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A school without desks

We followed the headmaster into an empty room with the exception of three chairs, clearly brought in just for our visit. The room smells damp and has another underlying odor that I couldn’t place.

Today, there is no school. It is a national holiday for the upcoming elections. It’s just us and the headmaster in the schoolhouse that normally holds 1200 students, or ‘learners’ as he calls them. After formalities, he begins to describe what his school does.

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He tells us the highs and the lows of what goes on in his red brick schoolhouse. It’s apparent he does his best with the 12 teachers he has to educate the massive number of students. He doesn’t pull any punches, he knows it is far from good, but I get the feeling he is doing the best with what he has.

Along with the problems he shows us the highlights which include the school library in all of its 3 small shelves. Books are very important in Malawi and the broken middle shelf still contains more books than it looks like it could support. Books are scarce in Malawi. The three shelf library seemed to be a spot of pride for the headmaster. I am not sure if the library here contained more books than other village schools, but it still seems insufficient to me. There were less than 100 books for the 1200 students in attendance.

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The books weren’t the only things lacking in the classrooms as we toured all of the rooms behind the headmaster. Where are the desks? Room after room with a woven straw mat was all we saw. Finally, we came to one room half full with well worn two person desks.

When we inquired he told us this room is reserved for test taking and special instruction. Sitting on the floor may work for younger age groups, but a damp concrete floor throughout high school is another story.

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The other consistency between all the classrooms went beyond the lack of desks, that strange odor followed as well. A few times when we were in the rooms I thought I heard it raining on the tin roof, but when we walked outside again it was bright and sunny, no rain.

The next room again I could hear it. The headmaster then explained to us that they have a terrible bat problem and the space between the roof and walls is full of bats.  The sound we heard was the nails of hundreds of bats on the metal roof of the school. Then he proceeds to show us the dropping that cover floor along the walls. The same floor the children have no choice but to sit on.

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Wow. They really need help.

To me, part of the solution is too easy. Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world with a huge number of people without enough work or money. The men in the villages are also excellent craftsmen that could easily build a desk for a student. The men could get money to spend and improve the local economy and the students get the supplies they need. The only thing missing is the money to pay the craftsman to make the desk for the school in need. The desks are not luxurious but more than adequate at just $12 per two person desk.

So, how do you make this work, anyone have any experience in successfully implementing a program similar to this? Malawi was a country that was tough to leave. There wasn’t amazing wildlife like Kenya or Tanzania, but the people were so warm and needed so much help. I think at some point, we will end up back in Malawi to try and help out.

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Wambula Saka

Tuesday 30th of October 2018

Thanks for the post, you have shared the real experience in most schools in Malawi. I am a Malawian & i currently stay here in the Capital City -Lilongwe- Malawi and one time after graduating from the university of Malawi i managed to visit several schools in different regions and really experienced what you have written here. and as i was growing up in my home village the experience was really hard

Most kids in school don’t have toys. Most of them don’t have shoes. Many of them have only one outfit that they wear every day. They have no possessions. But when some well wishers decides to supply these desks immediately you will notice learners taking possession of it as soon as the car load it off. Learners together with teachers & community members they unload the desks and carry them into the classroom with alot of joy and excitements. They spontaneously burst into group songs which is how most of us Malawians expresses sudden, collective happiness.

Ross Symonds

Tuesday 25th of July 2017

Perhaps you should try and get in contact wirh Sam Hampson


Wednesday 30th of August 2017

Thanks for sharing I hadn't seen this before. I will keep this in mind for our next trip!


Monday 4th of April 2016

Where is the school located? I have been creating sustainable programs in Malawi since 2011. My organization may be able to assist. You can email me at [email protected] I will be in Malawi in just a few weeks and then again in July and December.


Monday 11th of April 2016

Hi Erin, The school is in Chitimba and we visited the school through the campsite we stayed at on the lake called Chitimba camp and their site is

Ed that runs the campsite would be the best person to work with, he has several projects going to help in the local community and he lives there full time. We were just traveling through and wanted to help, but didn't know how.


Tuesday 27th of October 2015

Nice post. Thanks for sharing. Is up there a way to send the school money for the desks?

Looking forward to reading your Namibia posts -- just booked there for August!


Thursday 29th of May 2014

Glad to see Malawi touched you as much as it did us. So much need, but such wonderfully friendly people.


Sunday 21st of September 2014

Malawi was amazing. The people are so amazing and yet have so little...we hope to get back in 2015.