From learning on the floor, to having a desk: Yohanne’s story

Yohanne in a class session at school. Many of the students were happy with the new desks
© UNICEF Malawi/2019/Eldson Chagara

By Lulutani Tembo, UNICEF Malawi

Mulanje district is known for its tea estates and is home to the highest mountain in Malawi. Yohane Kajawo, 17, is lucky to see this landscape every day. There are views of mountain waterfalls from his village, in addition to the vibrant green of the tea plantations. And, less than a kilometer from his home is Ngangala Primary School. Here you witness another sea of green, as hundreds of children are dressed in their bright green uniforms.

Yohane is in standard 8, having spent most of his primary education at Ngangala. He lives with his older brother and his wife who are his guardians, following the death of his parents. “I come from a family of 6 children. My mom passed away when I was very young and my father died in 2017.  I was so hurt when they died, but I would still go to school, even though I was struggling. I hardly had soap for my school uniform, and I would do piece work to buy stationary and notebooks for school. I would get about 500 kwacha per week,” Yohane explains.

His older brother, 23 year-old Mazunzo, has tried several jobs to make ends meet. On top of supporting Yohanne, he has his wife and 5-year old child to care for. Being the sole breadwinner in the family, he also has the responsibility of looking out for his wife’s family. “I used to work as a labourer at Lujeri Tea Estate. The money I made helped but it wasn’t enough. I recently started my own tea nursery, hoping that when I sell the tea I will get good money from it,” Mazunzo says. “With the way my family is set up, and my mother in law is very old, it is very difficult for me to take care of everyone. I even struggle to pay for Yohanne’s exam fees.”

Despite these obstacles, Yohanne is a bright student. He is performing so well that teachers pass by Yohanne’s home to stop by tell Mazunzo how smart his younger brother is. The first time Yohanne wrote his standard 8 primary school leaving certificate exams he came number 8 in the whole of Mulanje. Unfortunately, he wasn’t selected to a secondary school, so Mazunzo advised him to repeat standard 8, to stand a better chance of being selected.

Yohanne’s with his sister in law and brother in his vegetable garden
© UNICEF Malawi/2019/Eldson Chagara

The unforgettable day

Yohanne’s decision to repeat standard 8 provided him with a chance to witness the massive change that was about to happen at the school. In November 2018, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell visited the school to deliver desks 165 desks as part of the KIND Fund partnership with UNICEF.

Prior to the visit, the school only had 72 desks for more than 2,000 students. Children were forced to learn while sitting on the floor, and for those without classrooms, on rocks outside. Some students also had lessons in a nearby church because there aren’t enough classrooms at the school. This poor environment contributed to a high dropout rate, in addition to poverty and long distances to school (some students walk as far as 2.5km). 

On the day of Lawrence’s visit in 2018, children at Ngangala Primary School – including Yohanne – stood in symmetrical lines, as they watched the delivery trucks enter the school ground . The mood was jovial as students and community members sang songs and cheered. Yohane speaks good English, and was chosen to be interviewed by Lawrence, which was ‘unforgettable’ for him.

A standard 4 class in session with students sitting on the new desks. The learners previously sat on the floor
© UNICEF Malawi/2019/Eldson Chagara

Since receiving desks, learning has improved massively at the school. Children no longer struggle when writing exams. “Previously writing exams was hard, children would carry chairs from their own homes to school to use when writing exams. It was chaotic. Now life is easier – we write exams on our desks in class,” Yohanne describes. “The people in our village couldn’t stop talking about the new desks. Some said they would transfer children back to the school after they had left, because of the desks.”

When Yohanne told the good news to Mazunzo, he was pleased. “I was so surprised when I heard about the desks. We were happy because our children would no longer come home with dirty uniforms. A lot of parents struggle with money for soap to wash the uniforms,” Mazunzo illustrates. “I really want Yohanne to have a bright future. I encourage him to work hard, especially because I never got the chance to finish school, and you never know what can happen tomorrow. If he works hard in school, he has a better chance of a bright future”.

Yohanne has gotten further in school than any other children in his family, and this motivates him to continue working hard.  He wants to be a senior teacher when he grows up, and with his excellent grades he is well on the way to achieving his dreams.

Yohanne’s interview Lawrence when he visited the school in November 2018
© UNICEF Malawi/2019/Eldson Chagara

UNICEF support

UNICEF with support from the KIND Fund has supported dozens of primary schools in Malawi with desks. MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell created the ground-breaking KIND Fund with UNICEF in 2011 to support education in Malawi. Since then, the program has provided more than 209,000 desks to over 900,000 learners across Malawi, contributing to 10% of the desks in the country.

“Most children in Malawi go to school without desks or chairs, making it extremely hard to concentrate on daily lessons and be motivated to learn. UNICEF is committed to ensuring that children have everything they need to succeed in education, including child friendly learning environments,” UNICEF Chief of Education Kimanzi Muthengi says. “Every desk delivered is one step closer to providing quality primary education for children across the country.”

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