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Natural disasters punch Shire Valley learners hard

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By Serah Chilora

Natural disasters such as cyclones and storms that Malawi has experienced of late have not only had a devastating effect on infrastructure but claimed lives of many people.

But that is not all; the damage has also been felt academically as education standards in flood-prone areas, particularly in the Shire Valley, have gone down.

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When The Sunday Times visited Chikwawa and Nsanje, it was established that once floods hit and families are displaced, most school structures such as classroom blocks are left in ruins and learners lose focus on studies, which in turn affects their overall performance.

According to the information we gathered on the ground, these learners, regardless of the situation nature disposes them to, have to compete with other learners at national level.

Nthumba Primary School in Chikwawa was heavily affected by floods triggered by Tropical Storm Ana.

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Three houses that were accommodating the school’s deputy head teacher and two teachers were completely destroyed.

Nthumba Primary School Head Teacher Sophia Chisale lamented this year’s floods, arguing they have been the worst.

Chisale said due to the extensive damage of the school, they had to postpone end-of-term examinations, a development which she said affects learners’ ability to grasp ideas.

“When floods caused by Tropical Storm Ana hit, the bridge close to this school was washed away and the flow of water was coming to our school with full force. Classes were filled with water, mud and snakes. Most desks in classrooms were broken because of the waters, books in our library were submerged in water and we eventually lost all of them. Due to all this, it took time for the learners to come back to school and resume classes.

“Before we recovered from these effects, we were hit with another blow of Cyclone Dumako. During a time like this, families are displaced and many children go along with family and others, which affects them because they are taken to camps where they stay for a long time,” she said.

Chisale said, for a long time, such scenarios have disadvantaged learners from the Shire Valley as they have to be tested in equal measure with other learners across the country.

“We suspended our end-of-term exams because the patronage of learners was low and we could tell that they are disturbed. Until this day, as we are talking, a lot them have not returned to school and yet those in Standard Eight are expected to seat for national exams this coming June,” she said.

Mary Nyenyezi, a mother of three who we found at Nyambesa Camp in Nsanje, said she has been there since January and her children are struggling to travel long distances to school.

“I have been here since January. We receive help from government and various organisations but when it comes to school, my children have not been attending. I am scared for them to cross rivers and, of course, they are scared too. We are just hoping that when we are told to go back to our homes, they will be able to pick up,” she said.

Education expert Steven Sharra said most education conditions in the country’s rural areas leave a lot to be desired.

“Broadly speaking, the education conditions in most rural areas and poor urban areas of Malawi are precarious and schools are subjected to shocks of one kind or another. It may be floods in the Shire Valley, food security in other parts of the country, poverty in other parts, market days that cause a lot of absenteeism in much of the country, long distances to the nearest school, pandemics, etc.

“The factors we should worry more about are those to do with poverty because they cut a clear demarcation in student performance. Students from wealthy households have access to amenities that contribute to their better performance as compared to students from impoverished households. Wealth provides a buffer to some of these shocks. From a policy perspective, we should be working towards providing support to households and to schools so they can improve on their resilience and capacity to survive shocks,” he said.

Commenting on the matter, Ministry of Education spokesperson Chikondi Chimala said government is aware that certain occurrences such as floods and other natural disasters disadvantage various learners.

“We know that from time to time, learners from the Shire Valley are affected by floods, it disturbs their learning. So what the ministry does and is doing in the current situation is encouraging teachers through the skills that they have should single out situations and conduct remedial classes. We are pushing for make-up classes and we are sure that the learners will catch up.

“In the long run, we are looking strategies such Open Distance Learning and emphasising lessons on the radio and introduction of internet accessibility,” he said.

Following the floods, President Lazarus Chakwera declared a State of National Disaster on January 29, 2022.

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