In the packed earth yard at the centre of Kwiputi Primary School, a group of girls gather to practice netball, ahead of a district competition. The pitch is rudimentary, with goal posts made from wooden poles with scrap motorbike wheel rims attached to the top. The girls shout out to each other, with team coach Samayat, 14, giving directions. Rain clouds gather ominously overhead, but the girls keep on playing. Suddenly Samayat gets a clear shot at the goal ring, throws the ball, and scores.
Kwiputi is one of the better rural primary schools in Mangochi District, thanks to a series of changes driven by Headmaster Mustafa Pemba. Originally from a nearby village, he has a passion for improving the quality of primary education. Most heads stay at the school for two or three years, but Mustafa remained for 11 years to realise his vision. “As someone coming from this area, I understand the challenges and how to handle them,” he says.
Mustafa lists the problems in the area as high illiteracy rates, the failure of parents to support their children’s education, sexual initiation of young girls, teenage pregnancy and child marriage. There are also not enough secondary school places, which demotivates learners. “All of these things contribute to high school dropout rates,” Mustafa adds.
At the school itself, the challenges include a lack of classrooms and teachers. With only 14 teachers for 1,441 students, average class sizes are in excess of 100. “We only have ten classrooms, so four classes are held outside,” Mustafa says. “We don’t have the resources to buy chalk boards and others teaching and learning materials. We only have ten desks, so most of the children sit on the floor.”
However, Mustafa believes these problems are not grounds for giving up. “I try to motivate the teachers and encourage them to have a passion for what they do,” he says. “I tell them this is the situation we’re in, but we cannot abandon the children. At least they should learn how to be independent. Teaching is a calling. You have to persevere and little by little it will improve.”
One of Mustafa’s main achievements was helping to set up the Mangochi Head Teachers Association, of which he is now Chair. Head teachers from around the district meet regularly to share ideas for how to improve their schools. These include awards for the best teachers and students, and joint planning sessions, where teachers create lesson plans and materials together. They then observe each other’s lessons and provide feedback.
One idea that Mustafa brought to the Association, which other schools are now taking up, is setting up a Learners Council. “We have a very active and well established Council,” he explains. “The members are democratically elected by other students. They meet with the teachers every month to discuss issues around the school. They look after things like the school environment and toilet blocks, and encourage other learners to be well behaved.”
As well as coaching the netball team, Samayat James is also Sports Director on the Learners Council. She is a bright student and keen athlete, and determined to finish school. She is very aware of the issues in the area that prevent this, and raised one in particular with teachers through the Learners Council – the problem of teenage pregnancy.
“In the past, a lot of girls at school would get pregnant and drop out of school,” she explains. “I asked the teachers to help us address this. They arranged for the Mother Group and World Vision to come and talk to us about sexual and reproductive health.”
Samayat’s favorite subject is science and she would like to be a teacher. But she’s not taking any chances. “I don’t want to be one of those girls who get pregnant,” she says. “If boys ask me out, I just say no.”
UNICEF is working to keep children in school, with a particular focus on adolescent girls. The organisation is advocating with the Government to address class sizes and teacher shortages by increasing the rural teachers’ allowance in hard to reach areas. UNICEF is also calling for free basic education to be extended by at least two years, and for full implementation of national school standards.
“In Mangochi, we supported the establishment of the Head Teachers Association,” UNICEF Malawi Chief of Education Kimanzi Muthengi says. “We see this as a way to improve rural education and keep children in school. It gives head teachers a unified voice in negotiations with the Government and recognises their efforts to make schools more child friendly.”
Juma Jackson, 17, is Secretary of the Learners Council. He is a bright and outgoing teenager, who writes and speaks excellent English. Unusually for a primary school student, he chooses to be interviewed in English rather than Chichewa and comfortably uses difficult phrases such as ‘subsistence farmers’.
The second of six children, Juma lives with his mother and stepfather. The family are subsistence farmers, growing maize and soybeans. They live in a small brick house a short walk from the school. It’s the last house in Kwiputi village. Behind it is a field of maize, that stretches out across the valley to forested hills on the other side. Brightly coloured clothes and carpets hang from a washing line beside the house, drying in the hot afternoon sunshine.
Along with his older brother Chipiliro, Juma is from his mother’s previous marriage. His father doesn’t support the family and his stepfather only provides for his own children. This is a common problem in Mangochi, where society is matrilineal. When people get married, the husband moves in with the wife’s family – and out again if they separate.
This often leaves children like Juma falling through the cracks. “My stepfather only buys clothes and soap for his own children,” he explains. “My brother Chipiliro is in secondary school but he won’t pay school fees, so my uncle pays. Chipiliro and I have to work in the fields during weekends to earn some money for ourselves.”
Juma’s mother Asytu Adam, 34, says it is difficult relying all the time on her brother, who works on a nearby tobacco estate. “He is only a labourer and struggles himself,” she says. “He has his own children to take care of. Now he has a new baby as well. He’s supported Chipiliro’s education, but I don’t know if he will be able to do the same for Juma.”
For Juma, being on the Learners Council has been a positive change in his life. “I feel proud to be part of the Council,” he says. “Before I was in bad company. Now I hang out with the other members of the Council. They have good characters, do well in class and have ambition.”
Now Juma has high ambitions for himself and Mangochi. “I would like to become an engineer and help develop this district,” he says. “I would build a good school and hospital, so that people do not have to go so far away when they get sick or need to give birth.”
Asytu is very proud and supportive of her son. “I always encourage him to study and revise,” she says. “I used to do well in school but had to drop out in Standard 6 for financial reasons. Now Juma is teaching me English. I am so happy and proud of him”