When government collaborated with some non-governmental organisations (NGO) and introduced the open defecation-free (ODF) initiative over a decade ago, some people appeared to be sceptical about the feasibility of the initiative.
There even were those who sarcastically shared ODF signposts on social media pages, which had words one could barely ignore: “Tasiya kunyera ku tchire” after some villages were declared ODF-free some years later.
But a decade after the birth of the initiative, learners and teachers at June Junior Primary School in Chiradzulu District are forced to perform the deed in the bush after the school’s toilet got destroyed by Tropical Storm Ana earlier this year.
The school has over 300 learners and only four teachers who have no choice but to find solace in the nearby bush, which can barely cover them.
According to June Junior Primary School Head teacher, Damson Chisemula, for the past nine months, learners and teachers have been meeting in the bush around the school when nature calls or bump into each other at a makeshift grass toilet that has no door.
“Since most of the learners are young boys and girls, you find that they just enter the temporary toilet that is there since both learners and teachers use that one toilet. In other instances, we meet in the bush as we try to reduce congestion at the temporary toilet,” Chisemula said.
“The learners are like our children and imagine bumping into them in the quest to answer nature’s call. It is shameful as we lose our respect as teachers and parents each time it happens,” Chisemula said.
He added that most learners usually miss classes because of sanitation-related diseases such as diarrhoea.
Group Village Head Chanje confirmed the development and said he feared that the school had become a disease-breeding zone.
“With the cholera outbreak having reached most parts of the country, I fear that if it gets here, a lot of children and the entire village will be affected,” the traditional leader said.
Florence Maloto is a standard four learner at the school who hates going to school now due to the unconducive environment.
“Sometimes boys laugh at us because they saw us helping ourseleves in an open space. Most girls miss classes after such incidences because we cannot stand the mockery,” she said.
The 10-year-old, who aspires to become a nurse, said she had skipped classes a couple of times due to sanitation-related diseases which she believed were a result of the school environment.
“I have had diarrhoea several times which forced me to skip classes and, in the end, this affected my school performance,” Florence said.
According to the 2022 Malawi Education Statistics Report, school infrastructure and sanitation have a direct impact on access, quality, efficiency and equity in education. Good infrastructure and proper sanitary facilities are said to be vital tools in improving learners’ attendance, especially girls.
Civil Society Education Coalition Executive Director, Benedicto Kondowe, says challenges of inadequate toilets and infrastructure in general after the tropical storm are rampant in the affected areas.
“This is the case because our response is not sustainable and properly financed. This makes the affected schools unsafe for teachers and learners,” Kondowe says.
He adds that such challenges have a potential to contribute towards lowering of education standards in the country.
“Lack of toilets and other infrastructure reduces teaching and learning time, which affects learner performance. It contributes to dropouts, especially for a girl-child. It also makes the school prone to diseases due to poor hygiene which ultimately affects learning,” Kondowe says.
He reckons that the attainment of quality inclusive education for everyone requires the provision of all the essential ingredients such as teaching and learning materials and a safe and conducive environment.
“There is, therefore, a need to ensure that both are made available. Teaching and learning materials on their own are not a panacea for improving standards if the school environment is neglected.
“As such, there is a need for long-term investment in infrastructural development to address issues of shortage of toilets in schools,” he says.
For schools affected by tropical storms, Kondowe says the Department of Disaster Management Affairs (Dodma) and the Ministry of Education need to have a predictable financing plan for such events as they are predetermined.
“Government should not pretend not to know about these events. We can do better by being pragmatic and deliberate in our intentions.
“We need strong leadership that is committed to things that matter, for the right to education is compromised in the absence of quality learning,” he says.
Member of Parliament for Chiradzulu East Joseph Nomale said he was aware of the challenges at June Junior Primary School.
World Vision Malawi is one of the NGOs which are complementing government’s efforts in making Malawi an ODF nation.
The organisation’s communications and external engagement manager, Charles Kabena, said as much as there is the use of adaptation of behaviour change approaches with many communities declared ODF, access to sanitation in Malawi remains low.
“Many people within the communities still practice open defecation. Thus, more effort is needed to increase awareness on good sanitation practices to increase the capacity of the households to construct and use latrines,” he said.
Ministry of Education Public Relations Officer, Mphatso Nkuonera, said the ministry was aware that tropical storms Ana and Gombe affected some schools in the country.
He said government was committed to building durable infrastructure that can withstand storms.
“When constructing school infrastructure, including toilets, the Ministry of Education uses designs approved by engineers. Above all, the ministry has safer school construction guidelines that guide contractors to follow recommended specifications,” Nkuonera said.
Nkuonera added that after disasters, the ministry does assessments to analyse the extent of the damage.
“Due to the magnitude of tropical storms Ana and Gombe, most of the school infrastructure was either partially damaged or completely destroyed,” he said.
He said the ministry was collaborating with other stakeholders to help school such as June recover and restore a good learning and teaching environment.
Nkuonera added that the ministry has drafted a multi-hazard contingency plan which has been shared with Dodma as an integral component of the National Multi-Hazard Contingency Plan.
Through this plan, stakeholders will be encouraged to respond to needs in schools, including those to do with water, sanitation and hygiene.
To show the extent of the problem of lack of infrastructures such as toilets, classrooms, and others in general, during questions time in Parliament, over 10 lawmakers from different areas on November 22 asked the Ministry of Education to consider issues of infrastructure in schools.
In her response, Minister of Education Agnes NyaLonje said government was aware of the needs in schools and that her ministry continues to mobilise resources to address some of the challenges.
“The government intends to make sure that every school has relevant infrastructure that will enable the provision of quality education,” NyaLonje said.
Unless challenges that are hindering Florence to attain quality education are addressed, her dream of becoming a nurse will be just but a dream.
Malawi will also not achieve Sustainable Development Goal 4, which invites United Nations member states to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.
Matilda Chimwaza Majawa is a Features Reporter at Times Group. She is passionate about women and girls empowerment.