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Zambia: Looking after children left behind

Good education and a daily square meal: countless children orphaned by AIDS in Zambia can only dream of these essentials. In Lusaka, 250 orphans are getting both free-of-charge at a Jesuit parish that is running a quality school on a shoestring budget.

Fr Emmanuel Mumba SJ, the provincial of the Jesuit Zambia-Malawi Province, is passionately devoted to the school and to its goal to give “children who have been left behind” the chance to survive – more or less alone – in the world.

“Most of our students live with their grandparents and guardians while others come from child-headed homes, where children take care of one another without any real security or reference points,” says Fr Emmanuel.

“They are very poor and vulnerable. We are dealing with the basics here: they need to go to school and no one is there to pay. I believe that once we give the children a good education, they can use it to take care of themselves, to find a job and to survive – because they need to look after themselves.”

The school originated in the kitchen of a parishioner who coordinated the home-based care team that looked after people with AIDS. Some years ago, Rozina started teaching two orphans who were turned away from school. More and more joined her class and the parish eventually took over and built temporary premises. A more permanent building followed three years ago, and St Mary Mother of the Redeemer School is now firmly established in the parish grounds.

The schoolteachers, led by headmistress Concilia Mwanza, have a tough job to educate children who have suffered so much trauma and disruption through terrible disease and poverty in the family.

“Some children never had the chance to go to school or have been out of school for ages because they couldn’t afford to pay. So we have 10, even 12 or 13-year-old children starting Grade 1, in which case we try to speed up the process of learning,” says Fr Emmanuel.

Concilia Mwanza, the headmistress, chimes in: “Some of the kids misbehave at times, breaking things… they come from broken families, they never knew a mother or a father. But I say this is why we are here, we have to show them, to teach them, and it’s paying off.”

Predictably, the demand is overwhelming. The school started out with classes from grades 1 to 8, eventually extending to grade 9. “When we were in the old school premises, we had kids peeping over the walls, which were very low, to learn,” says Concilia.

“The new school building has done a lot, the children are very happy. But we have become too small for the community. I get people coming for places, day in, day out, but I can’t accommodate them because we have fixed a number of students, 42 per class. Sometimes I exceed but I can’t do that much.”

Less easy to predict is the school’s healthy academic performance, which is better than that of neighbouring schools. “Parents come the whole year round to ask to send their children here,” says Fr Emmanuel with understandable pride.

A good part of the credit for this goes to the students, who are very willing to learn despite the heavy setbacks they face. Then there is the fact that they get regular meals, thanks to parish funds and donations. The children come to school in two daily shifts divided by lunch – some end their school day with a square meal while the rest start on a full stomach.

Credit also goes to Concilia and her team of teachers who, despite being paid a mere stipend, work with wholehearted commitment and display a constant readiness to learn. Fr Emmanuel is full of praise for Concilia, describing her as “very dedicated and here 24/7, always monitoring and encouraging the teachers”.

But it is a constant uphill struggle to run a burgeoning school on practically nothing. Cecilia said: “Just today I turned away a graduate who wanted to come here because I told him I can’t afford graduates. I want to raise the standard but I can’t get the best teachers.”

In a bid to cover teachers’ wages, Grades 8 and 9 are fee-paying. But since fees are not always paid, Fr Emmanuel doesn’t always have enough to pay the teachers: “It’s been challenging because we have to ask students to pay something, but it’s been moving.”

“Challenging but moving forward” sums up the progress of the school to date. Another motto could well be: “doing so much with so little”. The focus of Fr Emmanuel and Concilia is the children and not the worry that there is no assured stream of fees or funds to supply the school. Their single-minded commitment is paying off: far from just offering an education for the sake of it, the school has become the envy of surrounding institutions. By any measure, this has to be a hard-won success, one that will hopefully continue long into the future.

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