Zambia's School Population Is Exploding - But There's Nowhere for Them to Sit.

Lusaka — Government grants are starting to chip away at the problem -- and giving carpenters a much-needed boost, too.

In Lyson Banda's bustling carpentry shop, the scent of fresh wood blends with the steady hum of machinery. Banda, his hair covered in sawdust, wears a protective mask while skillfully cutting planks. Two helpers work alongside him, smoothing wood and assembling components. Together, they create a deafening workshop symphony. Countless unassembled desk pieces are scattered across the floor.

The workshop, located east of Lusaka's Central Business District -- Zambia's main commercial and financial hub -- has been in business for 10 years, but it has never been this busy.

In April 2023, Banda was commissioned to build over 1,000 desks, to be distributed among different schools in his constituency.

Since the government abolished school fees in 2022, over 2 million new students have flooded the education system, leading to overcrowded classrooms and not enough desks. In response, the government turned to local artisans to fill the furniture gap.

Banda is one of the hundreds of local carpenters across Zambia's 156 constituencies who were awarded contracts through the Constituency Development Fund -- a government-funded initiative designed to support developmental projects and activities at the local level -- to build new desks for the growing number of pupils in the country's public schools.

Minister of Education Douglas Syakalima says the target is about 2 million desks.

"Our initial goal was to enhance the learning environment. However, we soon recognized an opportunity to empower local communities as well. Given that COVID-19 spared no sector, it seemed like a logical step," Syakalima says. Zambia is still recovering from 2020, when the pandemic struck the country and caused its economy to shrink by 2.8%.

The cost of the desk contracts was not disclosed. But in 2023, the government allocated a record 23.2 billion Zambian kwacha (938.7 million United States dollars) -- 13.9% of the total national budget -- to the education sector, a 5 billion kwacha (202.2 million dollar) bump from the previous year.

Of the total education budget, 1.5 billion kwacha (60.6 million dollars) -- 7.5% -- was devoted to the construction, and rehabilitation of early childhood education centers, primary and secondary schools, and universities.

"All public schools in Zambia are considered for desks, and a minimum of 100 desks are given to each school," Syakalima says. "However, some schools may be given more depending on the deficit of that particular school."

While over a million desks have been manufactured so far, fulfilling the directive from the country's president that no child should sit on the floor remains a challenge, Syakalima adds. Thanks to the government's continued awareness campaign, an increasing number of children enroll in public schools each term.

Some primary school teachers say they have more than 100 students in their classes and many of them are forced to sit on the floor.

"I used to teach 75 children last year in a grade 6 class. Now I have 102 children in the same grade," says Mwape, a teacher at a school in Chongwe, a rural area around 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of the capital, who asked to only be identified by her middle name as she had no clearance from the Ministry of Education to speak to the press.

Children tend to get distracted when they have to sit on the floor during class, Mwape says. "Imagine writing on the floor; the posture is very uncomfortable. How can one focus?"

The deficit of desks in Zambia, which Syakalima says is mainly due to budget constraints, was a problem long before the introduction of free education. In 2020, the average seat-to-learner ratio in Zambia was 0.3-to-1, indicating that only one seat was available for every three learners in a primary school, according to a report by the United Nations Children's Fund, known as UNICEF.

At Kalingalinga Primary School, in Lusaka, on a Tuesday morning, students harmonize in joyous welcome songs for Syakalima, who arrives to formally present 100 new desks.

"Sitting at a desk provides students with comfort, and comfort is paramount in the classroom," says Agness Phiri, a teacher at Kalingalinga. "Students are more attentive and produce better writing when they are at ease."

Phiri acknowledges that, despite the donation of new desks, the school still faces a substantial shortage, with only 390 desks for its 2,317 pupils.

Kondwani Mwale, a fifth grader, shares the challenges of students rushing to secure a desk.

"We fight over desks and that is very disturbing to our learning. We are always rushing to be first. And sitting on the floor is really disturbing, especially when it is cold. One can't even write properly while on the floor," he says.

With enrollments expected to increase in 2024, the demand for desks at Kalingalinga is set to rise further.

"The government is doing a commendable job by providing desks and new schools, but we want to see more of these desks and schools if the quality of education is to improve," says Aaron Chansa, executive director at National Action for Quality Education in Zambia, an organization that promotes quality education in the country.

In Zambia, the literacy rate among young learners remains low. In 2021, just 2.3% of tested fifth graders met or exceeded the minimum reading standard, according to a study by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, known as UNESCO.

More desks will be delivered, Syakalima says. "Our initial targets may not align with the actual numbers by the time the desks reach each school, but we will continue producing the desks."

In his 2024 budget speech, Minister of Finance and National Planning Situmbeko Musokotwane said that, in the past two years, the government resumed construction of 115 secondary schools that had been halted. Of these, 69 have been completed, and the remaining 46 are expected to be finished in 2025.

The Constituency Development Fund was also increased from 28.3 million kwacha (1.1 million dollars) per constituency in 2023 to 30.6 million kwacha (1.2 million dollars) in 2024.

"We hope that the more money allocated to CDF, the more desks we will have and have a pool of comfortable learners," Phiri says.

While teachers and students wait for new classrooms and more desks, local artisans hope this will result in more business opportunities.

Banda, who withheld financial details of his government contract for personal reasons, says that his livelihood before the schools contract relied heavily on sporadic individual jobs that seldom materialized, resulting in meager income and financial struggles.

He says his life has now taken a positive turn.

"This particular desk-making contract has significantly boosted my business. I have even expanded my workforce, now employing three additional individuals to ensure we can meet deadlines," Banda says.

James Mulenga, another contracted artisan, was commissioned for 500 school desks. Mulenga, who also withheld contract details, has hired two employees and bought some land.

"I have been in business for eight years and never managed to buy a plot; but with this contract, I managed to secure some money for a plot. We will soon have our own home," Mulenga says with a smile.

Prudence Phiri is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Lusaka, Zambia.

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