Tiyamike Stiphano, 14, has a stiff antipathy of his past. At six years old, he had already enrolled into the nearest primary school which is some seven kilometres away from his parents’ house.
He should have been in standard eight now, but wasted three years along the way.
“The school is far, so I often stayed away and missed lessons. I once dropped out because of the long distance. That is why I am in standard four today,” Tiyamike says, a forlorn look appearing in his eyes.
A soft breeze caresses his face as he stares towards a scarred hill beyond which the school lies.
He has asked himself several questions about why his right to education has not been unfailingly guaranteed as is the case with other learners who have always had easy access to modern and well-staffed schools in their communities.
“I twice failed in my end-of-term examinations because I persistently missed classes. I know I cannot recapture that lost time but, at least, I can utilise new opportunities to revive my dream of becoming a doctor,” Tiyamike says.
His state of affairs is characteristic of what several children in villages surrounding Kachewere Primary School in Lilongwe’s Rural West experience.
A few endured the long distance to their nearest schools and tenderly progressed with their education until a new primary school rose up in the vicinity of their homes.
Three years ago, after growing tired of seeing their children drop out of school or repeating classes, parents around the area finally convinced the Ministry of Education to open a new primary school in Lilongwe Rural West.
“Our traditional leaders, troubled by the high school dropout rates and struggles that our children used to go through in their quest to get educated, decided to allocate a piece of land to the new school project.
“The start was pathetic, but what matters is that the school got opened anyway. There was only one school block with two classrooms. Other learners were learning outside, in the open,” explains Chimangeni Lembani, one of the village heads whose subjects benefit from the establishment of Kachewere Primary School.
He recalls that the excitement that came with the opening of the school three years ago rapidly diminished after it became clear that two classrooms were not sufficient to cater for the hundreds of learners who were otherwise supposed to find the new institution very convenient.
“Learners from standard one to standard four formed the initial group that opened the school. Numbers surged drastically such that some of them had to be forced back to far-way schools they were staying away from,” Lembani says.
Tiyamike was one of the learners who first stepped their feet in classrooms of Kachewere Primary School when it first opened its doors in 2017.
The exciting start, he recalls, did not last long as some classes had to be conducted outside, sometimes under the heavy heat of the sun or dust-filled gusts which swept through sparse regenerating woodlots.
“On top of that, the condition of toilets was not good at all. The problem was big for girls. Some of them chose to stay away from school when they were menstruating. Our teachers kept assuring us that things would be better soon,” Tiyamike says.
His school’s head teacher, Artwell Jowampingo, admits that the opening of Kachewere Primary School—which communities around the school had imagined would significantly lessen problems bordering on access to education—failed to sustain the optimism it had initially stirred.
When, three years later, he stands in front of some of the most modern classroom blocks at the school, Jowampingo promises he and his fellow teachers will go to every length to provide the best services to those they serve.
“What we have here was not here three years ago. These modern school blocks were not here two years ago. Toilets were in bad shape. There was no staff room at this school,” the school head says.
He further claims that teachers are now expressively motivated in their work now that the structures, constructed by Alliance One Tobacco Limited, are fully in operation.
The publicly held leaf tobacco company met the needs of Kachewere Primary School within its corporate social responsibility (CSR) component.
Apart from helping government in improving education standards in the country, Alliance One (Malawi) also works in the health, environment and water sectors, among others, as part of its CSR.
The company’s corporate affairs officer, Ben Kaonga hopes that the three modern classroom blocks that Alliance One has constructed at Kachewere Primary School, bringing the number of classrooms to eight, will help in keeping children in school.
“We believe that the learners will stay away from tobacco production. We are particularly firm about ending child labour in tobacco production and one way of augmenting this drive is by making sure schools have good classrooms.
“Sanitation facilities are also important and we have constructed toilets at this school apart from sinking a borehole for the same purpose of improving sanitation,” Kaonga says.
He further states that the recent official handover of the three classroom blocks, which consumed K83 million, does not signal an end to the tobacco company’s interest in the school.
“We will continue working with the school in areas such as maintenance so that the structures are durable. We will be doing this for three years, hoping that after that, we will have done our part.
“Of course, there are several schools we are reaching out to. Our policy is that we should help where we work. Farmers we work with and their communities are supposed to benefit from our relationship with them,” Kaonga says.
And Lembani, who represented Traditional Authority Khongoni during the handover of the structures at Kachewere Primary School, dares locals surrounding the institution to help in taking care of the new structures.
He warns that “a project with a difference” can only be as sustainable as the conduct of the people where it is situated.
“We cried for a school and the government gave us. We complained that structures were not enough and Alliance One came to our rescue.
“The ball is now in our court. It is our school and we must keep an eye on it so that those who damage any property here are properly punished,” Lembani says.
He also reveals that traditional leaders overseeing villages that surround the school will be engaged with messages on caring for the institution’s infrastructure.
Such messages have already sunk in the hearts of learners, too, who are eager to shield their school from any damage. It is a treasure they had patiently waited to have.
“Every one of us, learners, is responsible for reporting to our teachers someone who does anything bad to the new school blocks and toilets. We have taken this as our responsibility,” Tiyamike says.
He clasps his head with his knees as if diving into deep thoughts about the future that he once saw crumbling in front of his eyes.
Then a piercing clink of the bell startles Tiyamike, who immediately leaps onto his feet and walks with a distinct gait in his step to join other learners who are gathering in front of the school blocks to officially receive what Alliance One has gifted them.
Alick Ponje is a features writer at The Times Group. He graduated from the University of Malawi with a bachelor’s degree in education, majoring in literature in English. He believes that quality reporting is critical in bringing positive change in communities. Alick is the Southern Africa Development Community journalist of the year (2020) in the television category. Follow him on Twitter @aponje