The root that’s failing


By Mankhokwe Namusanya:

A Thursday…

If this were 10 years ago, or more, the children would be walking with their feet naked. Being baked in the heat that the soil has absorbed. However, now, in 2021, most of the kids are in shoes. Plastic ones. Still, this is progress.


They chase each other. In one way, racing against the cars. An obviously lost race. In the other way, racing in the opposite direction at the other troop of cars.

In their green and white colours of the school uniform, they run past the opulent houses with fences some as high as those of the prison, iced on the top with barbed wires. In a few instances, well fed dogs, that cost over the kids fathers’ salaries in a fortnightly maintenance, bark at the children.

They are unbothered. The innocence of youth urges them on. The ignorance of age makes them think this is a game. A few unruly children pelt stones at the fences. They are weak, useless stones because they do not want to attract the ire of the guards in those fences. Some of whom are their fathers, or uncles.


On their way home, and to school, just across the road, there is another school. A private one. The kids from there, in this heat, have been driven home. It is not just because of the heat. They are, all the time.

Their parents fork out almost a million Kwacha every three months for them to have a decent education. Then, they also budget for fuel to take them to – and from – school. A few live in the gated compounds where, apart from being protected by the barbed wire, the dogs also stand guard.

About 10 years ago, or less, these children would have most likely ended up in one secondary school. But, lately, parents of the rich are also realising that secondary education in government schools is nothing beyond a pretence. They are therefore depositing their children in private schools where millions of Kwacha are paid per term.

Some of these parents, as we are coming to learn, are apparently fleecing the public purse for their children to get their education. But, that is a story for another day.

About 10 years ago, as well, these kids would have met in the university. Then, the university was for all. From government schools, mission schools, from the private, all that mattered was the performance at that secondary school exit exam. Now, the situation appears to be changing.

It is not a drastic change. It is almost unnoticeable. But, the number of students making it to the public universities from government institutions is dwindling.

“Zingwangwa is no longer the same,” a friend remarked to me in the week.

I almost laughed. It has been almost 12 years since we were at the institution. Why would anyone think it would be the same? However, as the conversation wore on and the details started emerging, it got me thinking and agreeing with the friend.

“Back then, in national examinations, that school used to perform. In university selection, it was one of the best. These days, you struggle to see it on the list. It appears like unwanted stains on a piece of a white cloth.”

It is not just my alma mater. Government secondary schools, or most crudely schools for mostly the wretched among us, are slowly being eclipsed. They are being pushed out of fashion. Private schools, and academies, are taking over. The competition is not even, even. It is eliminated.

The few that survive through tired and less inspired teachers all the way to the university do not find it easy. Not only do they have to adjust to a world that ceased being kind years ago, they also have to meet impatient lecturers who cannot understand why anyone in 2021 would not know how to operate a computer – do not bother talking of owning one.

It is a cruel world, the University. If one is not having sleepless nights over the issues of fees then they are having to struggle on accommodation and food. The whole setup, when you come to think of it carefully, is rigged. It is as if our world is punishing the poor for allowing to be deprived and duped by the rich.

The poor are given ‘pretend’ education in primary school, substandard education in secondary school and stopped from attending the University and when they force their way through, a few barriers are erected to flush them out of the system. Still, a few survive.

“But the glamour of finishing through university is also diminishing these days. There are no opportunities, man,” a friend said, two years in the industry with no clear idea of the future.

Just this week, the University of Livingstonia gave to the world a crop of fresh graduates. The other week, it was the University of Malawi. The Catholic University did it the other day, and DMI, and Exploits, and the Malawi College of Accountancy, and every other institution of higher learning.

Of all the things this country lacks, fresh graduates are not one of them. If we had a reliable statistical system, we would be shocked at the rate at which we are producing graduates. Yet, there are hardly any jobs out there.

The lack of jobs, of course, hits all graduates. But it hits the poor worse. It does not only hit them. It hits their families.

For all practical purposes, education here is still regarded as an investment. A communal investment, if I may. Once it fails, it fails communities. Not just an individual. If I could borrow from Ken Lipenga, education here happens to be that root that fails – again, and again.

Is anyone paying attention to this reality? A few months ago, we would have said some politicians. But time is such an unkind judge.

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