Minister Monica Chang’anamuno says councils are better placed to make proper follow-ups on the status of schools to avoid cases of accidents that arise due to substandard infrastructure.
Chang’anamuno visited Namatubi Primary School in Chitipa District last week.
A newly built school block at the school collapsed and injured 17 learners from standard two and four on February 24 2022.
“The accident would have been avoided had there been serious supervision during the construction phase. It is sad that the structure was built using mud; hence, when heavy rains came, the structure collapsed on learners.
“Though community members are embarking on their own initiatives in a bid to have structures such as schools, they sometimes lack expertise in terms of how to erect structures.
“As such, we, as a ministry, need to work hand-in-hand with community members to make sure that blocks being erected by community members are durable,” she says.
However, community members around Chisambe Primary School do not expect this to happen.
“We did not compromise on quality. We cannot put our teachers and, by extension, learners, in harm’s way,” Malola says.