By Praise Padambo:
Graveyards, typically known for their creepy atmosphere, are traditionally viewed as places no one visits in a casual manner.
They are home for the dead, trapped under tombs of all manner of designs, often lying in the shadows of timeworn trees secured in their places because they are communally honoured.
But such caution and dread could not be seen in Chilinkholi Primary School learners, who once found the nearest burial site a convenient location when they wanted to answer the call of nature.
“Our school did not have a single toilet, so the graveyard turned into a handy place. A week could not pass without one of us suffering from sanitation-related diseases,” says Alex Luka, a standard four learner at the school.
His colleagues, who could not stand consistently sneaking into the cemetery, dropped out of school altogether.
As is always the case in many settings, girls bore the biggest brunt of the absence of toilets at their school located in Traditional Authority (T/A) Chakhaza in Dowa District.
United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) states that when children have access to toilets, among other essentials, they have a better environment to study, to learn and to realise their full potential.
The UN agency stresses that such access makes girls more likely to attend school.
“Beyond the schoolyard, children who learn safe water, sanitation and hygiene [Wash] habits at school can reinforce positive life-long behaviours in their homes and their communities,” Unicef says.
The agency, however, admits that millions of children in the world go to school every day to learn in unsafe environments, with no proper toilets, among other facilities.
Until recently, Chilinkholi was one of them.
“If education is the key to helping children escape poverty, access to water and sanitation is key to helping children safely maximise their education.
“To neglect this is to be careless with the wellbeing and health of children,” says Kelly Anna Naylor, the Global Chief of Wash at Unicef, the UN agency responsible for providing humanitarian and developmental aid to children worldwide.
For Alex’s school, hope is rising following the support from Orant Charities Africa, a non-governmental organisation that empowers communities with holistic programmes in water and agriculture, among other areas.
Chilinkholi Primary School has received toilet blocks through the non-profit’s Wash programme which is being implemented in T/A Chakhaza.
“The new toilet blocks have improved learners’ turn-up. Dropout rates were alarming until we got the toilets. Some girls did not feel comfortable using bushes to relieve themselves and eventually opted to stay away from school,” Chilinkholi Primary School Head teacher Waleke Simwaka says.
He adds that during their menstrual periods, girls who had come of age stayed away from school due to lack of proper sanitation facilities.
“But now, a lot of such girls have returned to school and they look happy and comfortable using the toilets,” the school head explains.
Poor sanitation and hygiene are said to be major contributors to the burden of disease and school dropouts in most rural areas.
Learners in such locations are forced to practise open defecation, which results in the acquisition of infectious intestinal diseases, including diarrhoea, exacerbated by poor water supplies, sanitation and hygiene.
Orant Charities Africa constructed eight toilet blocks—four blocks for girls and four blocks for boys—at Chilinkholi Primary School as a way of protecting learners from contracting sanitation-related diseases and, most of all, ensuring a safe learning environment for them.
“Delivering Wash resources and information to community has always been our greatest priority,” the organisation’s water and sanitation Programme Manager Mayamiko Mwenda states.
Mwenda adds that Orant Charities Africa recognises the impact of the Covid pandemic, which calls for improved access to Wash services, particularly in schools where learners gather in droves.
For Simwaka, the retention of learners at his school is something he had dreamed about all his time as head teacher.
“In fact, surrounding communities have also learnt something. Most of them did not have toilets but after learning from what Orant Charities Africa has done, they have constructed theirs,” he says.
At his school, learners such as Precious Paulo no longer rush home to relieve themselves.
They do not needlessly miss lessons.
“There were days I could abandon classes just to relieve myself. Sometimes I never returned the whole day. It affected my performance. That is not the case anymore,” Precious says.
Apart from providing sanitation and hygiene services through the construction of toilet blocks, Orant is also working on improving access to potable water through borehole drilling and water pump repairs to control sanitation-related illnesses.
The organisation’s country director Gabriel Kapanda rues the long distances women and children cover to access water for their families.
“So, we are working on improving access to potable water to protect the wellbeing of children and help women use the time they would spend fetching water for other economic activities,” Kapanda explains.
Apart from Chilinkholi Primary School, Orant Charities Africa has constructed toilets at three other schools in Dowa District to lure learners back to school, especially as the rainy season sets in.