It may not be in the headlines, but the life of people living in Kasungu National Park is not rosy. The park lies Central West of Kasungu Boma, 56 kilometres off the M1 Road.
As Malawi Institute of Journalism (MIJ) students from Lilongwe campus learned from their educational tour recently, life in the park a tiresome task.
Despite being a protected area, the 2,316 square kilometre park has one primary school and an under-five clinic.
The nearby health centre is located 35 kilometres outside the park, presenting a stumbling block to pregnant women. Not surprisingly, some women still visit traditional birth attendants.
It is break time at Lifupa Primary School, which has a population of 67 learners. Ironically, the learning institution has only two teachers expected to teach from Standards 1 to 8.
With limited access to safe drinking water, pupils at the school have to endure the burden of carrying water buckets from a far. The tap at the institution stopped functioning sometime back but nothing has been done to fix it.
The adjacent water source is far between making it difficult for learners to access it. Every time they want water, they fear for their lives since they live in the sanctuary of wild animals.
Lifupa Primary School head teacher, Boyd Mkandawire, admits that it is too demanding a task for two teachers to attend to about 67 learners. Most often, he admits, learners are sent back home without having lessons.
But he says they are doing their best to promote education in the area.
“Despite being understaffed, we are trying our level best to impart knowledge to the learners. In the just released Primary School Leaving Certificate (PSLC) examinations, four candidates out of 12 who sat for them passed and one candidate has been selected to secondary school. That is the manifestation that we are making progress,” says Mkandawire.
He adds that teachers shun teaching at the school because there is limited access to basic amenities and that teachers fail to comply with rules endorsed by park officials, hence conflict of interest abounds.
“The main problem is that, being a protected area, teachers have no land to cultivate on and, since the monthly salary cannot sustain them throughout the year, they prefer to work in areas where they can fend for themselves”
“Additionally, transportation is another setback. Previously, we used to go out of the park at least twice a month but the trips no longer take place. Sometimes, teachers fail to abide by the rules of the park and are, therefore, forced to leave,” says Mkandawire.
On his part, Deputy Head Master, Brighnult Linyada, observes that government has neglected them for not swiftly rectifying the problem.
“I feel government has not done enough to fix the problem. We (teachers) together with the school management committee have been pressing the authority to look into the matter to no avail,” says Linyada.
He says the situation the teachers find themselves in is different from that prevailing outside the park where, he observes, one teacher teaches a minimum of one subject.
He, however, says the school has enough teaching and learning materials but the shortage of teachers affects delivery.
Mercy Banda, one of the four Standard 8 girls at the school, feels that it is disheartening that her school is struggling to have adequate teachers. She observes that the notion of ensuring the promotion of child education is being compromised.
“Our teachers struggle to attend to us for they have too much work to do. They have to ensure that every day they report to work which sometimes is difficult,” says Mercy.
Since all the teachers are male, Mercy fears that this can discourage girls from concentrating on studies as they lack role models.
Mavuto Banda, a Standard 8 candidate, concurs with Mercy. He calls on authorities to rectify the problem as soon as possible.
“We have formulated groups in which we discuss questions since we cannot wait for the teachers. We understand that they have a huge work load such that it is imperative that we assist each other,” says Mavuto.
As a way of ensuring that pupils from far areas of the park are relieved from mobility woes, the school management committee decided to turn a hostel constructed by the British Army into a self-boarding dormitory. The age bracket of learners staying at the facility ranges from 9 to 17 years.
While the rationale of the establishing the self-boarding facility is being fulfilled, learners residing in there have no reliable source of energy hence they use candle wax and torches for lighting.
The problem at Lifupa Primary School may be a depiction of the difficulties wards of Department of Wildlife employees face nationwide.
Kasungu District Education Manage, Ropcky Benjamin Hausi, says his office is aware of the problem and that he has liaised with parks’ management officials to look into the matter.
Hausi added that the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology has, meanwhile, rolled out a new mode of learning called multi-grade which allows senior learners to assist their colleagues in junior classes.
He says the logic behind it is to ensure that learners help each other and where teachers are few it might relieve the burden.
However, Lifupa Primary School head teacher suggests that wildlife management officials should start training their own teachers to work in Malawi’s national parks and other protected areas.
“For the problem to be eradicated, the government, through the Department of Wildlife, should train its own teachers just like the police and the military do,” says Mkandawire.
He also cautions authorities on teacher deployment criteria, observing that deploying newly-recruited teachers to such locations needs to be considered since such teachers do not get a salary consequently, they are demotivated.
As things stand, however, the experience of learners in the national park is a stab in the back of efforts premised to improving access to basic education in the country.
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