By Isaac Salima:
At 20, Maria Mongole is already a mother of two. She was supposed to be in secondary school or pursuing college education. In a country that seems to be slowly getting used to early marriages, Maria’s tale hardly attracts attention.
And she still carries a smile on her face.
An encounter with her at her base at Kachere fishing area in the northern part of Nkhotakota District will prompt you to condemn her as one of the village girls who rush into marriage. However, she is one of the girls from the area who dropped out of school after failing to withstand long distances to school.
Situated outside Illovo Sugar Estate in Dwangwa, Kachere area boasts of a population of over 4,000 people who came from various areas in search of farming and fishing opportunities. There are no social amenities in the area.
It was around 11 in the morning when we got to the place. Children were busy playing in the lake while some were assisting their parents with household chores instead of being at school.
Concerned by the absence of a school in the area, parents decided to put up a makeshift structure of bamboo for their children to learn in.
Two untrained teachers volunteered to be teaching the learners from standard one up to four as each learner is asked to pay K500 per month. The school is not even registered with the Ministry of Education, but the learners cannot demand more as this is the only alternative.
One of the teachers, Overton Banda, said lack of teaching and learning materials is one of the biggest challenges they encounter in their work.
“We offered to be teaching the children because we felt bad that there was no school nearby where they could go to. Of course, we get something at the end of the month but that is not our motivation. We do not have teaching and learning materials but there is nothing we can do,” Banda said.
The nearest formal primary school, Nyamvuu, is about 15 kilometres away. The long distance has forced many children to drop out of school.
Standard four learner at the school George Phiri dreams of becoming a medical doctor. However, the long distance to school stands in the way of his dreams. He will be required to enrol at Nyamvuu Primary School when he gets to standard five.
His parents will either have to be parting ways with K1,000 every day for a bicycle taxi to and from school or he will have to cover the distance on foot.
One of the residents of the area, Pilirani Phiri, said it is sad that most children do not have interest in education.
“Most children drop out after reaching standard five. It is a challenge covering the long distance to the nearest primary school. Many of them are losing interest in school,” Phiri said.
Vi l l age Head Simion Kanyenda from the area said they have vainly knocked on every available door, asking for a primary school. He said, last year alone, nine girls got married after dropping out of school.
Yet Imran Ayami from the area said they are not ready to leave the place to where they can easily get social services. The freedom to fish is hooking him and others to the area where the majority of children cannot read and write.
Education activist Steve Sharra said it is unfortunate that children are being denied an opportunity to go to school. Sharra feels that despite the people choosing to reside in the perceived hard-to-reach area, it is government’s responsibility to provide them with education services.
“Communities come in because the government has failed but actually it is the responsibility of the government to provide quality education to its citizens. That is why people pay taxes because they want to be provided with such services,” Sharra said.
The country continues to face many challenges in the provision of education services. Recently, about 140,000 standard eight learners who passed the Primary School Leaving Certificate of Education examinations were denied an opportunity to be selected to secondary schools due to shortage of space.
Nkhotakota District Education Manager, Gertrude Maliko, maintained that the district is trying to make education affordable for all. She said the northern part of Nkhotakota has primary schools which children in fishing communities can access.
On her part, Ministry of Education Principal Secretary Chikondano Mussa said the government’s education policy demands that primary schools be constructed every five kilometres.
“These learners are indeed covering long distances to school. It is government’s responsibility to follow people with services. So, in this case, it is a matter of bringing the issue to the attention of the District Education Manager so that the area can be considered in the school mapping exercise,” Mussa said.
Sustainable Development Goal 4 prompts countries to provide inclusive and equitable education by 2030. It says, by that year, all girls and boys should be able to complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education leading to relevant and effective learning outcomes.
But, with nine years to 2030, should communities in areas such as Kachere have hope in such development goals?
Who is to blame for the lack of progress? Is it the people themselves or their duty bearers, who must spread taxes across the country—reaching everyone where they are?