During my volunteer trip with Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village Program in Malawi last month, our team had an opportunity to visit a primary school. Since the first day of school in the US is upon us, it seems fitting to share some thoughts on this experience. I’m so glad we made the visit…but I still wonder just how I should feel about what we saw.
In Malawi, children are eligible to begin “Standard 1” at the age of 5 or 6. Since the mid-1990’s, primary school has been free (but not mandatory) in Malawi – an effort by the government to encourage literacy and opportunity. However, practical challenges remain and there are many reasons why children may not attend school, including distance from the nearest school, health issues, family obligations, etc. Girls are especially at risk of dropping out, since it is often impossible to attend school during menstruation (lack of supplies and social stigma) and early marriage/pregnancy is common. A polarizing article from 2012 describes some of the struggles.
When I was in Malawi, school was not in session. Luckily, the principal of a local primary school was more than willing to meet with us and share some information about his school. He, along with one of his teachers, spent about 2 hours of their time talking with us about the details of the school day. It was obvious that despite the hardships that teachers endure (low pay, poor facilities, large number of students who drop out or attend only intermittently, and an overwhelming work load to name just a few), they were dedicated to their work and take pride in what they do.
The school day here runs from 7:30-1:30. Students walk to the school, from as far as 5-10km away. Only classes take place – students eat before coming to school and, if they are lucky, will carry water with them for the day. They will not receive any other nutrition or free time until they get back home. Here’s the “bell” that calls the children to class!
The primary school that we visited is fairly typical of schools in the area. There are 1,565 students in 8 grades. There are 49 teachers.
I’m going to let that sink in for a minute. The ratio at this school is better than most in Malawi – 32 students per teacher.
9 subjects are included in the curriculum. These include: Math, Science, English, Chichewa (the local language), Life Skills (including agriculture, HIV/AIDS training, and everything in between), Expressive Arts (art, music, PE, sports) and Bible Knowledge (I’m missing two!). Unfortunately, the chances of continuing on to higher education are so minimal that schools primarily focus on teaching life skills and practical subjects. The Wikipedia headline highlights the reality: “Education in Malawi no longer stresses academic preparation leading to access to secondary school and universities, rather the stress is now on agriculture and practical training since few students go on to high school or university and most begin work immediately after primary school.”
We even brought a few supplies – insufficient to make a difference but appreciated nonetheless.
Of the two families that I worked with in Malawi, only one has school age children. Luckily, all three attend – but their “status” may surprise you. Brenda (age 10) is currently in Standard 2. Yakobo (age 13) is in Standard 3 and Mercy (age 18) attends Standard 4. Good for them for sticking with it. 🙂 Here’s a photo of the kids with their caretaker, Emily:It’s unfortunate that we couldn’t visit on a day when students were attending, but our short trip gave us a glimpse into the education system that we needed to see.