Here at the Chiseka school on the rural outskirts of town, many children attend class outside, sitting among weeds in the shade of a towering blue gum tree. There are 1,531 students, six classrooms, no running water and no light bulbs.
Yet Chiseka has the best academic record in its district by far. Last year all 40 students in the eighth grade passed their exams. And 30 did well enough to qualify for secondary school — a significant achievement in a country where less than 30 percent of students finish primary school.
Chiseka vividly shows one of the biggest challenges Africa faces today: Saving a generation that is growing up with hardly any education. One in two African children don't finish primary school, and millions don't go at all. Those who do often end up in crowded schools with untrained teachers.
Malawi is one of several African countries that are now overhauling education, in an effort to meet the United Nations goal of having every child of the right age enrolled in primary school by 2015. Countries such as Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania are working with donors and the United Nations to improve schools and train teachers.
But Malawi stands out because it is designing its ambitious 10-year education plan itself, in the belief that only a program designed by Africans for Africans will work in the long run. It gives children books by Malawi authors and teaches them science through their own environment. And it touts Chiseka's recent success as a sign of slow but steady progress.
The aim isn't to produce doctors or engineers, but simply to teach everyone to read, to do enough math to hold down a basic job and eventually to write a check and balance a checkbook. What rides on that goal is the future of the next generation, and ultimately the country's own chances at development.
"We want to learn, we try hard to get an education. I want to be a teacher someday," says Jeffrey Joseph, 14, a slight and timid eighth-grade boy at Chiseka, the son of a farmer.
Jeffrey, sitting beside the village's hand-pumped well, is uneasy at sharing a dream he knows will be difficult to achieve. He scratches nervously in the dirt with a stick. He is embarrassed that he has never read a book, and can barely speak English, the language of education in Malawi beyond the fourth grade.
"That is how life is," he says softly in Chichewa, his native tongue. "If you are born into a poor family that is your destiny."
Violence, low funds undermine schools
Malawi, nestled beside a great lake in Africa's far southeast corner, is landlocked, short of natural resources and one of the 10 poorest countries on Earth. Its educational problems are shared by most of the African countries south of the Sahara.
The figures are dismal: In more than half of African countries, only 50 percent of children finish primary school and 12 percent complete high school.
Only in a handful of countries — Botswana, Ethiopia, Seychelles, Sudan and South Africa — do more than 90 percent of primary students go on to high school. Even in Zimbabwe, years of chaos and violence have destroyed one of the best education systems in Africa.
Some African countries are now trying to rescue education.
Kenya has allotted more money for schools and is closing the gender gap at younger ages. Tanzania has raised the pass rate of children leaving primary school from 22 percent in 2000 to almost 62 percent in 2006 through more teacher training and community support. Ghana has drawn up a plan that uses distance education to train more teachers, among other changes.
One reform now seen as colossal mistake
Malawi has a bold history of educational reform, not always successful. In 1994 Malawi was the first of at least 10 African countries to abolish primary school fees.
Today that decision is seen as a colossal blunder, premature in a country tragically unprepared for the consequences. Overnight, enrollment nearly doubled in a school system already woefully short of teachers, classrooms, textbooks and other teaching aids. The government hired many teachers right out of secondary school, and gave them just three weeks of training.
"We were recruiting every Jack and Jill who just wanted a job. They were not qualified," says the Education Ministry's Augustine Kamloneera, director of planning at the Education Ministry.
Malawi quickly learned that a generation of children cannot be educated simply by ordering it to happen. For the promise of universal primary education to mean anything, the country had to find a way to train teachers fast and reduce class sizes.
The result is Malawi's just-launched 10-year program, a key part of its development strategy. Malawi has expanded teacher colleges, and teachers must now train for a year and assist for another year before they get their own class. Teacher-student ratios will be one to 70 — even at Chiseka, there are now sometimes 200 children to a class. The plan also seeks to drastically cut dropout rates.
"We can do it, it is manageable," says Kamloneera, the director of planning. His optimism comes from his own family history: His father had only a secondary education, but Kamloneera's siblings all went to college. "My father brought up eight children who are all doing better than he did," he notes.
No shortages of challenges
Malawi is also experimenting with better paths to literacy. Instead of making dozens of children simply repeat words in unison, some teachers now rotate them through smaller groups where they can learn more actively and help each other.
It's still early, but parents, educators and private watchdog groups believe Malawi is indeed improving the quality of basic education. Class sizes have begun to come down, there are more qualified teachers in the system and many schools are showing modest improvements in test scores.
But there's no shortage of challenges. One is finding enough primary school teachers in a country where their average monthly pay is about US $80. In addition, many have to travel long distances to get to work. Only a few get free housing for their families on campus because there are not enough houses.
