Long sail to exams

From the grey sandy soils of Nsombi, Lungazi and Ngotangota villages along the eastern shores of Lake Chilwa, school children sail across the lake just to sit for their Primary School Leaving Certificate Examinations (PSLCE).

This year, 12 pupils from Chinguma Primary School in Nsombi made this all important journey to Kachulu Primary School on the western part of the lake. Kachulu is the closest cluster centre they can ever get.

Clever Kwenyengwe, 14, and Edward Dennis, 15, were amongst them. A week before exams, I met the two young boys at their school. They were so determined to make this final journey for their primary education.

Making it to Standard 8 is quite an astonishing achievement for a boy-child in this part of the country. Here, the lure of pulling fishing nets is more appealing than befriending pens and notebooks. Many boys prefer to make quick money from fishing than chasing a dream through a classroom.

But that counts for nothing to the two boys.

“What I am doing is for the long term, fishing is short term,” said Dennis.

“I want to be different from the majority of boys here and I can only do that through education,” Kwenyengwe chipped in.

The ebb-and-flow of common challenges that cripple the pursuit of education in rural areas has done little to deflate the passion of the two. But there is one problem that is forever boiling, spewing a steam of derailment.

While many parents part with only K1, 000 as examination fees for their children, parents in Nsombi, Lungazi and Ngotangota in T/A Mkumbira in Zomba spend more than MK10, 000 to see their children through the whole examination exercise.

This is the case because primary schools from these villages have no cluster centre nearby. The villages are located on the eastern part of Lake Chilwa, close to the Mozambique border Town of Sede. As such, children are required to sit for their exams on the other side of the lake in the west.

The journey across the lake is undeniably long and occasionally risky. It is also perennially expensive to most ordinary families whose livelihood largely depends on casting nets in the muddy waters of the lake.

Travelling from the eastern shores to the west takes a good 3 hours on an engine boat.

It is a sail that glides past the islands of Thongwe and Chisi to the final destination of Kachulu, a docking place in the western side of the lake that connects the three villages to civilization.

The sail is sometimes as torturous as it is risky. The prevalent easterly winds popularly known as Mwera is often scary. On a bad day, it spits mountains of waves that mercilessly harass boats ferrying people and merchandise across the lake.

Yet the nature of the journey and its associated risks remain the least of worries to many parents. . Instead, travel and upkeep costs is the major concern when sending their children to the other side of the lake

Apart from the examination fees, parents pay a total of MK4, 000 for a two-way journey on boat.

“The costs are often too taxing to many families here,” said Elias Masala, chairperson for Chinguma School Committee, one of the primary schools whose pupils are often trapped in this predicament.

Accommodation and food for the entire week each kid spends at Kachulu during exams, stretches the expenditure to MK10, 000 and above, according to Masala.

“They have to leave for Kachulu (the cluster centre) two days before the exams. Add that to the three days of exams and that means the costs are even higher,” he said.

Many parents in these areas take this sacrifice for their children’s education with a lot of pain. Yes, fishing is the major economic driver here but it does not save all the days. The frequent fury of Mwera winds on the lake has ripple effects even to the last thread of people’s pocket.

In such circumstances, the flow of cash is as erratic as the fish catch.

“Sometimes it becomes difficult to have readily available money for your child to go and sit for exams to such a far-away place.

As a result some children fail to go,” claimed 43-year-old Odala Chisale, a resident of Nsombi I Village.

A local human rights expert observed that the situation in these places serve as a fertile ground for denying children their right to education.

“Talking to parents in these places, one gets the impression that the general absence of a near-by cluster centre puts away many children from school. This, by default, denies the children their right to education,” said Pacharo Namatumbo, District Coordinator for Malawi Centre for Advice, Research on Rights (Malawi CARER) in Zomba.

Malawi CARER, with help from Democracy Consolidation Programme (DCP), is empowering communities in these villages about human rights based approaches to developmental issues like education.

According to Namatumbo, his organisation has, on several occasions, presented the problem facing schools and villages in the eastern shore to the offices of District Education Manager (DEM) for Zomba on behalf of the communities.

“Assurances have been made to solve the problem. But up to now there is no any progress,” said Namatumbo.

Deputy DEM for Zomba Rural Oster Chagamba says his office has had challenges of facilitating the establishment of a cluster centre in similar lakeshore villages because of low candidature and high costs.

“The number of pupils writing exams from the islands and areas beyond is often very low. It is also costly to ferry exams to these areas on daily basis because there is no security structures like a police unit for the safety of exam papers and personnel” Chagamba said.

The Malawi National Examinations Board (MANEB), which approves the establishment of examination cluster centres, appreciates the inconveniences that candidates and their parents in the eastern shore of Lake Chilwa face when it comes to writing PSLCE examination, according to the board’s spokesperson Simeon Maganga.

The board agreed with the concern by the DEM’s office stating that the security of both national examinations and lives of candidates, invigilators and security personnel is of paramount importance.

“(We) don’t take risks in creating a cluster centre in an area which does not have structures and a distribution centre to keep both live and written examination papers,” Maganga said.

He adds that MANEB is committed to approving a cluster centre status if both numbers of candidates and security in terms of strong and safe structures in these areas improve.

Apparently, that seems to be a long shot. Currently, there are no proper structures in these areas and immediate plans to have one in the near future are stillborn.

Again, the number of candidates sitting for exams is less inspiring. Available statistics show that only 22 students from that side of the lake sat for 2016 primary school leaving certificate examinations.

Head teacher for Kachulu Primary School, a cluster centre for the three schools, Lameck Chikabwera said 12 pupils were from Chinguma and 10 from Ngotangota.

There was none from Chisoni Primary School in Lungazi Village, which is one of schools from the eastern shore.

“I understand that there was no Standard 8 class this year. The whole Standard 7 class of last year failed to graduate into the other class,” said Chikabwera.

Source: Malawi News Agency