Widespread poverty in Malawi keeps pushing children out of school.
Every academic term, boys and girls quit school because they cannot afford school fees.
The development has persuaded some organisations to intervene in aid of children in poverty.
Olipa Aefeso, 19, was on the verge of quitting school for marriage when she received a bursary that rekindled her dream of becoming a journalist.
The girl from Thomas Village in Mchinji almost dropped out because her parents, who survive on piecework, could not pay K12 500 a term at Chimteka Community Day Secondary School (CDSS).
The second-born in a family of six narrates: “My parents quit school at a young age due to poverty. I want to remain in school until my dream come true, but the dream was shattered when they could not even afford my tuition and school uniform.
“They tried hard to keep me in school, but the going was tough. When I was selected to secondary school, I never thought a day would come when I would join my friends in Form One, but I did.”
However, her first steps in secondary school were uncertain as the headteacher frequently sent her home because her parents could not pay school fees on time.
During one of those disruptions, Olipa was on the brink of getting married to escape the pain and stigma associated with poverty.
“I thought marriage would save me from the hurdles I was going through, but a group of concerned mothers approached me to discuss the importance of staying in school,” she explains.
Olipa feels lucky that the mother group came to her rescue.
The women are part of the Sustainable Participatory Initiative for Secondary Education project at Chimteka CDSS which encourages girls to stay in school. The initiative, funded by the European Union (EU), is implemented by Foundation for Irrigation and Sustainable Development (Fisd) in partnership with the Ministry of Education to improve secondary education in Malawi.
Project coordinator Gomezgani Shaba, the initiative aimed at building the capacity of 12 constrained CDSSs and surrounding communities to raise income for sustainable support of vulnerable schoolchildren, especially girls.
Fisd installed solar-powered irrigation systems in communal fields where schools grow various cash crops they sell to pay school fees for needy learners.
The proceeds from the irrigation fields also meet educational needs of children like Olipa in the rural CDSSs.
Chimteka CDSS has been growing high-value crops—vegetables, beans, onions, tomatoes and rice—since 2018. The proceeds finance a bursary which has helped pay school fees for boys and girls who were struggling to meet educational basics.
Olipa became a beneficiary in 2019 when she was in Form Two. This year, she sat Malawi School Certificate of Education examinations and hopes to go to university to do media studies.
However, she is worried of what lies ahead as the project, which started in 2017 and phased out last year, only focused on needy learners in secondary school.
“Who will pay for my tuition if I’m selected to university?” she wonders.
Another beneficiary Dalani Paul, 18, says being born in a poor family with low education attainment discouraged her from going to school, but the project changed her mindset.
She has completed secondary education, thanks to the earnings from the irrigated school gardens.
Rosaria Laurent, the chairperson of the irrigation committee, says: “After selling the crops, we agree how the money should be spent.
“With the Form Four students gone, we are remaining with three students on the bursary and next term we will add some more.”
Laurent says the community has been earning more income from the school garden than the expected requirement for the bursary. This year, the school management in partnership with the parent-teacher association resolved to use the surplus income to expand their income generating activities.
They have since diversified into livestock production, especially piggery.
With the harsh effects of climate change, the committee is optimistic that when crop yields drop due to weather shocks the proceeds from selling pigs and pork will cushion the needy children from dropping out and other hardships.
Chimteka CDSS head teacher Clement Mponda commends the community for sustaining the project that promotes the retention of children in schools.
He says: “Poverty has forced many bright students to quit school and some end up marrying at a tender age. But having a community taking a leading role in safeguarding the future of the youth is commendable.”
The fifth Integrated Household Survey released this year indicates that 50.4 percent of Malawians aged at least 15 years has never attended school and blamed it on lack of money.
Some 22.2 percent of the respondents in the State-sponsored nationwide survey reported that their parents did not allow them to attend school.
“Across the regions, lack of money was reported as the main reason for never attending school and Central Region recorded highest rate at 53.7 percent, followed by 49.7 percent in the Southern Region and 30.0 percent in the Northern Region,” read the findings of the nationwide survey.