16 October 2017

Malawi: Ancient Life in Modern Times

Nkhotakota — Dwangwa Primary School commonly known as JP (Junior Primary) is right at the centre of Dwangwa Township, a busy sugarcane growing and processing area in Nkhotakota.

With more than 20 years of existence, this learning facility still accommodates classes from standard one to five only hence the name JP.

The school has refused to grow despite ever growing figures of enrolment, leaving its learners crammed in the few structures it has.

Inadequate infrastructure and materials

Currently, there are six blocks of two classrooms each.

With enrolment pegged at a staggering 2930 during the 2016/2017 academic year, the school continues to use old facilities and resources except for two new blocks which are taking ages to finish.

Before 1997, the school used to operate in church structures until that year when a structure was built. As of two years ago, the old structures only counted to five.

The school's administration, with support from school management committee, tries to make sure that there are makeshift shades to protect those learning outside conventional classrooms from heat. Maintenance of the shades is erratic because they are expensive.

Teachers' houses are few. The school has 31 teachers with only two housed within the school premises, according to head teacher Benedicto Meramera.

"The deputy head teacher and I are the only lucky staff members to reside at the school's campus," Meramera says.

The school teachers' office is a tiny, shabby structure without proper definition. It is a room with no plastered walls and has two tiny single desks accommodating only the head and his deputy.

Entering into the office, one would think it was just detached from adjacent classrooms but history says it was a store room.

Furthermore, the office is untidy with poor circulation of fresh air. The two small windows have inadequate windowpanes and find honour because of the iron sheets that cover part of the openings.

Learners at JP envy those schools that have desks and chairs because they endure their learning hours planted on the floor. There is no single desk for learners.

Teachers are lucky because they use desks belonging to one of the churches that pray at the school premises during weekends.

The absence of a brick fence makes the school a sitting duck to vandalism. With the school blocks unlocked all the time, anyone can access the classrooms any time without fear.

Poor sanitation and hygiene

Dwangwa JP has few substandard toilets that add to its sorry state by compromising sanitation and hygiene.

The school has two toilets for 1397 boys. This translates to a toilet pupil ratio of 1 to 700 against the recommended ratio of 1 to 60.

As if that is not enough, the school shares most of its toilets with the community. It is very close to residential areas and the toilets are just a walk-in for people from surrounding areas to drop their wasted world.

The two toilets have no doors probably because the community members do not like to see them closed.

"They always break the doors and remove them completely. Staying close to the school make them feel that they have earned the right to use the toilets any time and anyhow," says the head teacher.

The school management committee thought of constructing urinals for boys to improve the situation but it is proving a tall order because the facilities have already been turned into new toilets by passersby and community members.

For girls, the school has five toilets but their conditions do not differ from boys' toilets despite having a ratio of 1 to 308.

The girls' toilets are also not immune to outside intrusion and indecency. The screaming of painted big words "Girls' toilet" counts for nothing because patronage is more male than female.

There are no washing facilities around the sanitary rooms; the available water tap is completely dry because huge water bills choked it to dormancy more than a year ago.

Any hope for a drop of water remains far-fetched because no one is coming forward to settle the bills.

"We used to pay the water bills using school management funds or School Improvement Grants (SIG). Unfortunately, the water bills accumulated during the construction of the unfinished classroom block were so huge.

We could not manage to pay any more hence the disconnection about two years ago," says Meramera adding that the bill is MK58, 000.

The only borehole that they could have pinned their hopes at the school decided to stop functioning several years back, leaving learners vulnerable to waterborne diseases.

As an alternative, every child is requested to bring drinking water when coming to school.

Politics of development

Efforts to upgrade the school to full primary by expanding and sprucing up its infrastructure have always been trapped in the politics of development.

The school maintained the Junior Primary status until 2015 when Member of Parliament for the area, which is Nkhotakota North, Frank Mphande declared that he would construct more classrooms using Constituency Development Fund (CDF).

"The proposal to turn the school into a full primary school came from the community members themselves.

Teachers, parents and guardians expressed concern that their children walked long distances to access senior primary education from surrounding schools and that there is congestion," says Mphande.

Two new classroom blocks constructed with CDF stand unfinished. So far, the amount of money released is not yet known.

Mphande states that he need to consult his documents to come with exact figures.

He says some materials for the project are already available.

"Currently there are windows and frames for the classroom block," says the law maker adding that he handed over the project to school management committee and councilor for the area, Nkhunga Ward, Charles Kamija.

Councilor Kamija says the project will recommence soon because they have "some materials like cement and window blocks for the classroom blocks ready."

"The project will be through anytime from today," says Kamija.

While MP Mphande asks community members to own the school by assisting with some minor issues that need few resources, secretary for the School Management Committee Apostle Michael Nyirenda says the committee has been sidelined in the project.

"The committee is not involved when planning and procuring materials. Resources are procured and that the structure is being erected without our knowledge," says Nyirenda.

The committee intends to implement its own initiated project. It is working tirelessly to construct a teacher's house after realizing that their proposals to seek support from companies around Dwangwa have yielded nothing.

Whatever the politics, this school needs saving for it to meet required standards for delivery of quality education through adequate teaching and learning facilities.

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