On the morning of October 21, 2019, when the third cock crowed, children from villages surrounding Chimkombero Primary School in the Area of Traditional Authority (T/A) Kamenyagwaza in Dedza trekked off through the muddy earth road to their school as is often the case during school days.
On the fateful day, classes commenced like any other day, promising to end well despite intermittent episodes of ghastly winds.
Just as the day matured and learners were about to knock off at around midday – the unexpected happened.
A strong wind blew through the school, blowing away papers and roofs while cries for help among children was drowned in the rough sounds prompted by the remorseless wind.
Several classrooms were severely damaged and 17 learners out of 1, 113 sustained various degrees of injuries.
“This happened as learners were trying to run away for their lives thereby causing a commotion and in the process several learners got injured including me,” recalls headteacher for the school Gabriel Mangochi.
Luckily, adds Mangochi, of all learners taken to St Anne’s Mission Hospital, none was admitted.
But he laments that after the traumatizing incident, the number of attendance dropped among learners.
“After the incident, we noted that many a learners started absconding classes as they thought a similar incident could happen again,” he recollects.
This is just an example of how education faces bottlenecks in the wake of disasters.
According government, 154 classroom blocks got damaged in disasters that saw 60 people killed.
A report by the United Nations Children’s Fund Report for the just ended year indicates that as of March 2019, about 975,000 people were affected including 460,000 children in 15 districts and 2 cities.
According to the report, several water and sanitation facilities were damaged that led to lack of access to safe water and latrines.
The report observes that in all this trail of damage, thousands of school-going children we greatly affected.
Director for Centre for Youth Empowerment and Civic Education (CYECE) Lucky Mbewe says time has come to stop some accidents in schools, arguing they are a result of poor workmanship.
“We need to have collective action and come up with well-planned efforts to curb similar experiences. We know that during the rainy season, schools where children learn under trees close down because they have no school blocks to learn from. We also know that some learn under glass thatched classrooms which disrupt their learning cycle,” says Mbewe.
He observed that incidents resulting from poor infrastructure designs and construction lead to violation of various children’s rights.
In 2018, four learners died at Natchengwa Primary School in Zomba after a school block wall collapse on them. Earlier, two learners also died at Mkomachi Primary School after a make-shift structure fell on them during class.
Last year, memories are still fresh of a child died at Fumbi Primary School in Mwanza following the collapse of a structure alleged to have been substandard.
“Instead of fulfilling the right to education for the child, the school becomes an institution where their right to life is threatened,” laments Mbewe.
While concurring with Mbewe, Director for Centre for Children Aid (CCA) Hestone Nalikole urges stakeholders planning construction of school facilities to be consulting experts in the construction industry.
Nalikole also implores on District Councils to religiously monitor school construction projects.
“District councils should be in the forefront to ensure that infrastructure constructed is of high standards. Out of desperation, some communities construct substandard infrastructure to can put lives of learners in danger. Local authorities should step up their oversight role,” he adds.
Government seems to share a similar view.
Speaking recently during the launch of the 2019/2020 Lean Season Food Insecurity Response Plan at Ntangaye Primary School in Machinga, vice president Everton Chimulirenji stressed the need for stakeholders to think big when designing and constructing development projects.
Chimulirenji said, through Department of Housing, government has developed safer housing construction guidelines that should be followed to ensure safety of inhabitants, including learners.
The vice president said these guidelines emphasize the need of constructing structures that last long and are resilient to natural disasters such as storms and floods.
“The ministry of education has developed safer schools construction guidelines that will assist in building blocks that can withstand multiple shocks. Similar initiatives are currently underway in the roads sector.
“Let me appeal to all stakeholders including communities to use these guidelines,” he said.
As the rainy season reaches its peak, reports of widespread damage have been recorded but it is not yet clear if learning facilities have been damaged.
With a deficit of 30,000 classrooms to ensure every child learns in proper environment, the current status is that learners learn at owners’ risk.
When thousands of learners go to school; if not injury, then death or a flirt with death is certain.