Kapita Primary School is nestled atop one of the many undulating hills that stretch across the South-East Mzimba region of Malawi. To reach it, one often has two choices, a seasoned 4×4 or a long (steep) walk. This is largely on account of the narrow winding paths that cut across steep hills, replete with clay soils that can trap motor vehicles for hours, if not days during rainy seasons. It is a part of the countrythat that even Malawians seem to know little about. The surrounding Viphya forest may as well be a time capsule. For it is a school that has seen little change since its principal, Mbasi Mbasi Milazi, was a student here in the 1970s. Everyday he takes on a seemingly impossible mission with understated determination. The noble but daunting task of educating over 450 students with just 5 teachers(including himself) and little to no government support. It’s well known that those who get assigned rural teaching stints have drawn the short straw. But Mbasi Mbasi is here by choice, often watching young talent eventually move on to better resourced urban schools as he holds the fort. Over the years, he’s watched a few NGOs come through, often well intentioned but seldom focused on or capable of shifting the status quo.
The school’s 450+ pupils criss cross this dramatic terrain each day, walking several kilometers barefoot or in well-worn plastic shoes. Their smiles and youthful chatterings often veiling pangs of hunger as they crowd into a handful of small, dark classrooms each morning. They show great reverance as they greet their teachers each morning, prefacing each question or comment with “Teacher” or “Sir”. Four to five of them share the dated government issue textbooks the school received many years ago. They’ve had NGO sponsored breakfast programs for brief periods but they have been short-lived, grinding to a disappointing halt when funds inevitably deplete. The number of girls enrolled in higher grades is low, the teachers attribute it to a number of reasons, ranging from child marriage to a lack of appropriate hygiene and sanitation. All but two of the pitt latrines at the school are past capacity and smell foul. There is no water at the school, save the few buckets of water at the principal’s house. All this results in a context where only a handful of students move on to high school. Most follow their parents’ footsteps as farmers or migrate to crowded urban centres in seek of often non-existent jobs.
The situation is precarious …but this is not a story of a desperate rural school in Malawi, nor is it one of a school that was saved by a development NGO. It is a story of a school that is championing its own transformation through collaboration with Empower Malawi, Empower Projects’ sister organisation in Malawi. Documented below is a summary of interconnected projects that have started to bring about change in a rural school that has received so little attention for several decades.
When I first sat down with Mbasi Mbasi Milazi in 2010, we discussed the possibility of Kapita Primary School utilising its own land to grow food for both pupils and teachers. We were in his office, stacked towers of old manilla folders and worn textbooks, I remember a framed drawing of the school’s credo catching my attention, it aptly read “Shaping the Future Through Hard Work and Play”. He flashed an unassuming smile and in his soft voice expressed that it might indeed be possible. The school did have a lot of underetilised land and their attempts at growing food for the school had, by his own admission, had been a failure. This set the stage for Empower Malawi to work with the school to conduct training in permaculture practices and develop a local permaculture committee that would comprise students, parents and teachers. ‘Permaculture’ centes on working with nature to design systems (food, energy, waste)that can last into perpetuity. Our objective in Kapita Primary being to build local capacity in agroecology with a view towards starting a self-sustaining meal program.
By 2012, after several training and garden design sessions, the foundations for a school garden started to take shape. A roughly 2 acre area was allocated for ‘permaculture work’ and with the help of a contracted consultant, Lieza Swenan, the newly formed permaculture committee sought to develop a food forest that they would eventually expand across a 4 acre area. Children were deeply involved in planting a range of fruits e.g. oranges, bananas, pineapples and avocados while also integrating nitrogen fixing plants and crops to build soil health. This was largely achieved through seedlings provided by parents. The establishment of the garden also lead to discuss other development challenges at the school, but we’ll get into that in a moment.
