Kasungu — Nine girls at Kadifula Community Day Secondary (CDSS) in Kasungu District dropped out of school last academic year either due to pregnancy or for marriage.
Students, who have been at the school for a longer time, are not surprised that their colleagues dropped on the way.
They testify that the school situated in the area of Sub Traditional Authority (STA) Chambwe has had many challenges that required one to have a strong sense of perseverance to remain in school.
Located about 34 kilometers from Kasungu Town, the school lacked many important facilities.
Over the years it had dilapidated classroom blocks with broken glasses and cracked floors. The students survived biting cold weather and sat on the floor because of inadequate desks.
Chrissy Chingwaule, now in Form Two, says her first year at the school was a nightmare.
"My form one was not enjoyable. The school lacked most of the important learning facilities such as a library and laboratory. The classrooms were not even fit to be called so," Chingwaule says.
Christopher Mwale has been at the school for four years and talks of how difficult it was to learn science subjects.
"It was not easy to understand science lessons without practical work in the laboratory. Lack of a laboratory meant no practical lessons," Mwale says.
The two students say the school's environment was demoralising.
"Some fellow students dropped out of school because the environment was not so inviting.
"Some decided to get married or got pregnant because the environment did not motivate them to remain in school," Chingwaule says.
The dilapidated structures that characterised Kadifula CDSS for years could hardly retain all students.
In a district where issues of child marriages are rampant, motivating children especially girls to be in school needs much effort.
Where girls sit on the floor and where there are no proper sanitary facilities, it is not easy to keep the girls in school.
This coupled with no proper learning materials causes most of the girls to stay at home.
Kadifula CDSS Headteacher Fodrick Phiri agrees that learning environment led to the dropouts.
"The girls lose interest because of various reasons. The dilapidated structures contributed to the situation of the girls who dropped out because the structures didn't help instill that hard working spirit," Phiri says.
But now the future looks brighter courtesy of Good Neighbors, a nongovernmental organisation that promotes and protects child rights.
It is indeed a good neighbour to communities around the school because it has been supporting children in primary schools for years.
In the course of supporting the primary school learners, Good Neighbors noted that most learners they supported ended up dropping out of secondary school.
The organisation discovered that the dropouts were largely due to the dilapidated state of the secondary school facilities.
To this effect, Good Neighbors decided to initiate a project to construct new structures that would form a completely new school adjacent to the old one.
Traditional leaders and the community embraced the idea and committed themselves to participate in the project which would cost K800 million.
"Women and the youth gathered sand and red soil for making the bricks.
"We know that a good school is ideal for retaining learners especially girls. Therefore, when the opportunity to have a complete new secondary school here arose, we jumped on it," STA Chambwe says.
He recalls that even some students selected to the old CDSS shunned it opting to repeat Standard Eight with the hope that they would later be selected to better schools.
Now the new school is complete and functional with magnificent structures that have given the rural Kasungu a new face.
Built with stabilised soil bricks, the school blocks are a beauty in the eyes of those who pass by from Kadifula Trading Centre to Chambwe.
Comprising an administration block, library, laboratory, eight classrooms, sanitary facilities and a semi-detached house, the new Kadifula CDSS has brought smiles to Chingwaule and Mwale.
Even Headteacher, Phiri, testifies that things have changed for the better.
"The coming of these new structures has contributed a lot to the school. The enrolment is better and most important is the fact that the highest number is of the girls," Phiri says.
He says last academic year, when they operated from the dilapidated classrooms, enrolment was 115 students but now it has doubled to 260.
"Now it is a complete school; even the learners themselves appreciate and are motivated to remain in school," STA Chambwe says.
Good Neighbors' Kasungu Branch Manager Wanangwa Thindwa says the reports from the area were not desirable in as far as education was concerned and issues of child marriages and pregnancies made it worse.
"The main idea for the new structures was to create a good learning environment. We expect to see a very significant change in terms of enrolment and retention because of this new school," Thindwa says.
To ensure that the school does not turn into a white elephant, Good Neighbors has gone a step further to provide 423 text books, 320 single desks, 120 chairs, stools, executive chairs and laboratory equipment.
Currently, construction works are under way for three extra teachers' houses, girls' hostels, dining and multipurpose halls.
Central East Education Division Manager (EDM) Billy Banda concedes that learning structures in most CDSSs are a problem and there is need to equate them to the standard of conventional secondary schools.
However, government has a lot to accomplish and needs support of partners like Good Neighbors.
"Most schools are in the rural areas and they are CDSSs where there are no proper learning materials... but when partners support us with a full package like this, we are always appreciative," Banda says.
Meanwhile, Chingwaule, Mwale and fellow students at Kadifula CDSS say the new school has rejuvenated their enthusiasm to go further with education and construct a bright future.
That zeal for a bright future is what motivates Good Neighbors to fund education projects, says the organisation's country director Joo Yong Choi.
"We construct the structures; we construct the future of the children and the community," Choi says.