by Pilirani Semu-Banda
In recent months, Malawi’s president, Bingu wa Mutharika, has embarked on a series of whistle-stop tours during week days. Consequently, female teachers feel compelled to dance for him for fear of reprisals from authorities. In Malawi there is a lot of hero-worshipping for politicians, which started during the 30-year dictatorial rule from 1964 to 1994.
Malawians, especially women, sing and dance to songs in praise of politicians they support and conversely castigate those they do not. The president, however, uses civil servants for these demonstrations, including teachers.
A spokesperson for the country’s most influential opposition party, Sam Mpasu, describes this tendency by the president as detrimental to the country’s education standards, which are already grim.
Malawi’s education standards started declining as soon as the country attained democracy in 1994 and abolished school fees for primary education; this resulted in an increase in enrollment from 1.9 million pupils to 3.2 million.
The pupil-teacher ratio now stands at 72 pupils to one teacher and the primary education system is dominated by high repetition rates and drop-out rates, at 17 percent and 22 percent, respectively.
Another gloomy indicator of Malawi’s poor education system is that up to 22 percent of primary school teachers have little or no formal training.
The greatest tragedy of Malawi’s schools happened in September, 2003 when one of the 19 trees used as a classroom fell on the students as they were learning. Two children were killed and seven others were injured.
It is very common to see children learning under a tree even during the rainy season. Currently, a number of primary schools in the country’s commercial capital, Blantyre, have turned some toilets into classrooms due to the shortage of learning space.
Last year in February, 11 pupils also sustained injuries when the roof of their grass-thatched classroom collapsed while a class was in session.
Mpasu says the Malawi government seems not to be overly bothered by these tragedies. He accuses the president of adding to the woes in the education system by enticing both pupils and their teachers to abandon classes and participate in political activities.
But Minister of Education, Anna Kachikho, sees nothing wrong with these practices.
“The children learn in class who their president is and you can’t blame them for leaving their classes to have a look at the president if they hear that he’s passing by,” says Kachikho.
Government also says that the female teachers dance for the president to show “how happy they are with his administration.”
Meanwhile standards of education keep declining; the pass rate for the Malawi School Certificate of Education, dropped from 50.51 percent in 2005 to 38.62 percent last year.
Among other issues, Executive Director of the Malawi National Examination Board (Maneb), Matthews Matemba, attributes the drop to a general teacher shortage, a lack of both qualified teachers and those who specialize in subjects like Mathematics and Science.
In most schools in Malawi, textbooks are also in short supply, as are pens, pencils and notebooks.
"Our chief examiners tell us that some schools do not adequately cover the syllabus,” says Matemba.
Although the government’s policy stipulates a ratio of one teacher to no more than 60 pupils, most classes in the country have a staggering 123 pupils to one teacher.