Down the escarpments separating Sanjika Hill near Chilomoni from Maliya Village in Blantyre City West Constituency, the sense of belonging is fading.
This has been the story for decades and the community surrounding the mountaintop Sanjika Palace says there is no hope to have an educated generation.
Since independence, Maliya community watches its children walking over 17 kilometres (km) to access secondary school education.
Construction of Maliya Community Day Secondary School (CDSS) in 1998 came as a relief, but, since then, the CDSS is a junior school.
Parents transfer Form Three students to the nearby Lumbira CDSS in Chilomoni Township, about 15 km away. Another alternative is Khombwe CDSS, almost 20km from Maliya.
“This is my second term at Lumbira, but I don’t think I will continue,” says Pemphero Burton, 17.
The Form Three student, from Samuel Village in Traditional Authority Kuntaja says she leaves home around 5am and uses bushy footpaths that cut through the hilly terrain to Lumbira.
Classes at the school begin at 7.30am.
Since she shifted from Maliya CDSS, the girl arrives at her new school after 8:30am due to the long distances.
Teachers understand her plight and hardly punish her for late coming.
However, her greatest worry is that she misses two morning lessons every day.
We met Pemphero arriving for classes. She looked tired and heartbroken. Her uniform was completely stained with sweat, dew and dust.
The schoolgirl, whose parents died five years ago, hardly goes to school when it rains and during her menses.
“My grandmother brews traditional beer for survival. I go to school without breakfast and pocket money. I can’t afford walking the distance with rags between my legs; it is painful. It erodes my confidence to be in class,” laments Pemphero.
Making it to the school is tough, but walking another 17km back home, a three-hour walk, is torturous.
Her grandmother, Maria Samuel, is a widow in her late 80s.
The octogenarian now doubts that her grand-daughter will realise her dream to become a nurse.
Pemphero is just one of students from Maliya, who face the hardship to access secondary education.
Mphatso Matabwa, 18, is her classmate.
“I wish I could use a bicycle, but the road is in bad shape and the terrain is hilly,” she says.
They performed poorly in their first-term examinations at Lumbira although they were among the best in their Junior Certificate of Education (JC) examinations at Maliya CDSS in 2016.
Records at Lumbira CDSS indicate that only one in five students from Maliya CDSS sit Malawi School Certificate of Education.
Last year, Maliya sent four students to Lumbira, but only Pemphero and Mphatso are still in school.
Maliya exemplifies a national crisis reducing access to education.
In Mulanje, students from T/A Ndala walk about 15km to Muloza or Gawani CDSS.
In Ntcheu, students from (GVH) Mkutumula walk over 20km to Chikande CDSS.
Civil Society Education Coalition (Csec) executive director Benedicto Kondowe says some students walk 20km to a CDSS.
Paradoxically, this contradicts stories at Capital Hill. On his arrival from the 2017 United Nations General Assembly, President Peter Mutharika bragged that 16 meetings at the assembly spoke highly about Malawi’s success story in access to education—and he rapped the local media for ignoring the success.
But Kondowe is “not surprised” by the President’s remarks.
“Government continues to share cosmetic information to the outside world; hence, the compliments. If these recognitions don’t reflect the story on the ground, we start to question them,” he says.
In 2015, Mutharika and world leaders adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a global agenda to “leave no one behind”.
SDG Four requires governments to ensure there is inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.
The SDGs replaced Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that envisioned the same story.
Three years on, rural communities such as Maliya are hopeless.
Kondowe faults the education policy. In 1999, government converted Distance Education Centres (DECs) to CDSSs to address increasing demand for secondary education.
Then policymakers envisioned no child walking more than eight 8km to get to school.
The 2008-2017 National Education Sector Plan (Nesp) expired last year, but there is little to write about on the increase in access to secondary education.
Minister of Education, Science and Technology Bright Msaka acknowledges the bottlenecks.
In his ministerial statement in Parliament last month, Msaka repeated the song: “We need to ensure there is a secondary school within easy reach of every child.”
His hope is in the four-year Improving Secondary Education in Malawi (Isem) project being funded by European Union to the tune of Euro 36 million. Nonetheless, the project targets only 21 CDSS.
For students from Maliya, the wait continues. They gaze at Sanjika and blame the president who occupies the mountaintop for paying a blind eye to their plight.