Two decades without stepping in any classroom have taught a woman with physical challenges how inclusion is often emphasised just on paper. SAM KALIMIRA writes.
Dorothy Banda, 23, has never stepped in a classroom since she was born. She feels sad, ashamed, sidelined and, sometimes, sheds tears when she remembers that she is illiterate.
“Just knowing how to write my name will be a huge feat for me,” she says.
The physically challenged woman stays in Chimgonda Village, Traditional Authority Khosolo, about 78 kilometres from Jenda Trading Centre.
To reach her home from the trading centre, one has to park a vehicle at Kapita Primary School and walk through three kilometres of hilly routes and some streams.
Her parents concluded that they should not bother taking her to school because of her disability.
“I admire my friends who went to school and are now educated,” Dorothy says.
She does not know whether, at her age, she should go for Standard One or adult literacy education.
Her hope is in Member of Parliament [MP] for the area, whom she claims to have voted for during the 2019 parliamentary election.
“I used the rugged road to vote for my MP and the President. I hope they will look at my plight and do something about it,” Dorothy says.
She sleeps in a grass-thatched house, without a door cover, with her young sister.
Her mother spends much of her time at Jenda Trading Centre where she runs a small business while her father is usually at beer drinking joints.
Dorothy, a designer and a tailor, also knows how to plait hair and charges an average of K600 which some people do not even pay.
“Most people do not really appreciate my skills because of my condition. They don’t pay for the services I offer,” Dorothy says.
She uses the little money she makes to support her younger sister and brothers.
During our visit, we found her cooking vegetables for lunch. There was no flour in the family, meaning the relish was all they would take for the day.
Dorothy claims her family sometimes goes for days without any “real” food.
Khosolo Women Forum Director Joyce Mwale says Dorothy has never benefitted from government initiatives such the social cash transfer and the Affordable Input Programme.
“Support from the government and well-wishers does not reach her. It could be because she lives in a hard-to-reach area. We wish she were assisted,” Mwale says.
She further says the area does not have an adult literacy school, which could be Dorothy’s only hope of learning basic writing and reading skills.
Dorothy’s case mirrors several others of people with disability who are being denied access to education and other government programmes due to their conditions.
Mzimba South District Social Welfare Officer, Bernard Nangwale, has not come across Dorothy’s case but promised that his office would follow it up.
On her part, Minister of Gender, Community Development and Social Welfare Patricia Kaliati says it is sad that someone can reach the age of 23 years without attending any school.
Kaliati doubts whether social welfare, child protection and gender officers are working to serve interests of the less privileged like Dorothy.
“If these officers were working in collaboration, cases like Dorothy’s would not be there. This tells us that there is a lot of work to be done from the lowest levels up to the ministry. We are going to follow up on Dorothy’s case,” the minister said.
Acting Executive Director at Federation of Disability Organisations in Malawi, Simon Munde, wonders why, in this day and age, someone should be denied their right to education because of their physical condition.
“It simply tells us that we are failing people with disabilities. This is pathetic, happening in a democratic society. We demand that the government should ensure Dorothy accesses literacy education,” Munde says.
Nevertheless, he feels adult literacy facilities in Dorothy’s area might not be inclusively accessible to people with disability.
MP for the area, Banda, says he is pursuing ways of helping people such as Dorothy.
In the meantime, the woman with mobility challenges remains sceptical about government’s seriousness in promoting inclusive education and adult literacy programmes, which she cannot access.