A Big Walk back to school
It’s not easy for girls to get an education in Malawi, only 40% finish primary school and only 4% achieve a high school qualification. Poverty and gender issues mean than girls are often forced to stay at home and help in the fields or other household tasks. Furthermore, many are encouraged and even pressured to begin sexual relations as young as 12 and 13, in order to gain some financial support and find a husband to take care of them.
Innocent Amos is a teacher at Namwanje Primary School, in the north eastern part of Malawi’s Blantyre district. A total of 635 children from 8 surrounding villages attend this primary school, which is staffed by 7 qualified and 4 trainee teachers. Innocent is a graduate of DAPP Malawi’s Teacher Training Program.
Despite having to deal with more than 50 children in each class, Innocent and his colleagues noticed that an alarming amount of children, particularly girls, were dropping out of school. “The reasons were different for each of the learners, but one of the main reasons was that they were told to find boys to marry them,” he explains. “Some were told to start sexual relations for the sake of getting good clothes and cell phones since their parents were not providing them.” 16 year-old Siberia Shaib, for example, left school just a year from finishing her primary education because of the pressure on her to “find a boyfriend who could provide some basics like soap and clothes,” according to Amos.
Amos understands that this catch-22 is the crux of Malawi’s education problems: shocking amounts of young people drop out of school for poverty-related reasons, and yet a decent education is the best, if only, chance they have at leaving poverty. So he decided to do something about it.
With the help of the local community and his fellow teachers, Innocent organised a march through five of the villages surrounding the school. The Big Walk, as it was called, was to get every child back in school. In each village, children already attending school met with the village head men and presented them a letter outlining the importance of all children, and especially girls, finishing school. Posters were put along the route, and parents of children already in school were encouraged to take part. At the end of the Big Walk, an open day was put on at Namwanje Primary, for children and parents to visit and ask questions. Students performed poems, skits, songs and speeches on the benefits of making sure girls stay in school, and children who had dropped out had the chance to connect with students.
In the weeks following the event, village head men met with their communities, expressing support for the Big Walk and encouraging parents in their villages to support keeping children in school. As a result of the event and support from the community, 42 girls and 2 boys have since returned to school. Damien Chelenga, a 13 year-old in grade 4, is particularly grateful to be back in school. He had dropped out last year to earn a living from theft, as his family had no other way to support him. Having been arrested twice, he was encouraged by the efforts of Amos that he does have the opportunity for a better life through education.
For Innocent Amos, the battle is not over. He and his colleagues are working hard to involve parents in the local community and pay particular attention to children who might be at risk of dropping out of school. Furthermore, there are still countless children not attending school. However, the success of the Big Walk has been a huge encouragement and a reminder of the importance and value of his work. His ultimate goal is to create a culture that embraces education, where every child finishes school.