Freeing Chikala Primary School learners from weather mesh
Set against the backdrop of green vegetation, brown brick structures and clay houses, the white classroom structures stand like islands at Chikala Primary School in Zomba.
But, as recently as 2014, there was nothing— save for the imposing Chikala Teachers Development Centre—distinguishing the classrooms at Chikala Primary School from the rest of the structures in Chipeta Village as, just like in village, the only reliable water source was a borehole. And, like most parts of the village, teachers’ houses had no tap water and were not connected to the national power grid.
In fact, as Chikala Primary School head teacher, Donald Muweruza, puts it, teaching and learning used to be a nightmare for teachers and learners, respectively.
“We had up to 600 pupils who were learning outside. For a primary school that has 1,969 learners, that  was a very big figure. Worse still, learning activities used to be disturbed whenever we had rains or the weather was windy,” Muweruza says.
However, it seems that community members under Village Headman Chipeta, Traditional Authority Chikowi, in the district have a never-give-up spirit. Led by Parents Teacher Association and School Management Committee, they mobilised themselves.
They baked bricks, fetched sand, contributed labour and constructed some classrooms. They succeeded in solving some of the problems but not all the problems, and some pupils were still learning outside— subjected to the dictates of the weather.
Muweruza says, everyday, the learners looked up to two things: the weather and the lessons.
“But the weather, predictably, took precedence over the [learners interest in] the lessons and this, really, had a negative impact on their education. Most notably, the dropout rate was high. There were learners who could not stand up to all these [challenges] and the easy way out was dropping out of school. And, to a teacher, there is no moment more painful than seeing a learner drop out of school,” Muweruza says.
And, then, a Good Samaritan— in the name of JTI Leaf Malawi Limited— came in and, within months, erected school blocks using environment-friendly prefabricated classroom materials. Classrooms built using prefabricated material are also called modular buildings, and these buildings can be homes, temporary classrooms, church meeting houses, halls, among other structures.
According to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, while modular construction is gaining popularity in learning institutions, the practice of pre-fabrication is not a new phenomenon as modular construction dates back to the early 1900s.
While Muweruza may not care about such details, he certainly cares about the welfare of learners and teachers under his supervision, and cannot hide his joyful feelings.
“Ever since JTI provided six classrooms, the 600 learners who had no classrooms have been accommodated. Learning outside is a thing of the past. In addition, JTI has also constructed expensive staff toilets. Teachers’ houses and an administration block have been erected and all the houses are electrified, although we are yet to start using the electricity. We have piped water in every [teacher’s] house, including the Primary Education Advisor’s [house],” Muweruza says.
The story does not end at the provision of electricity, piped water, prefabricated classrooms, teachers’ houses and administration block, though. Muweruza says JTI has also provided learners’ books and study books from Standard 1 to 8— in addition to the water tap that is set to replace the rickety borehole that has seen the best part of its span.
Of course, this does not mean all problems affecting primary school attendance at Chikala— and, indeed, primary schools in Malawi— are over. According to the Journal of Nutrition, a number of factors contribute to the retention of learners in local primary schools, among them poor health and nutrition.
The journal, in a report published on June 26 2013, indicates that: “In developing countries, schoolchildren encounter a number of challenges, including failure to complete school, poor health and nutrition, and poor academic performance”.
The journal, in an article titled ‘Early-Stage Primary School Children Attending a School in the Malawian School Feeding Program (SFP) Have Better Reversal Learning and Lean Muscle Mass Growth Than Those Attending a Non-SFP School’ indicates that “… it is perhaps worthy of note that our study cohort experienced a 19.6 percent drop-out rate among non-School Feeding Programme school children compared with the drop-out rate of 12.3 percent among the SFP school children.”
So, this means it is not only the provision of non-leaking classrooms, books and potable water that matters. Factors such as the provision of food, come into play too. Indeed, a survey conducted some seven years ago backs this line of thinking.
According to the report of the Malawi national micronutrient survey of 2009, micronutrient deficiencies of vitamin A and iron were present in 33 and 27 percent of Malawian school children, respectively.
Embracing new technology
JTI communications manager, Jayne Munthali, says her company opted for prefabricated materials due to their durability.
“We felt that, as part of our corporate social responsibility, we should solve some of the challenges faced by teachers and learners at Chikala Primary School by providing a solution that would promote access to education for many years to come. For your information, we have guarantees that the modular blocks can be used for up to 20 years,” Munthali says.
Munthali observes that, as an institution that depends on Malawi tobacco to remain in business, it appreciates the need to give back to the community, hence its decision to enter into partnership with community members in the cities of Zomba, Lilongwe and Mzimba District Council.
“When we go into a community, we enter into agreements and partnerships. We know that 10,000 tobacco farmers we have in Malawi send their children to school and, when we noted that water was a problem and that congestion was another problem at Chikala Primary School in Zomba as well as in Lilongwe and Mzimba, we decided to provide modular blocks.
“Among other advantages, it takes less than a month to erect structures with prefabricated materials and, again, modular blocks are friendly to the environment because community members do not have to cut down trees or bake bricks to construct the blocks,” Munthali says.
Munthali says JTI is committed to helping the government achieve its education goals, and pledges to help out whenever the need arises. She says the cigarette manufacturer is committed to improving sanitation levels by constructing toilets and pit latrines in a bid to help community members prevent water-borne diseases such as cholera.
“We are doing all this to ensure that tobacco, which is the backbone of the Malawi economy, is sustainable. In Lilongwe, we are carrying out similar projects in Chitukula community, close to Kamuzu International Airport, as well as in Mzimba. In all cases, we also provide desks and other learning materials,” Munthali says.
However, while challenges have become lighter for Chikala Primary School teachers and learners, Primary Education Advisor for Chikala Zone, Nehru Banda, observes that other primary schools in the area remain under the shadow of uncertainties due to resource-constraints.
“The problem of classrooms is very common in the 12 primary schools in my area. Of course, we have the necessary materials but we still need building, teaching and learning materials – although we buy some of these things. In most cases, learners do not necessarily learn under trees but, as we can all appreciate, materials and resources cannot be adequate,” Banda says.
For now, though, come rain or sunshine, weather patterns will no longer trap Chikala Primary School learners in a mesh of anxiety.
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