Monday to Friday, 13-year-old Mwai Mbizi leaves home as early as 6am and elbows her way past one of Blantyre City’s busiest markets to get to Mbayani Primary School.
Mbayani, the Standard Eight girl’s township, plays home to one of Malawi’s most populous slums and primary schools.
Until her school split in 2017, it was the country’s most congested learning facility, with day and evening shifts comprising 12 000 learners.
To get there, Mwai zigzags past unmasked crowds and honking motorcycles, the mind firmly fixed on her dream to become a teacher and help girls realise they are not inferior to boys.
Just four years ago, Mwai and her schoolmates had to sit in overcrowded classrooms with no single desk for their comfort.
“It was hard for me to learn and stand up to take questions from teachers. I have spent all my childhood at this school, sitting on the dirty floor from Standard One to Four. The desks were limited to senior classes,” she says.
When she entered Standard Five, Mwai quickly discovered that the fierce scramble for battered desks was survival of the “brainiest” as every learner had to get teachers’ questions right to ascend to one. This left slow learners bruised and behind, she says.
“Sitting on the freezing floors in the chilly months of May, June and July, I used to look at myself as a failure not deserving the comfort enjoyed by bright classmates. This feeling pushed me to work harder until I started emerging top of the class,” she says.
Mwai and her classmates no longer suffer the stinging exclusion and low self-esteem from the daily quiz and scrambles for desks.
In January this year, her school received a truckload of desks from Kids in Need of Desks (Kind) through Unicef. The American Television personality Lawrence O’Donnell founded the fund to show that MNSBC’s The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell was not just a talk show.
The desks have gifted children like Mwai a seat off the floor and a reason to stay in school.
“These days, I have something to look forward to when I leave home in the morning,” she explains.
Just like that, O’Donnell’s fundraising initiative is plugging a familiar gap in Malawi desk by desk. By 2019, it had distributed more than 234 700 desks to 2 500 schools across the country—a daily struggle faced by nearly half of learners in Malawi that astonished O’Donnell during his visit in 2010.
With the new desks, Mwai’s classroom has become more relaxed, more fun and a safer place of learning amid the Covid-19 pandemic which spreads fast in crowded settings.
The girl and her classmates no longer put exercise books on their knees, the dusty floor or a classmate’s back to write properly. The desk that sits two learners has given her a flat surface on which to write.
Mwai is hoping for a quick end to the pandemic, which led to a six-month closure of schools in 2020. The second wave disrupted her education for five weeks from January to February this year. She further adds that congested classrooms could become super-spreaders unless there is increased investment in making learning spaces safer for everyone.
Meanwhile, her school has created a third shift to decongest the learning space. Besides, everyone—teachers, learners and visitors—are required to wash hands with soap and wear masks before passing through the entrance.
“Before the pandemic, we had two shifts. Now, we have added a third so that everyone is safe. Now it is not only easy to teach but also enforce social distancing and see who has masked up or not. The desks give teachers a clear view of all the learners,” explains headteacher Lamy Mizere.
The 55-year-old teacher narrates: “I have been to schools with less than 1 500 learners, but now I have to do with about 8 000 children and 101 teachers. High enrolment exerts immense pressure on few classrooms.
“The 50 desks we received during the school closure in January have created safe teaching and learning space for Standard Eight children, even though many classes still have no desks.”
Only children in Standard Seven and Eight have desks.
Mizere says this has to change because “Simple basics like desks could help create a safe and enabling learning environment for children as Covid-19 creates uncertainties with devastating effects on the education sector.”