Petulo Andireya Dickson, 18, a form three learner at Thuchira Community Day Secondary School (CDSS) in Mulanje District, rues the day Tropical Storm Ana made landfall in Malawi on January 24, 2022.
“As usual, I left some textbooks, clothes, two pairs of trousers that served as spare uniform and food at a house I was renting, paying K7,000 a month for that one bedroom house.
“I was never to see those materials again. In fact, even the house collapsed to the ground,” he said.
He is yet to recover.
In Chikwawa District, Peter, a 13-year-old learner at Mpama Full Primary School, is equally devastated.
“I lost a bicycle to the floods. That day, a friend came to our house and offered to pick me up on his bicycle. That is how I left my bike home and never found it again when I returned from school. I now walk nine kilometres to school from Monday to Friday and my performance has declined because I get to school dead tired,” he said.
The two are some of the learners that were among close to one million people that were displaced in 19 districts of Malawi, largely in the Southern Region.
Storm Ana, which took three days to dissipate, brought with it floods most people had never seen in decades and, when it left, left devastation in its wake.
At the pinnacle of the floods, Ministry of Education officials announced a one-day suspension of classes.
One of the reasons classes were suspended is that some of the displaced people sought shelter in primary and secondary schools, according to Chikwawa District Chief Education Officer Mac Shades Dakamau.
“Learners lost most of their school materials like text and notebooks,” he reminisced.
In Phalombe District, apart from losing materials such as text and notebooks, some learners and students lost shelter at school, such that some secondary school students are learning in primary school structures.
At Thuchira CDSS, for instance, students have been using classroom blocks at Thuchira Primary School to access education services.
“This is because roofs were blown off by heavy winds. They are yet to be fixed,” said deputy head teacher Henderson Bwanaisa
When heavy winds blew off roofs at the institution, it left students in forms one and two stranded.
It seems that the Mulanje-based CDSS has become a usual customer of natural disasters.
In early March 2019, for instance, when Cyclone Idai brought torrential rains and winds to Malawi, causing massive flooding from March 4 to 8, some learning blocks at Thuchira were damaged.
And, in that case, too, students were stranded.
This time around, Tropical Storm Ana has culminated in disturbances to leasons.
“Now that we are using classroom blocks that belong to the primary school, we have had to make some adjustments, a development which has disturbed teaching and learning schedules.
“The issue is that we have been failing to rehabilitate the structures and this is because we do not have the necessary funds,” Bwanaisa said.
However, some well-wishers have started coming to the rescue of Thuchira, notably Advancing Girls Education in Africa which has provided timber to the school.
According to the organisation’s programmes and learning manager Dumisani Nkhonjera, Malawians have to join hands to rehabilitate damaged infrastructure.
The sentiments are echoed by Shire Highlands Education Division Manager Evelyn Mjima.
She said there is a need to find a lasting solution to problems brought about by floods, citing flood-resilient building materials among the tools for addressing the problem.
According to the Centre on Conflict and Development at Texas A&M University, the United States, there are four main channels through which natural disasters may impact education, namely psychological impact, shifts in child labour, infrastructure damage and poverty.
“The psychological impact of natural disasters can hinder a student’s ability to perform well in school. After a natural disaster, survivors have shown symptoms similar to posttraumatic stress disorder, which can last up to five years following the disaster and decrease academic performance.
“There is a clear linkage between natural disasters, child labour, and education. Natural disasters are external shocks that disrupt the livelihood of families, at times forcing children to assist in income-generating activities to compensate for the loss. Following a natural disaster, high dropout rates may be due to children being pressured or forced by their parents to choose work over school. Damage to infrastructure caused by natural disasters decreases availability and increases costs of attending school for many children,” it says.
Education Minister Agnes NyaLonje admitted that the country has a mammoth task in its hands to rehabilitate damaged infrastructure, especially after 23 out of 34 education districts were severely affected by the storm.
In Chikwawa District alone, 80 schools were affected.
“We were already facing challenges, in terms of structures, but Tropical Storm Ana destroyed even the few structures we had in our schools. As such, the need to rebuild is big,” she said.
At Bereu in Chikwawa District, for example, water was everywhere and, after the water receded, there was mud knee-high, which means a lot of learning and teaching materials were destroyed.
Although organisations such as Plan Malawi came to the rescue of some schools, assisting affected schools with emergency learning toolboxes, not all learners benefitted.
This is especially true for Gonda Junior Primary School, Nchalo Community Day Secondary School and Bereu Primary School in Chikwawa District.
According to a United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef) Malawi report, 476 schools were affected by February 15 2022.
It indicated that 221,27 households— representing 995,071 people— were affected by storm-related floods and heavy winds.
It, too, distributed 400 boxes of learning materials, reaching approximately 105,649 learners in 70 primary schools in the five districts of Chikwawa, Nsanje, Phalombe, Mulanje and Mangochi.
Commissioners for Disasters Charles Kalemba indicated that the department had reached out to people with relief items such as food and non-food items.
Kalemba said the department used approximately K22.5 billion, combined assistance of cash and that in kind.
“Cash assistance amounted to K16 billion while the government pumped in 29,000 metric tonnes of maize, which is an equivalent of about K6.5 billion.
“We have managed to reach out to all the people who were food insecure in districts and towns in the whole country. We have reached out to the people with two versions of assistance; one group, which is the bigger group, we supported with what we call in-kind, thus food assistance in terms of maize. And we reached out to other groups using cash transfers in about eight districts. All in all the lean season response went on very well,” he said.
However, for schools like Thuchira, what is needed is not food but cover over the head, so that students can be free from excessive sunlight, rains and the like.