There is poverty in Malawi. There is also help in the country. What has been done and what else can we do to help reduce poverty and educate our children?
The headmaster of Makata CCAP Primary School in Blantyre, Tedson Sesani, was a teacher in a dilemma. Or put correctly, has been a man with divided loyalties.
He wants to maintain discipline in his pupils, so boys must tuck in their shirts, always. But here comes the dilemma. Some boys have torn short-trousers and the moment they tuck in their shirts, buttocks come in the open. "This is a dilemma of discipline," says Sesani.
It is, and a real one. How does he enforce discipline when physically it is just impossible? This, too, is one face of poverty, that school boys may look like minibus touts, not willingly though.
Makata is one of Blantyre’s biggest and oldest primary schools. One block was constructed in 1953. Now the school has nine blocks with 25 classrooms.
But the pupil population is just too big for the classrooms. There are 2,803 boys and 2,971 girls, meaning, in total, 5,774 pupils. This is against 68 teachers, eight male and 60 female, meaning a teacher-pupil ration of one to 85. It is not a healthy ratio. No wonder teachers may miss challenges faced by pupils.
Poverty is just one of the challenges for the pupils. They put on torn clothes, most of them. They don’t have winter clothes. If they do, they are torn and not as warm as required. They walk in bare feet. Some of them come from child-headed homes, having lost both parents to road accidents, disease and, especially, Aids. Some children are HIV positive.
What can teachers do? Indeed as the country talks about improving education standards, how can such pupils be helped?
Education activists often campaign for school blocks, better conditions for teachers, teaching and learning materials. Rarely do they advocate for pupils welfare. Yet qualified teacher and willing learner are two important keys to quality education.
Project Malawi knows this well. The project is a long-term initiative funded by two Italian institutions Banca Intesa and Fondazione Caripolo to fight challenges caused by Aids. It is a project that approaches the fight against the epidemic using all necessary weapons available. The project works with four partners and one of them is CISP, a microfinance part of the project.
CISP knows there are poor pupils in schools. But how do they get help? CISP has trained HIV positive people in entrepreneurial skills. They were hired to make desks and school uniforms. On Wednesday last week, a couple of thousands of people assembled at Makata Primary School to witness the hand-over of school uniforms and desks.
Dr Mary Shawa, PS for HIV, Aids and Nutrition at OPC was there to preside over the function. These will be distributed to 25 primary schools in Blantyre. Each school will get 400 uniforms and 300 desks.
But Makata is at an advantage because of its big size. It will get 800 school uniforms. But this is not the best news of the story. The desks and school uniforms were made by the HIV positives business people trained by CISP.
Now these HIV positive people have something to do, some business to run, and they are able to earn some income for themselves and their dependants.
So, it was not just the pupils benefiting. Some HIV positive people have benefited as well. It is a meaningful approach indeed because teachers have benefited, too.
Poverty, says Sesani, the headmaster, tortures the pupils physically and mentally. And, like an afterthought, he adds: Pupils poverty "does not affect the children only, teachers are also affected" and the example of pupils who could not tuck in their shirts comes to mind.
So, when one by one they walked towards Dr Shawa to receive school uniforms, their smile was too wide to be missed.
The pupils sang and danced and assured all that they would work hard to prosper academically. It was a smile from the heart of their hearts. They knew part of their challenges are over. Lack of clothes can be torturing. While you may be having problems over which dress to put on for church, some have problems over soap to wash the only dress they have.
Yet the school uniform and desk distribution project runs up to end of July. But the hope is that it goes on and on and on. This was clear from speeches.
But this also revealed that we do not necessarily help ourselves. The poor children of Makata in Ndirande go to churches and mosques but religious leaders and all of us are not spending time to help them. Instead, we are busy raising funds for halls, radio stations and other white elephant projects. These poor children have neighbours who look with blind eyes.
We can help the children with K1,000. This money can buy school uniform for one pupil, perhaps two, depending on the market and, for a moment, they can forget their poverty, work hard in school and become important citizens of the country.
Not all of them can become the Mary Shawas of Malawi, of course. But help that matters can help pupils become useful citizens. The 25 schools in Blantyre are just a small part of the total population in Malawi.
Project Malawi and its partner, CISP, have done their part. Now it is our turn to help one pupil, perhaps two, so that when they tuck in their shirt, their buttocks should not be in the open.