There are three types of government secondary schools in Malawi. To be selected to such a school, students take an exam in Standard 8 (8th grade). Only the top third of students are selected to secondary schools. Of that top 33%, the students are sent to either a National Boarding School, a District Boarding School, and a Community Day Secondary School. Most students are enrolled in a CDSS and it is the cheapest option for students.
Once students are in secondary school, there are two big exams that they have to take. The first is called the JCE (Junior Certificate Exam) and is administered at the end form 2 (the second year). This exam is to see how the students are progressing. The exam is pass/fail and it must be passed to continue in school. The second exam is the MSCE (Malawi Senior Certificate Exam) and is taken at the end of form 4 (4th year). This is the exam that will determine if students can attend university, a trade school, or even get a job.
At our CDSS I am teaching 4 different courses with 23 periods a week. I teach mathematics for form 1, 2, and 3 and Physical Science for form 1. Form 1 and 2 have about 50 students each and form 3 has about 25. There are nine periods throughout the day starting at 7 am and ending at 1:20 pm. The students stay in their classrooms divided by form and the teachers rotate through the classes.
I’m also the Form Mistress for form 1…which means I’m basically the class teacher. I take their attendance each day and monitor behavior. I’m also in charge of registering each student, knowing their information, and assisting with bursary support if they receive it.
A few weeks into the semester, our headmaster, Mr. Kamwambi came to our staff meeting with information about a new government bursary (scholarships) that is being piloted for form 1 students. As the head teacher I was asked to assist the bursary committee with interviewing the students. About 20 students were noted as being the neediest of their peers and it was my job, along with one of the Malawian teachers, to help them fill out the application. The application was three pages long and full of questions to help the government gauge the neediness of the student. Here are a few of the questions:
Does your family own any cows? goats? pigs? chickens?
What is the roof of your house made of? (thatch, metal, tiles)
What are the outer walls of your house made of? (burnt bricks, unburnt bricks, mud and sticks)
Is your mother living?
Is your father living?
Who takes care of you?
Does your household own a bicycle? radio? cell phone?
How many children in your household are attending primary school? secondary school?
After listening to the heart-breaking answers of my students, many of whom I learned are orphans, it was then my job to rank each students by their level of neediness. How was I supposed to do that? How was I supposed to rank my students based on their neediness when ALL of them, including those who weren’t interviewed, should be ranked number 1. How could I choose?
Thankfully, Sami was there to help me. Ranking my students based on their applications was probably one of the hardest things I’ve had to do this term. It just didn’t seem fair to me that I had to rank a person lower because maybe only one of their parents is dead, compared to two; or maybe they have burnt brick walls, where one of their peers is living with walls made of mud and sticks.
This process forced me to really open my eyes to the poverty my students live in every day of their lives. It forced me to understand the lives my students have outside my classroom and the reality they face when they leave the school grounds. Where do they get food? How far do they walk for water? Who is taking care of them?
By Abbie Morneault – Determined to Develop volunteer teacher at Khwawa High School
Tawonga chomene (We thank you)