No bricks for desks: Benedicto Kondowe’s fight for quality education in Malawi

Imagine if your child went to school in a place that didn’t have classrooms. Maybe the class size had more than 100 other students. And maybe the students didn’t even have their own schoolbooks – they had to share it with six to ten other kids. Would that be an engaging place for your child to learn? 

That’s what Benedicto Kondowe, an education and human rights campaigner from Malawi, talked about this week to drum up support for the Global Partnership for Education, the only multilateral organization dedicated to education. In the hopes of getting funding and support to improve education programs in Malawi, he told them the stories of the struggling students and teachers across his country. For example, some students have to use bricks as desks. And some teachers are forced to use outdoor space in lieu of an office.

Benedicto is no stranger to Malawi’s fight for quality education. He is the executive director of the Civil Society Education Coalition, a group of 81 civil society organizations working to achieve the right to education for all in Malawi. He also founded the Centre for Governance and Public Participation, which works to promote democracy, civic engagement and social justice.

Benedicto was kind enough to let me interview him about his fight for quality education, some of the obstacles he faces as an education activist, and how the Global Partnership for Education could make a difference in Malawi. Read on to learn more:

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What brings you to DC? Why are you here supporting the Global Partnership for Education?

I’m here in DC to share my story about the status of education in Malawi, which is similar to other African countries, and what we see GPE is doing to fill the gaps in the education sector to provide quality education for all. I have been exposed to many things that would be important to share.

Imagine one goes to a community where one finds that out of 8 classes taught, half are taught under a tree, or on the veranda of a teacher’s home, or discover that a single teacher is taking care of in excess of 110 learners. We have a shortage of well-trained teachers. Imagine the kind of burden that these teachers are subjected to. In this environment, quality education is not attainable.

National standards recommend that each pupil have a book, but the practical reality is that six to ten students share one book. And you can imagine that 10 learners cannot effectively share and learn from a single book. We have schools where students have never seen a desk, and others where children are using bricks as desks. These are the kind of realities that I thought would be worth sharing.

InterviewOvercrowded classrooms like these make it difficult for a teacher to control his or her students and give students the individual attention they need. 

What are the biggest obstacles to achieving quality education for all children in Malawi?

The major obstacle in my view is finances. The government is not able to train teachers to the level needed. Current statistics indicate that there is a teacher deficit of 35,000 to 45,000 teachers in the schools.

The current government program attempts to train 2,500 teachers per year. It would take us at least 12 years to reach the number of teachers that are needed. There is also the issue of motivation, because in order to provide quality education, you need a sense of collective responsibility.

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This is a 117-student classroom, where students use bricks as desks. 

You build that collective responsibility with the Civil Society Education Coalition. What are its goals?

First and foremost, we mobilize stakeholders together around specific education goals. As a country we’re making gradual progress. We also raise citizen awareness around the issues. The literacy rate for Malawi is 64 percent, so we still have a huge section of the population that is illiterate.

In order to promote the engagement on education we need to bring the issues to them. Unless the citizens are able to understand and appreciate the issues, chances are high that they’re not going to be involved in what the government is doing in the education sector. That limits the extent to which citizens are able to be involved in these issues.

Teacher's desk
This teacher has no staff room and is forced to improvise this space underneath a tree as his office.
“Would such teachers be motivated to teach under these hard realities?” asks Benedicto.

Why is the support of the Global Partnership for Education so important for Malawi?

GPE is a very important funding mechanism for a country like Malawi. Over time we have seen a lot of local buy-in to the GPE process because the priority areas that GPE works on are identified by recipient countries. In the case of Malawi, GPE has committed to training 14,000 teachers. GPE is also building bath areas for girls so that they are not left out. GPE will help us reduce the high pupil to book ratios from six or ten students per book to three or four, depending on the subject. The structure of GPE’s support encourages the Malawi government to step up its efforts as well. Over the past 3 years, they have been allocating more than 20 percent of the budget to education, but again, we need players like GPE to support these efforts.

Thank you, Benedicto, for talking to ONE about your work to bring quality education to Malawi. Good luck to you – and we will continue to support the Global Partnership for Education.

Share some words of support with Benedicto in a comment below!