The local saying ‘children are the future leaders’ is out of date. At least this is the case going by the stand taken by youths in Blantyre and Mangochi who have made water management their business. They are already today’s leaders.
Who can blame them when “every day, more than 800 children … die from diarrhoea linked to inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene”, according to a 2016 UNICEF report called ‘One is too many: Ending child deaths from pneumonia and diarrhoea’.
Learners at Muonekera LEA School in Blantyre rural can bear testimony to this, as they lost many of their colleagues due to waterborne related illnesses before they could access safe drinking water. The school, located close to 50 kilometres from Blantyre’s commercial centre has a mixture of burnt brick and whitewashed school blocks.
In one of those classes a voice of a Standard Eight teacher could be heard as all the other learners from lower classes had knocked off. The school is surrounded by trees and maize fields and it is just 500 metres away from a waterlogged stretch where there is a borehole that ‘waters’ the school through a solar powered water pump.
Before this piped water, the young students used to travel long distances to the nearest borehole, which was very unhygienic as livestock also used to drink from the same water source.
14-year-old standard eight learner Yesaya Lumbe says he and his four siblings used to alternate in suffering from diarrhoea and could not attend classes regularly. They were lucky they survived, but some of their classmates in the neighbourhood didn’t.
For the female learners at the school, thirteen-years-old Charity Kalibwanji in Standard Eight says the situation was worse.“When we went out to fetch water for the school, we could end up coming in late and missing some lessons. This was reflected in our performance in the end of term examinations, which we couldn’t pass,” she says.
Kalibwanji has seen both the good and bad sides of water management. Before the school was connected to potable water, learners used to come from the toilet and starting eating without washing their hands.“Cleanliness was evading us and there used to be a number of cases of water borne diseases,” she adds.
Now since the coming of water everything has improved; Kalibwanji says they now have pails fixed with taps that are placed at the entrance of classrooms. When a student is coming from toilet, they are now able to wash their hands. “This has improved the hygienic standards of the school and improved our performance,” she attests.
Kalibwanji says when the young people considered this past experience, they decided not to take chances but to take part in water management, as this will secure their health and that of their younger siblings who will also benefit from the facility.“We are now encouraged to take care of the water points surroundings,” she says.
In October 2015, with funding from the EU, UNICEF installed a solar powered water system at the school. The organisation also trained young people like Kalibwanji in proper water management. This includes regular cleaning of toilet facilities, ensuring there is water for students to wash their hands. They have also been taught to keep the surroundings clean.
Laini Saizi, 27, of Mbolembole village is now a committee member for his water management team. “As a young man in this village, I decided to be part of the committee that looks after the borehole because of the problems that young people face to help their households fetch water,” he says.
Laini says children would have to travel long distances to take a bath from very unsanitary water sources while attending school, which was not easy. Their clothes were always looking dirty because of the bad quality of the water.
He says it is right to encourage young people to take responsibility and care of water sources because it affects their future.“It’s not proper to leave such responsibilities to our parents who are at the twilight of their lives,” says Saizi.
Grace Nyalugwe, a Senior Water Advisor at Muonekera School says that before water was readily available at the school, the morning porridge program was not working and this really affected younger students.
“It was taking a long time to feed the learners, but now with the tap right here at the school by 6:30 learners start getting their porridge and by 7am they are done and in class to commence learning in good time,” she says.
Grace says because they suffered more, the young children are showing more willingness to take full responsibility, to ensure proper management of water and ensuring that there is hygiene around the water point.“The danger is that if there is no proper management, learners can start suffering from outbreaks of water borne diseases,” she notes.
Before the learners were encouraged to take up leadership roles when caring for the water points, Nyalugwe says they used to make the place their playing ground. Now in each and every classroom at the school of close to 2,000 students, they have chosen leaders who take a leading role in ensuring that hygiene measures are taken and that water is being used responsibly.
Paulos Workneh, Chief of Water and Sanitation at UNICEF Malawi, agrees that there is a huge involvement of young people in the management of these water points. The organisation is supporting the Malawi Government and NGOs in carrying out Community Based Management training, following the National Operation and Maintenance manual.
“The manual is clear that men, women and children should be incorporated in the water point committees. UNICEF Malawi also supports District Councils in monitoring progress,” says Workneh.
The NGO Village Hygiene Project, which works with UNICEF Malawi, has developed an efficient and capable youth leadership that meets the demands of national development. This has made it possible to involve the youths in management of water points. “The youths are regarded as change agents and are flexible to change their behaviour without problems,” says Roy Khonyongwa, Village Hygiene Project Executive Director.
It is clear that by being the leaders of today, young people are helping to avert the untimely deaths of their fellow Malawian children, caused by waterborne diseases. With their involvement and commitment, the future is looking brighter.