Through 2013-2016, this garden has flourished and generated food for pupils. Our permaculture consultants provided ongoing support and advice with respect to land, water and crop management. The gradual increase in the garden’s capacity allowed teachers to shift from offering fruit as treats, to it being a regular practice. Principal Mbasi Mbasi attributes an upward trend in both enrolment and attendnace to the garden. Both in terms of the provision of food and the genuine interest in learning about sustainability through the garden.
The expansion of the garden, as per the original vision, has now resulted in establishment of a breakfast program that is slated to begin in June 2016! The program will provide children with a nutritious porridge each morning. The kitchen featured below has two energy efficient stoves which use substantially less fuel wood for cooking.
Access to Solar Power
Parallel to the establishment of the food garden, Empower Malawi partnered with Mzuzu University to install a solar system that would enable the school to have lighting as well as charge and power a range of devices. This was made possible through funding from UNDP. Suffice to say this has created new possibilities at Kapita Primary, night classes and the ability to use computers and tablets being prime examples. Students looking to sit for their high school entrance exams now come to school at night to study. A donated laptop, projector and tablets are being used to expose students to technology-based learning. There’s still a distance to go with respect to computer access and use in classrooms, but having their own sustainable power supply is a critical foundation.
Sanitation was a pressing issue at Kapita Primary School and our collective approach required a solution that was hygienic, cost-effective , easily replicable and ecologically sustainable. Our proposal, composting toilets. Our permaculture consultants were once again involved in training staff, students and parents on how composting toilets could be constructed and used. A lot of time was spent sensitising teachers and staff to hygienic practices, breaking through cultural stigmas around handling human waste. It so happened that UNICEF had planned to build western-style toilets at the school and despite having transported the raw materials, the project never materialised. Kindly, UNICEF allowed us to re-purpose these raw materials to aid the construction of eco-urinals and eco-toilets at the primary school, further reducing the cost of establishment.
The school now has 3 composting toilets and 2 large urinals (one male, one female), all of which hygiencally provide the fruit trees in the garden with nutrients. Crucially, this has created a more comfortable and hygienic study environment for children in the area.
Having collaborated across the areas of food, nutrition, energy and sanitation, our final colalboration was aimed towards addresing water access and storage. The Kapita region receives a lot of rainfall during the rainy months but goes through significant dry spells as well. These patterns are becoming more erraric on account of climate change. No rainwater was being captured at Kapita Primary , in fact most rainwater that fell on the school property would pour off the edge of the hill and exacerbate soil erosion. As a solution, our permacultue consultants assisted teachers and students in developing effective land management practices to slow the movement of water and better entrench it in the garden. As for water access and storage, our collective solution was to use the school roof’s surface area to capture rainwater and store it in a 2,500litre tank that was fitted with a tap.
In addition to irrigating the garden during the dry months, this tank now provides children with water for hygiene and sanitation purposes.
Finally, the school also established a nursery for seedlings of local varities of trees. This is part of a reforestation effort in a bid to improve local biodiversity. Hundreds of trees have been planted through this initiative.
There it is. Five years of co-creation with the beautiful teachers, students and parents at Kapita Primary School. While we have provided a range of resources, expertise and capacity building support, none of this would not have been possible without tireless local stewardship. During my last visit (Dec 2016) Mbasi Mbasi walked with me as we surveyed the breadth of our collective work across these years. Understated as always, he accounted for all that had been done across the year since my last visit while nursing a folder under his arm. He smiled appreciatively and expanded on the specifics of how ‘a lot had improved’. He then excused himself as he had an exam to invigilate in a few minutes. He stroked the heads of a few young pupils who ran towards him as he entered the classroom, there’s little rest for the headmaster of a rural school like this.
In truth, there’s so much more that these teachers and students deserve. Our hope is that our time together has provided the school with useful knowledge, learning experiences and some critical infrastructure to build on. Designing these projects and watching them come to life has been a deeply enriching experience for our entire team. We have been truly humbled and inspired by these collective efforts, particularly as students, counter to cultural norms, have played a critical role.We’d also like to thank all our donors and supporters for making these projects possible. We know that this experience has provided us with models and approaches to support other rural schools in Malawi.