Communities in Mchinji, under the influence of the Gender Equality and Women Empowerment (Gewe) programme, are making use of every available local trick and resource in the book to get children to school and keep them there, writes MACDONALD CHAPALAPATA, A CORRESPONDENT
They are just ordinary people, most of them without shoes.
But they can offer enough lessons to the rest of the country.
For 50 years, Malawi has looked outside of itself for solutions to the many of its problems.
Fifty years today, the country is still pathetically low in everything. Agriculture is still too basic even though it is classified as the country’s economic engine.
Health is not even up to scratch.
The economy is always reeling in a blood-dimmed wave, offering no lasting hope.
The landscape continues to be degraded.
The woes are many and daunting.
In Mchinji, ordinary people are showing the way through making use of what they have, including their energies and creativity, to change their society.
“We have everything we need to solve our problems. What we needed was direction,” says Kennedy Ngawande, member of the local development committee in Traditional Authority Kapondo’s area in the district.
That direction came courtesy of the Gender Equality and Women Empowerment (Gewe) programme which is being implemented in the area by Creative Centre for Community Mobilisation (Creccom).
Gewe is a Malawi government programme which is being supported by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the European Union (EU).
In the programme, UNFPA and EU are supporting the Ministry of Gender, Children and Social Welfare to reduce gender inequalities between men, women, girls and youths in accessing productive resources and development opportunities.
The programme is also intended to promote decision making in order to contribute positively to the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS) and accelerate attainment of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).
Gewe is being implemented in 13 districts across the country.
Its approach includes making the most of local energies and structures in mainstreaming gender equality and women empowerment in the sectors of agriculture, transport, health and education.
Ngawande says the programme has helped the community to be creative in dealing with some of the challenges the area has been facing, one of which is poor pupil attendance in schools in the area.
For instance, Gule wamkulu, a cultural ‘animal’ widely respected in the central region, is often associated with the dark arts.
To the uninitiated, it is an inscrutable, unexplainable and mythical being seen to be with powers to inflict damage at will on a human being.
That is why an accidental encounter with a typical Gule wamkulu becomes a chilling moment.
But people in Traditional Authority Kapondo exploited its awe-inspiring character to improve attendance in schools in the area.
“Gule wamkulu is highly respected here, even feared I should say. So we thought we should use gule wamkulu to hunt children to school. It is working very well because many children, especially girls, were not going to school which was bad,” Ngawande says.
In the area, school management committees, village development committees, mother groups and other local structures have teamed up to form a formidable force to drive the development of their area.
As more and more children turn up in schools, the swelling population is stretching classrooms.
“We are responding to that by building more school blocks and in many of these projects, women are taking a leading role not only in terms of fetching water for moulding bricks but also contributing ideas and decisions at community level,” Ngawande says.
One of the schools that have benefited from the people’s industry and creativity is Chafuta Primary School where the community constructed a block to accommodate Standard 1 to 4 classes.
Before Gewe programme, the school used to register high rate of absenteeism partly because of lack of classroom blocks and toilets.
There was one block for four classrooms such that some of the classes had to be conducted in the open. These were often interrupted during rainy season.
The school also lacked toilets, a situation which made it inconvenient for pupils, especially girls most of whom ended up dropping out of school.
Initially, there were 430 learners at the school but as much as 280 dropped out.
Concerned and triggered by the Gewe programme, they brainstormed how to deal with the problem.
The people agreed that each household should contribute K1, 000 towards the making of bricks for a new classroom block. They collected a total of K108, 000 with which they produced 100, 000 bricks which was used to construct a new block.
The new block saw the school registering 444 pupils last year and no one has dropped out.
Ali Jangiya is 12 years old and is in Standard 4 at the school. Rahabe Chikungwa is 10 years old and is in Standard 3.
They both testify that until recently, things have been difficult for pupils at the school.
“We were lacking enough learning rooms and space to shelter us during rainy season. The situation is better now,” says Rahabe, although she bemoans that they have few teachers at the school.
The children are also being kept in school by the initiatives in the community. Getrude Zakaria is vice chairperson of a Star Circle where members contribute K2,000 each. With this money, they purchased basins for use at the school.
They also use the money to buy uniform for needy girls and they lobbied for the construction of toilets.
Witness Jangiya, head teacher at the school, says until the new school block came, many of his pupils were exposed to the sun and when it became too much, lessons could be abandoned.
He said with one block available previously, the head teacher’s house was being used as the schools administration office and this also affected service delivery.
“There is still need for teachers’ houses because we have only one house for the head teacher. But things have improved and the community is doing amazing things,” he says.
And Ngawande says they are determined.
“We have solutions within us. Wherever we can, we will do our part to help government in promoting development in our area, to do something for our country,” he says.
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