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Zambia’s education battle - A 45-year-old in school

 Street News Service 02 December 2019

He may not be an actual saint, but Peter Maunda is certainly offering a gateway to a better education for some children in Lusaka. Jorrit Meulenbeek met the director of St. Pemama's Primary School, who’s become an inspirational figure for kids and parents alike. (1468 Words) - By Jorrit Meulenbeek


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Peter Maunda teaching English to the lower grades at his recently started community school. The two small classroom have no windows, light only comes in through the door. Photo: Street News Service

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Teaching English from the single textbook that has to be shared by over twenty pupils. Photo: Street News Service

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45-year student Biscent Simukoko hopes to complete his grade 10 next year, while he already volunteers as a teacher at St. Pemama's. Here he is talking to his daughter, who goes to the same school. Photo: Street News Service

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Arnold Mulemena (16) prefers this school to the government school he previously went to, because here the class is smaller and he gets more individual attention. “They teach better and give me more knowledge.” Photo: Street News Service

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Pupils having a break, queueing up to drink water. There is no running water or sanitation at the school premises. Photo: Street News Service

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Regina Phiri (5) just started pre-school at St. Pemama's and says she likes it. Her father passed away, making her one of the many single parent children and orphans who rely on community schools for their education. Photo: Street News Service

Thirteen fully equipped classrooms; three offices; a school hall; an art class and a computer lab. That's how Peter Maunda envisages his perfect school, but as yet that blueprint is only on paper, and the reality is a little different.

So far, St. Pemama's Primary School in one of Lusaka's poorer neighbourhoods, is nothing more than two small classrooms with dirt floors, no windows and hardly any furniture. The wall serves as a blackboard. But it's a start - and what's on offer is a lot better than elsewhere.

Official figures now claim over 97 per cent of children in Zambia now attend primary school, compared to 80 percent in 1990. In reality, many children have nowhere to go other than severely under-resourced schools, and St Pemama's is no exception.

Situated in Kabanana, on the outskirts of Lusaka and home to many poor and disadvantaged families for whom even free education is too expensive, the school has few textbooks, and no qualified teachers.

But it does have Peter, himself from Kabanana.

With what little resources he has, he has created what many think could become a blueprint for what can and should be achieved right across the country. Local schools, run and funded by the community.

He opened by renting two spare rooms at a house, and registered it as a school in September.

The young headmaster holds no formal qualification to teach, although he has some experience as an assistant teacher. Unable to afford his fees anyway, he put his own studies for an English Teaching Diploma at Evelyn Hone College on hold, when he launched St Pemama's.

"I first wanted to name it just St Peter," he explains. "But when I came to the registration office, I found there was already a school with that name, so I quickly had to think of something else.

"Am I saint? Maybe I am, since a saint is someone who has a heart for a cause."

When you first meet Maunda, he's doesn't immediately strike you as the inspirational leader his community describes him to be; but once he steps in front of his class….

His 20 pupils, crammed into the small dark room respond to his confidence and authority - not one I saw drifted from their one and only textbook.

Biscent Simukoko, for example, is hoping to finish grade 11 next year.

Nothing out of the ordinary, except for the fact that he is already 45 years old.

"I was in school before, when I was younger, but I stopped because I got sick", he explains.

This father of five is now helping Maunda out as a volunteer teacher and hopes to one day make a living out of this.

For many parents in the neighbourhood, St Pemama's is now the school of choice.

"Of course it is very limiting, but there is nothing I can do", says Maybin Nkhazi (34), father to one of the young girls playing outside.

"I am unable to afford any other school around here, because I am not working."

Lucy Zulu (46) is one of the mothers who have been unable to send her children to school so far.

Out of her eight children, the six oldest "just do nothing", she says, as the money she and her husband make from piecework like crushing stones, is not enough to pay for any of the government schools in the area.

While they look for sponsors, St. Pemama's pays its rent by charging a 25.000 Kwacha monthly fee, which most of the parents do not actually pay.

"We just allow their children to come anyway", says Maunda.

Now he just hopes and prays the inspection bodies will be lenient when they come to visit his school, as he does not yet meet most of the Education and Health Department's standards.

"They will have to understand that we have just started and give us a chance to improve."

The results of Maunda's brave efforts remain to be seen, as his first students are yet to write their exams, but he does not for a minute believe his efforts are futile, no matter how limited the resources. "I used to tutor children before. Some pupils who had previously dropped out of school would come just before the exams. I would study hard with them and they did pass. So yes, it is very possible."


Cheap education is still too expensive

Primary education is compulsory in Zambia, but in practice it is hardly enforced. In the country, where over 70 percent of people live below the poverty line of one dollar a day, even the smallest expense for sending children to school can already be a barrier.

For some years Zambia experimented with the so-called cost sharing model, trying to increase school funds and improve their quality through charging school fees.

Research soon showed that this only led to a drop in attendance rates, and in 2002 president Mwanawasa's government decided to go against the directives of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), making primary education free once again.

Lack of money for uniforms, books, transport and lunch, easily amounting to 400 thousand Zambian Kwacha per year (Roughly 80 US Dollars), is still keeping a small percentage of children at home, but with an attendance rate of over 97 percent, Zambia is now doing very well compared to the rest of the Sub-Sahara Africa region. Out of the children who attend primary school, the number successfully completing grade 7 has increased from 64 in 1990 to 83 percent in 2006 (United Nations Development Programme (UNDP),  country progress report 2009)

The recent growth, from 1.8 million pupils enrolled in primary schools in 1999 to 2.8 million in 2006, can not only be attributed to the return to free education. According to an evaluation report of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, over 30 percent of this increase was in community schools such as St. Pemama's.

A large part of Zambian youth's relies on these community schools for their primary education, community initiatives that are not funded by government. According to the Dutch research, one in five new pupils enrolling went to a community school in 2005. These schools often have no qualified teachers, a worse pupil-to-teacher ratio and a more pressing lack of resources than the government and private schools.

So while the enrolment ratio is improving, the quality of primary education behind this growth still leaves much to be desired.

According to the statistics of UNDP,  the literacy rate among 15-24 year-olds has actually been declining in recent years, despite efforts to improve literacy through teaching in the local languages such as chiNyanja and chiBemba. This issue will need to be addressed for Zambia to meet the Millennium Development Goal in 2015.

With regards to another Millennium Development Goal, gender equity, the numbers also seem better at first sight than they actually are. The percentage of girls enrolling in primary school is slightly higher than the number of boys, but taken over a longer period the drop-out rate of girls is much higher, which the Forum for African Women Educationalists of Zambia attributes to teenage pregnancies and early marriages.

Lack of prospects for those who do manage to complete their primary education is discouraging for girls and boys alike. Only 38 percent enrol in high school according to UNICEF and a mere 2 percent make it to college or university.

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