"The trouble is that with the low wages, Malawi and the rest of Africa can never attract enough qualified teachers," says Venunadhan Pillai, the principal at the private Mt. Sinai International School. "The teaching profession has nobility, but little chance for promotion."
Then there is the problem of money. The Education Ministry is the largest in the Cabinet and gets slightly more than 11 percent of Malawi's national budget _ the second highest priority behind agriculture and food security. But that may not be enough, says Limbani Nsapato.
"The government is committed to supporting education and I think education is moving forward," says Nsapato, the head in Malawi of the Civil Society Coalition for Quality Basic Education. But despite the progress, he says, the government needs to more than double education spending to save a generation now languishing in public schools.
One school beats the odds
Chiseka is an example both of what can be done and of how hard it is to do.
Most of the students lucky enough to get one of the dark, mud-brick classrooms huddle in small groups on dingy, cracked and uneven concrete floors. Only eighth-graders have desks, with three students crammed onto a bench made for two. Most children sit outside in the weeds beyond the school's makeshift soccer pitch.
But all the eighth-graders graduated, and all 80 seventh-graders were promoted. None of the other 19 primary schools in the district came close — less than 30 percent of their students scored well enough to advance. Nationwide, the primary school completion rate stands at 29 percent.
"The first and foremost reason for our success is our teachers. They work hard and do what is necessary to help students pass," says headmaster Yowass Nhkoma, explaining that at Chiseka, eighth-grade students and teachers even attend class on holidays to prepare for year-end exams.
Chiseka has made a difficult choice — it would rather have qualified teachers than small classes. Teachers at Chiseka can't have their own classes until completing training, which means some classes are bigger than they need be.
The school has only 14 teachers. But they are motivated and resourceful, said Polina Mkhunga, the government's education adviser, who frequently exchanges Chiseka teachers with those at other schools in an attempt to spread the enthusiasm.
"So many of the teachers at other schools are just dormant," says Mkhunga.
School tries to involve parents
One eighth-grade teacher, Stanley Sosolahe, says proudly that Chiseka teachers believe they can make a difference.
"We work very hard with students who are failing and after a few weeks or months they can turn it around," he says. "Our teachers hand-deliver their marks to the homes of the eighth-grade parents and work with them to motivate the students."
The biggest difference at Chiseka seems to be one of leadership. Teachers are encouraged to go the extra mile, and success motivates them further.
The school also works to involve parents. Sosolahe says parents see the teachers doing more and results improving, and they too want to help.
At Chiseka, villagers used molds to make mud bricks to build new classrooms. Large stacks of bricks wait in the fields around the school and hundreds more are drying in the sun. But Mkhunga says the school has been waiting for years for the government to come up with enough money to pay someone to build the classrooms.
Massive dropout rates
Even at Chiseka, headmaster Nkhoma acknowledges what the exam results don't show — the class of 40 graduating eighth-graders began the first grade with more than 350 students. Somewhere along the way, more than 300 failed or gave up.
About 400 students drop out every year, most because one or both parents have died and they must work. Others drop out after tribal initiation rites, which often lead to early marriages.
Linda Lute, 18, played with her 18-month-old daughter Ruth in the shade outside the tiny mud-brick hut in Chiseka she shares with her grandmother and six other adults. She dropped out of Chiseka two years ago. She was 16, still in the sixth grade and pregnant when her father ran away with another woman.
"The life was overwhelming. I wanted to stay in school but I thought it was not possible. I needed to work," she says. "Now I regret the decision because I still don't have what I thought I would have."
The only work she can find, and that is scarce, is part-time help on subsistence farms, earning about a dollar a day.
Nearby, Limbikani Maliseni, 21, proudly shows off row after row of dark brown, handmade mud bricks drying in the sun that he made to build his own house. He didn't go to school for years because his parents traveled to work on tobacco farms, and eventually went to learn basic English and counting.
But he dropped out of Chiseka five years ago, shortly after he began the first grade, when his mother died. He had to work and take care of his younger brothers.
"Had I stayed in school long enough I could have at least learned to speak English, which would have widened my chances for a job," he says in Chichewa. "But without English the only job open to me is on the farms."
Educational reforms too late?
For many in Malawi schools now, even those graduating from Chiseka, the rethinking of education comes too late. About a dozen of the better eighth-grade students picked by their teachers proudly tell visitors what they want to be when they grow up. The vast majority want to be lawyers. It is as if the dream alone could lift them out of poverty.
Only one, Ian Dick, a malnourished boy too short and thin for his 13 years, seems to harbor no illusions about where his education could lead.
"I want to be a soldier," he says. He is unaware that in at least 10 African countries, much younger boys with no chance to go to school already tote Kalashnikovs.