When a little must go far

3rd June 2005 at 01:00
In his second report from Malawi, Neil Munro finds schools in the country lack the basics Scotland would think normal

Cosmas Mwangatha teaches 156 pupils in his class at Gwengwere primary in the Linthipe township, 35 kilometres from the Ma1awian capital of Lilongwe.

He teaches the full range of subjects - English, maths, general studies, music, the creative arts, RE and PE. "It's very difficult," Mr Mwangatha told me matter-of-factly. "It's not just the teaching, but having to mark the work of so many pupils. And there is a lot of fatigue."

For his endeavours, the young teacher is paid less than pound;40 a month.

"It's pitiful," he says.

But that is not the end of the challenges he and other Malawian teachers face. Jack McConnell, Scotland's First Minister, came to see for himself school "buildings" which have lain unroofed for 10 years after the money ran out.

The result is that 500 pupils and five teachers have to be crammed into what the headteacher described to Mr McConnell as thatched "shacks". In the rainy season - November to March - education effectively ceases because classrooms offer no shelter. "This is a very clear example of what little it takes to make a major difference to the lives of people here," Mr McConnell said as he indicated this was just the kind of project he expected to be supported by the Malawi appeal, which he launched in a statement to the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday.

While Mr Mwangatha and his colleagues are forced to spend almost half the year without their pupils, many of the pupils have to live without their parents. On the day Mr McConnell called in, the school was performing its other role as a teeming feeding station for the many youngsters from surrounding villages who have been orphaned by Aids - as many as half a million in the country as a whole, it has been estimated.

The Scottish International Relief charity spends pound;6 per child a year ensuring that each of the 23,000 children in the Linthipe area is properly fed. Gay Russell, a Scot who helps run the programme, reports that school attendance and performance have soared as a result.

The feeding of the tens of thousands, young and old alike, has assumed critical importance in the fight against Aids. As Ted Nandolo, executive director of the National Council of Non-Governmental Organisations, told us: "If people are weak from not eating properly or not having a balanced diet, they are more likely to succumb to HIV-related illnesses."

In the meantime, the Aids pandemic shows no signs of easing off in Malawi - and it may be worse than is officially acknowledged. Mr Mwangatha says there are probably pupils in his class and in the school who are HIV positive themselves. "But we just don't know," he said, "because we don't have the equipment to test them."

If the First Minister's Malawi trip confirmed anything, it was that there is no shortage of problems crying out for action. Last week we reported from Minga community day secondary school on the outskirts of Lilongwe, where pupils have to sit on a concrete classroom floor during lessons.

Later, we visited the Henry Henderson Institute (HHI) primary school in Blantyre, founded in 1909 by Scottish missionaries. The 1,200 pupils and 27 teachers have very limited facilities, Roy Chikwakwa, the headteacher, told us. Just what that bald statement meant quickly became clear: there was only one toilet for staff and children, which was not working because it had been vandalised. The school also felt isolated because of poor communications, Mr Chikwakwa said. This meant there was no telephone.

Henry Henderson Institute primary had no library either, at least until Mr McConnell handed over 1,000 books. This is the first consignment of 32,000 for use in English lessons, courtesy of the Malawi Millennium Project, a consortium of Strathclyde University, Bell College and the University of Malawi.

Leader 18

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