Tuesday, March 6, 2007
Teachers welcomed a host of new faces when the new school year began at the Angombe Primary School in Mozambique's northwestern Tete Province. The swollen student roster meant crowded classrooms, but was good news nonetheless.
In this remote corner of Tete, near the border with Zambia, cash-strapped parents often treat school as a luxury that is impractical and unaffordable. Rather than the classroom, boys and girls aged as young as six or seven head to their family maize patch or tobacco field at 6:00 a.m., returning exhausted at midday.
But over the last year, volunteers from the Mozambique Red Cross have been campaigning in several communities in Tete to convince parents and guardians that school is worth the sacrifice. The Red Cross calls it the 'Combating Child Exploitation' programme, part of a larger effort to assist the most vulnerable children, many of them AIDS orphans in a country with an HIV prevalence of 16 percent.
The volunteers deliver the message through plays and door-to-door appeals. Tuition is free in Mozambique, but the Red Cross provides the children of families judged unable to pay for basic school materials with backpacks, pens, notebooks and clothes, and helps them obtain the required government identification card. The initiative has encouraged some 1,400 children in Tete, who would probably have been working, to attend school.
Maria Luciano, 14, now enrolled at Angombe, was too timid to speak about her years away from school, so Ananias Alion, a Red Cross volunteer sitting by her side, told her story.
When he first visited Maria's home last year, her father was largely indifferent to whether his eight children completed their education, yet he was easily convinced to enrol his three youngest once Alion said the Red Cross would pay for school supplies. Other than the school kit, the Red Cross does not provide food or cash assistance.
Alion said he made frequent repeat visits, once a week on average. "The only support I can give is moral support."
Out of place
Despite a bright coat of yellow paint, the concrete schoolrooms at Angombe are windowless and dim, and lack electricity and running water. Many of the newly enrolled scholars are not children at all. Kept in the fields for so long, some are as old as 21, squeezed into kid-sized desks and taking lessons intended for 10-year-olds.
Many look much younger than they actually are, due to stunted physical development, perpetual heavy labour and chronic malnutrition. Mozambique is ranked at 168 out of 177 countries on the United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Index, and its northern provinces are among the poorest in the country.
Perhaps the most striking feature of an Angombe classroom is how few girls there are: about 80 percent of the school is male. In this district, girls are often married at age 13, pulled out of school, and put to work raising a family.
Getting more girls into the classroom is one of the programme's biggest successes. Indeed, more than half the students the Red Cross helped enrol in the school are girls, but Avelino Piano, who oversees the agency's schools programme in the district, said most of the adolescent girls in the area were still at home.
Community leaders handpick the volunteers to ensure that parents and guardians will be able to trust the people delivering the pro-school message. They are often graduates of the schools they advocate for, and often travel in pairs, like missionaries.
Ask a volunteer to discuss the difficulty of convincing adults to let a child go to school, and he will more often than not report a 100 percent success rate. "The resistance is passive," said Piano. "Parents accept the idea at first, but after a few months, they need more workers in the field to collect tobacco, or they need more work done in the house."
Tobacco is particularly troublesome, since it requires so much labour. "One child has to collect five or six sacks of tobacco," Piano said. "He's paid at the end of the day, but he can't finish the work. So he leaves it for the next day. Now it's two days out of school, at the least, and now he's very tired."
Who is vulnerable?
Beulane Fernando, 13, wakes up at dawn and walks several kilometres to the family's maize field, where he has worked since he was eight years old. At around 8 a.m. he goes to his brother's store, where he sells tea until noon. He starts classes after lunch, and after school returns to his brother's store to work until the evening meal. He is in bed soon after it grows dark.
School doesn't stop children from working, it merely means they work less.
Fernando's family pays for his school materials and clothes, and he has always managed to balance work, school and doing his homework, so the Red Cross does not consider him vulnerable, and he is therefore not eligible for assistance. But all the children at his school, in the Chidzolomondo community, are vulnerable in some measure.
As the school year began, tensions broke out between the so-called haves and have-nots at Fernando's school. Children complained to their parents that some students had bright new orange backpacks from the Red Cross, and that they had received nothing. In protest, parents kept their children out of school for a day. The school's director had to arrange a meeting to explain that the Red Cross did not chose which children needed help, the community leaders did.
"Within the poor, there's the least poor and the most poor," said Neidi de Carvalho, who runs projects for Orphans and Vulnerable Children at the Mozambique Red Cross. "We work with the most poor."
In a country where almost a quarter of all children are underweight, according to the United Nation Population Fund, poverty is a relative term.