Jacqueline Kubalasa was born with paralysed legs 22 years ago, but this has not smothered her burning desire to learn.
From Monday to Friday, the Standard Seven girl departs Chisika Village on a tricycle and stops at the doorstep of her classroom at Ntunthama Primary School in Mulanje.
At the end of the 1.5-kilometre trip, she crawls five metres to take her place on a desk with a classmate.
“I have a right to learn until my dream of becoming a nurse comes true,” she declares, smiling broadly.
Her classroom is furnished with 50 desks donated by American television star Lawrence O’Donnell’s Kids In Need of Desks (Kind) Fund in partnership with Unicef. The celebrity founded the charity shortly after his first visit to Malawi in 2010 when learners stuck to dusty floors gave him a shocking glimpse of the hardship of most Malawian children as nearly half of the schools lack desks.
“The desks have given me a reason to smile and keep coming to school Monday to Friday,” says Jacqueline. “I have been learning here since Standard One, but this is the first time I am using a desk.”
The class of 124, which waited for seven years to learn in an adequately furnished classroom, has waved bye to dusty floors replete with stinging insects.
They spent years perching in concrete pews that left their uniforms soiled though many could not afford laundry soap.
“We now learn peacefully and no longer worry about the dirt and discomfort. We return home in clean uniforms, unlike when we had no desks,” says Jacqueline, a third-born in a family of three.
Her teacher Ruth Kaponda says the desks have not just lifted the learners off the dusty floors.
She states: “The school had no single desk when I arrived here in 2018. Jacquie and her classmates couldn’t sit and learn comfortably without these desks.
“With these desks, they learn in comfort and girls no longer fear to stand up and answer questions. It is also easy for us, teachers, to move around and assist slow learners and those sitting at the back.”
Sitting in the front row, Jacqueline says the lofty perch gives her a perfect eye line to read teachers’ notes on the chalkboard.
She is one of 10 learners with disabilities at the rural school that received a truckload of desks from the Kind Fund in February 2022.
Headteacher Humphrey Banaba says the donation has lessened the major heartbreak he had on arrival from Lichenya Primary School, which had 30 desks.
“It’s a first. When I took charge of this school in 2017, all classes had no desks. The classrooms were overcrowded with children sitting in groups around concrete tables in every corner,” he recounts.
Jacqueline’s class occupies a new school block constructed with support from the Constituency Development Fund.
Each desk sits two to three children, creating pathways for teachers to freely make rounds so that no child, especially with special needs, is left behind.
“We need more desks because the school has 1191 learners, but there are 124 learners in Standard Seven alone. Since the desks came, rarely miss class or stay home. The last term, they performed better in their exams,” he explains.
Banaba says they have also reduced overcrowding likely to fuel the spread of Covid-19.
The pandemic disrupted learning nationwide when the government closed schools for months to contain its spread.
“Covid spreads fast in crowded spaces, but social distancing wasn’t possible without desks. The children couldn’t sit far apart as they scrambled for space in front so they could see what teachers were writing on the chalkboard,” explains the headteacher.
To decongest the classrooms amid resurgent Covid-19 waves, Banaba introduced two shifts. First, Standards One and Two children learned between 7.30am and 10 am.
Second, Standard Threes and Fours were schooling from 10 am to 3 pm.
Meanwhile, the remaining classes follow regular hours, with some sessions happening in tree shades, where distractions were ceaseless, and they hastily fled when it rained.
“The desks have created a safe teaching and learning environment at our school where classrooms for 40 learners take up to 100. Due to overcrowding, teachers found it challenging to access learners with special needs,” Banaba says.
The teachers work closely with parents to sensitise learners to take care of the desks.
Says Ntunthama School Management Committee chairperson Roda Supede: “To those with enough desks, 50 are few. But for us, they are so priceless that losing one is a huge loss.
“I’m happy that they still look new, with none broken or stained, because our children value them too.”