Thokozani Wadson Kotokwa ekes his living at Mkwata open market. Kotokwa sells fish and potatoes here. Proceeds from the sales are what his family survives on.
However, this work was never his childhood dream. Kotokwa always wanted to be a soldier. That is why at an early age, he enrolled at Namikombe, a make-shift village primary school.
"That time we really loved school but the teachers were not committed because they were not being paid. Then they would boycott work at will.
"I dropped out and now I am selling potatoes and fish for survival. I am pleading with the government to construct more school blocks here for the sake of our children," he appealed.
Somehow, taking lessons at Namikombe school was only pastime. The school lacked committed teachers. In fact, there was only one teacher and few learning and teaching materials.
No wonder that Kotokwa was among many learners who dropped out.
Agnes Kaloti was aged 14 when she nursed thoughts of becoming a medical doctor.
But walking to Livunzu Primary School in neighboring Chikwawa district was a hustle. The school, closest to her village, is nine kilometers. And in between, were rivers that flooded every rain season. She opted out. Instead, Agnes enroll at Namikombe, the informal school.
That is also what happened to Esther Muotcha in 2000. She is now a mother of three aged 27.
"Learning at this school was not easy. The school had no learning and teaching materials with a single teacher. From here, I enrolled at the nearest school, but I could not endure the distance. We were missing a lot of learning and we could only afford to go to school thrice a week including that even my performance in class was always poor.
She appealed: "We need a primary school here for our children".
The Namikombe informal school is located some 45 kilometers South-East of Thyolo boma in Mkwata village in the area of Senior Chief Mphuka on the border with Chikwawa district.
The school has been running since the early 80s, we understand. It is nearly 30 years’ old.
Children who enroll at Namikombe come from the villages of Mkwata, Chathyoka, Chikuzu, Sokamphasa, Lemosi, Makolija, Madombe and Bohasi. Today, there are 490 learners learning.
The nearest formal primary schools are Chilengo, Nampati, Namitochi and Livunzu in Chikwawa located at a radius of nine kilometres from Thyolo district headquarters.
Namikombe informal school has one structure for a classroom. The community hired one unqualified teacher. Some classes have learners who should be in different classes, normally.
Learners contribute a thousand Kwacha per term for a monthly allowance for the teacher.
Now even at this informal school, drop outs are rising.
"What concerns me most is that due to long distances, most children play on the way until knock off time. Then they return home. What comes out is that their performance is always miserable," said one of the parents in the area, Patrick Khusa.
Traditional leaders in the area have tried in vain to push authorities to establish a formal school. Chiefs now say poverty in the area is getting worse.
Village Head woman Mkwata feels abandoned and dejected.
"We have been to almost all the offices in the district including to the office of the DC to get help but to no avail. Please, consider us we should not be sidelined as if we are not Malawians. We are crying for the future of our children," she said.
Chiweruzo Jackson is alumni and the volunteer teacher of Namikombe.
He too echoes appeal for government to establish a formal school at Mkwata to ease access to education. He outlines the challenge of having to manage four classes and 13 subjects a day.
"Teaching here is always difficult because I am alone as a teacher. I run up and down to touch every learner in classes.
He revealed that, "And sometimes I do combine the classes in a room, of course on some subjects so that we are quick to cover a lot. As for standard 1 and 2, they learn outside and when there is rain, teaching is always impossible".
Education principal secretary, Chikondano Mussa, acknowledges the problems faced.
But she said, "establishment of a formal school at Namikombe is subject to availability of funds".
Mussa also observes that there is need for bridges over Limphangwi and Livunzu rivers.
Educationist, Dr. Foster Lungu, worries for the children living in this area.
"This is a big barrier. What this means is that our children are not really feeling that we are valuing them. They just feel neglected and what is happening to them we do not care," Lungu worried.
Clearly, people of Mkwata and surrounding villages are being left behind as Namikombe is a only a school of convenience. A school without washrooms. No learning or teaching materials.
Gertrude Blessings is a learner at Namikombe informal primary school. She fancies to become a teacher one day. Obviously, the dream is not to work at a school like Namikonde.
"We face a lot of challenges when learning here. Sometimes, we all learn in one class while others learn outside under the trees.
"The problem is that primary schools such as Chilengo, Nampati and even Livunzu are in far places. I would like to be a teacher in future to teach students," she said.
The Malawi Education Statistics report shows that over 9,740 learners were selected to Thyolo’s 38 secondary schools in 2022 from primary schools. The report notes good infrastructure and sanitation have impact on access, efficiency and equity to education.
Thyolo district has close to 400 thousand young people of school growing age. In 2022 Malawi National Examination Board (MANEB) examination results, Thyolo came seventh in the top ten even with Namikombe in her situation.
Goal number IV of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) on education stress on ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all.
For Malawi to break the cycle of poverty in line with citizen aspirations in Malawi 2063, education-quality education remains key. And education that cannot be accessed is non-existent.