By Chrispin Inambao KATIMA MULILO – Fifteen-year-old Sinfwa Nkungano, a ninth grader at Mafuta Combined School does not look her age. Her baby face is most probably due to erratic food availability. Life is seemingly a daily struggle for this resilient teenager and equally so for her peers at Namalubi, a sleepy settlement in Katima Rural Constituency in the Caprivi Region. During school days a group of school-going children among them Sinfwa from Namalubi and other neighbouring settlements are shaken awake at around 03h30 to start preparing for school. These children have no choice but to rise this early to avoid getting late. After the early morning preparations they have to walk for around 10 km to their school at Mafuta. These children said they have to walk to school on empty stomachs because their parents are too poor and they are only able to afford one decent meal a day. Sinfwa’s school regime is as rigid as it is Spartan, with very little room for play. She wakes up at the ungodly hour of 03h30 and she only walks back home at night. Life is no bed of roses for this girl because despite walking the long distances to and from her school, she is expected by her parents to assist with domestic chores such as cooking, washing plates, drawing water from a nearby well and to perform a host of other tasks. “We also have to cook, fetch water, grind maize, wash plates and we are expected to sweep. So we don’t get enough time for study unless we are at school,” says the teenager. At times Sinfwa says she gets late if there are heavy rains in the area, while the several herds of African elephants roving around are also a constant threat. In as much as roads congested with traffic in urban areas cause delays for school-going children in these metropolitan centres, herds of elephants frequenting bush paths are also known to have a similar effect for Sinfwa and her peers. In addition, these children have to trek to school by walking through muddy, waterlogged bush paths and in such instances they have to take off their shoes. Sinfwa says their parents discourage using the bush paths because there is always the danger of ritual killers using the cover of the thick vegetation to ambush unsuspecting children. If these children are late, the head of department (HOD), who is in the habit of wielding a whip fashioned from a discarded black fan belt, is likely to whip their behinds. “At times he whips us on our feet, saying ‘they are the ones making you late’,” said a girl who was ablaze in a floral blue dress, while others nodded their heads in agreement. Another common mode of punishment favoured is to clear the grass and weeds growing uncontrollably at the school that has broken windows and where there is rapid dilapidation. Though the constitution of the country outlaws corporal punishment, it is an open secret that teachers specifically in rural areas rarely spare the rod as they reason this will spoil the children. At Namalubi, Sinfwa’s predicament of having to walk with dozens others from neighbouring Lyanabo Village, Matengu Village, Manyandelo Village and from Three-Way Divorce Club, a settlement on a T-junction popularised by an informal restaurant, share a distance of around 20 km and of dozing during classes due to fatigue. Namalubi Primary School, that goes only up to Grade 4 after it was downgraded in 2003, is the only school found within the maximum walking radius of five kilometres permissible by the Ministry of Education. When contacted with regard to this problem at villages in Katima Rural Constituency, Lovemore Lupalezwi, the acting Regional Director of Education in the Caprivi Region said he was unaware that some children have to walk for such long distances. “It is very unfortunate for children to walk for 10 km to school. The maximum should be five kilometres. That is the maximum permissible distance,” he said. Lupalezwi acknowledged the fact that if students have to walk for long distances to school, the fatigue resulting from the marathon distances could affect their concentration. He says though the Education Ministry has a policy of bringing education closer to the people, the ministry could only consider erecting a secondary school in the affected area if the number of school-going children justifies construction of such an institution. The ministry cannot immediately construct a school at Namalubi because in previous instances such schools became white elephants because the numbers could not sustain them. And yet they would have been built because of pressure from resident communities. Education officials in the Caprivi Region are also grappling with the problem of enrolment rates at schools outside Katima Mulilo that are decreasing because there is a perception that schools within the urban centre offer better education when compared to those outside the town.
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