Little Damaino Kandodo grinned broadly upon arriving at school. Like many first graders, he was excited for his first day of class. But Damaino is not a typical student. In addition to the obstacles to obtaining an education faced by many of the other children in his poor community in rural Malawi, he has an additional major hurdle—he is blind.
Because disabled children like Damaino face so many barriers to the classroom, PIH’s Malawian sister organization Abwenzi Pa Za Umoyo (APZU) has made removing these obstacles a priority in its work. The team knows that access to education is one proven way to break the cycle of poverty and poor health.
So last month, Damaino and four other young students with special needs piled into APZU vehicles. Along with family members and APZU staff, they left their homes in the impoverished Neno district to begin their scholastic careers at a set of special boarding schools located about 70 miles away, just east of the city of Blantyre in southern Malawi.
Damaino, along with Maliko Kandodo and Lucy Kaudzu were all offered places at the Nguludi School for the Blind. The school is actually a special section within a regular primary school, so they will have the opportunity for an inclusive education, explained Emmie Kumbikano, a rehabilitation technician employed by Malawi Against Physical Disabilities (MAP), which works in partnership with the Ministry of Health and APZU in Neno.
Unlike the School for the Blind, the Nguludi School for the Deaf has a firm enrollment cap, with only 12 to 16 students per class. “This is because all students have to see the teacher and be within a ‘lip reading’ distance,” said Emmie. A specialized classroom helps facilitate lip reading, as all the children sit at a u-shaped desk around the teacher. Out of the 72 children who had applied for this fall, Moreen Maguba and Henry Chikaoneka from Neno scored among the highest on the entrance exam and were among the few admitted. The APZU team had originally hoped to enroll seven hearing-impaired children. Despite her best efforts to negotiate the admittance of the other five children, Emmie and her team are now looking for alternative options.
Damaino, Maliko, Lucy, Henry, and Moreen will live at Nguludi until the semester break in December. The PIH team is already making plans to bring them back to Neno for the holidays and bring them back when classes resume, reported Emmie.
In addition to transportation, APZU will help pay for the children’s boarding and medical fees (tuition for primary school in Malawi is free). Each student also proudly toted a new plaid suitcase stuffed with a blanket, bed sheets, and a mosquito net (to ward off the malaria-carrying mosquitoes that are endemic throughout the country), courtesy of APZU’s Program on Social and Economic Rights.