Rising standards of education in Malawi improve the future of refugees

News Stories, 13 December 2006

© UNHCR/J.Redden
Headmaster Augustine Chipula stands in the library of Umodzi Katubza Primary School, whose students have the best results in the area.

DZALEKA REFUGEE CAMP, Malawi, December 13 (UNHCR) The students who file into classes at Umodzi Katubza Primary School on the edge of Malawi's main refugee camp are expected this month to repeat the performance that in recent years has given their school the best results in the area.

"I think they understand why they are here, the importance of getting the most from education," said Augustine Chipula, the school's headmaster since the performance began rising in 2002. "It is through hard work on both sides the students and the teachers."

The record speaks for itself. In a country where only modest numbers of children progress beyond the primary level, the school at Dzaleka Refugee Camp sends a steady stream of students on to secondary schools outside the camp last year that meant 36 of the 46 students who were in Grade Eight.

"The other schools in this district are far behind. We came first in this zone out of 22 schools," Chipula said. "Students are selected on merit [for secondary school] and our students are doing very well," he added in a recent interview at this camp, which houses some 4,600 people from Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

Credit for the programme goes to the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), which became UNHCR's implementing partner for education in Malawi in 2002. The school, containing a pre-school and grades one through eight, now teaches 1,179 students 616 boys and 564 girls. Importantly for community relations, 153 of those students are Malawians attracted by the standards of the school.

The performance may not look impressive when compared to standards in the developed world. But in a country where many classes must be conducted under trees and some teachers work only in theory, JRS is demonstrating how to improve education.

"Motivated staff motivate the children. They like to come to school," said Sister Ann Elizabeth DeYuyst, the head of JRS in Malawi, making clear that more work remains. "Far from saying everything is perfect, we are working to improve the standard of education."

It is a question of fundamentals. The school has necessities like good buildings and desks. A library with more than 3,000 volumes has been built up and was recently repainted. Unlike state schools, which suffer chronic shortages of basics like texts and paper, Umodzi Katubza is well supplied by UNHCR.

The 26 teachers, largely new since JRS took over, receive regular training to improve their skills and are closely monitored nearly half are refugees. "They have taken pride in the school inside and outside the classroom," said DeYuyst.

Unlike other schools in Malawi, regular classes are supplemented by clubs and other activities. French, important to refugees from French-speaking countries like the DRC, has been added to the curriculum. Other languages used by refugees, such as Swahili, are taught in clubs.

However, the long school day also points to a reason for the limited number of Malawian students. Some find the standards of Umodzi Katubza too demanding or do not have the ambitions of refugees, while others must also spend time working to provide food for their families.

JRS's goal now is to show the same success at the school in Luwani Refugee Camp in the south of Malawi, the country's second camp. Results have improved since JRS took charge of it in 2003, but DeYuyst says the staff and student performance still lags that of Umodzi Katubza.

Leslie Norton, JRS education coordinator in Umodzi Katubza, is concentrating on building the capacity of the staff to ensure the education programme is sustainable if there is ever a reduction in UNHCR support. Although there are no plans for major changes at the refugee camps in Malawi, smaller refugee numbers in southern Africa mean that UNHCR operations will be reviewed as governments take direct responsibility.

Students now are on their end-of-year break, with a new school year beginning in January. Graduates of Umodzi Katubza will be competing for the limited places in Malawi's secondary schools. They are almost certain to again outshine other schools.

"When our students go to another school, they are often at the top," said DeYuyst, a Belgian who has been helping improve the lives of people in Africa since 1959. "They know education can be a way out for them. They are a lot more motivated than Malawians."

By Jack Redden in Dzaleka Refugee Camp, Malawi