Few minutes before classes start, 15-year-old Nshoma Mpelano, a Standard Seven pupil can be seen hastily walking inside her classroom after almost two hours journey by foot to school. Tired and dirty, she places her black school bag on the desk and starts wiping her legs which are covered with dust.
It has been seven years long and risky journey for Nshoma, who is determined to get education, and when Success visited Urughu Primary school, it was business as usual. Nshoma lives in Mang’ole village in Iramba District, Singida Region located 7 kilometers away from her school.
It’s Monday morning, all pupils are expected to look neat in their school uniforms, however the case is different for Nshoma, who is wearing a torn white blouse and blue skirt covered with dust.
It wasn’t until lunch break when I had an opportunity to talk to Nshoma and her friends. They had nothing to eat since they could not go for lunch like the rest because of the long distance.
As I walked towards her, I could see her thin shoulders hidden underneath a torn blouse that was stitched with black thread. It took minutes before she became comfortable to talk.
“I live far from here that’s why I can’t go back home to have lunch like other pupils, I will eat in the evening when I get back home,” explained Nshoma when asked why she wasn’t having anything to eat for lunch at that particular time.
Nshoma and her friends who live in the same village are forced to walk a long distance every day to school. To make it on time, they are supposed to wake up as early as 4 or 5 am.
“We live in a farming land surrounded by a forest, to make it to school on time we have to take the route which through the forest, we are always told to be extra careful because often times we trek on our own,” explained Nshoma in a downcast tone.
Because they always leave home early, they never get a chance to have breakfast; instead they depend on the supper they had the night before to help them endure the next day. “I don’t eat anything in the morning or afternoon, most of us who live far usually have one meal per day which we have in the evening after we get home from school,” she explains.
Our conversation was cut short by the school bell alerting them about the next lesson. It took another three hours until the classes for the day came to an end. I joined Nshoma and her friend Njama Mlayunga, 14, as they embarked on the journey back home from school.
Our journey started off slowly at 4pm, in the burning heat of the dry season, surrounded by clouds of dust blown by the wind. “When the rain season starts, these roads sometimes become impassable because of mud, it becomes difficult for us to go to school,” noted Njama when asked how they managed to go to school during the rainy season.
As we continued with our journey, I noticed the village houses gradually disappearing from our sight, with bushes and dry forests now encompassing the environs. It was just the three of us passing in a quiet dirt road between the trees, at times we came across men cycling their bicycles carrying local brew or wood. For these two girls, everything seemed okay as they kept talking while steadily walking.
“We don’t have any other option but to use this same road every day, we are used to it because there are other pupils who use the same road too, so it’s much safer. Even though I don’t enjoy the journey, and sometimes find it very scary, I am willing to do whatever it takes to get to school,” Njama said.
After almost two hours of walking, we eventually sight Nshoma’s home, which was a traditional Sukuma ranch, with dozens of livestock in the area. Nshoma disappeared into one of the huts, ready to take over some of the house chores before having supper and going to sleep.
Her grandmother who introduced herself as Magdalena, expressed her worries towards her grandchild’s long walk to school and the danger she faces. “I understand it is not safe for young girls to walk such a distance but we don’t have any other way out,” lamented the old woman, adding, “before, she used to wake up at 4 am, but we stopped her, we reasoned that it was okay for her to be punished at school for being late than let her walk early in the dark. We went and explained to her teachers her situation and they understood, they don’t punish her anymore. She is a young child and she has a right to education.”
Tough time for students
Attending school in many parts of the developing world has remained a very hard task for many pupils and Nshoma’s story portrays the challenges that many girls living in rural areas continue to face today just to get an education, with many of them facing dangers or violence along the way to school.
A recent visit to Iramba District in Singida region revealed the reality of what many girls living in rural areas go through in search of education. Because some schools are located far from the villages, students are forced to walk long hours and along the way are faced with many challenges.
Mr Amadeus Kidumu, the headmaster of Mgongo Secondary school in Iramba District, said the issue of distance has become one of the biggest challenges that many girls face in their bid to attain education.
“Most students come from pastoralist families, therefore are forced to walk 6 to 10 kilometres and others up to 17 kilometres per day to come to school. Their school attendance isn’t constant and it’s not because they don’t love coming to school but distance is the problem,” explained Mr Kidumu, adding,
“We have done a trial of letting those who live far from school to come and stay near the school and the results are good, their school performance improved, this was after we met with their parents and tried to look for immediate solutions to the problem and that is to look for nearby hostels and houses for them.”
According to him, his school is in the initial stages of starting to build hostels with support from their Member of Parliament Mwigulu Nchemba and parents.
Kurwa Kiyenze, 17, a form two student from Urughu Secondary School said before she moved to the school hostels she was forced to wake up very early in the morning if she wanted to make it to school early.
“I live in Masimba village which is 6 kilometres away from our school, and to make it to school on time my friends used to wake up at 4 am and arrive at school at 7, it was scary because we had to pass some bushes on our way to school but there was nothing else we could do, “explains Kurwa.
She too was forced to spend the day in school on an empty stomach until she reached home in the evening, “because we used to wake up early in the morning there was no time for us to prepare breakfast and therefore we would come to school with on empty stomach. We waited until the time we got back home in the evening,”
But ever since she started living in some of the empty classrooms which have been turned into temporary hostels for girls, life has become much easier for her and other girls who also come from far-flung villages.
“We feel safer and happy now that we don’t have to walk for long distances to school, we were always exhausted. Also, there were some men who were always willing to give us lifts on their motorcycles (bodaboda), some who had ill motives and would sometimes follow us up to where we lived but now the situation has changed, we can concentrate more on our studies,” she states.
While students like Kurwa are more at peace now that they live close to school, the case is different for students like Kundi Geni, 15, a student from Mgongo Secondary School.
According to her, walking for two to three hours every morning is tiring and she wishes that something can be done to make her school life easier.
“I come from Malendi village, and I usually leave home every morning at 6 am and arrive at school at 8 am, always exhausted from the long walk to the point that I can’t clearly concentrate in class. I have asked my parents to let me stay close to school like some of my friends but they have refused, fearing that I might become a prostitute,” she sadly explains.
District Secondary Education Officer, Elizabeth Lusingu, said the government has taken some measures to ensure that secondary school girls in her district learn in a friendlier environment.
“We understand that there are girls who are forced to walk long distances to school, something which puts them at risk. We have a programme of constructing hostels in our schools and each school is working hard to ensure that we succeed. Parents and the community as a whole have been contributing their resources and manpower to support the projects,” she says.
According to her, the district has 22 public secondary schools and 1 private school, “One school which has an A level has a hostel for the students, also there are other 2 secondary schools which have hostels and parents contribute food for their children,” she explains.
On his part, Iramba District Executive Director (DED) Linno Mwageni highlighted the measures the government has taken to overcome the challenge of students having to walk long distance to school. “Among the entire 20 wards we have, 15 of them have already taken the plan from the municipal offices which will direct them on how to build the hostels, and so far most of them are at different stages,” Mwageni speaks, adding, “Tanzania Education Authority (TEA) and our education stakeholders have helped us to build a hostel in Lulumba Secondary School. All these initiatives show how we are determined to create a better learning environment for our children, particularly girls,” explains the Director.