BLANTYRE, Malawi—It’s 7:30 in the morning in Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial capital. A minibus driver, carrying passengers, is trying with little success to zigzag through a line of cars ahead of him.
The cars shuffle forward a few inches before coming to a stop again.
“People are becoming rich in this country,” remarks the driver resignedly.
This may not sound like a remarkable city scene, but the number of cars in Malawi’s cities has soared in recent years. Cheaper cars, mostly supplied by the Japanese used car exporter Be Forward, have proliferated on the Malawian roads, beloved by the growing number of young professionals and middle managers in this southeastern African nation.
The car dealer has even started sponsoring one of the top soccer clubs in the country.
With Malawi rated as one of the poorest countries in the world, and with most citizens living on less than $2 per day according to the World Bank, the majority of this youthful country’s new professionals can credit at least part of their education—and new prosperity—to public university.
Until recently, the availability of student loans meant that students could afford an education despite their family background. But an increase in the number of students in need of loans has left hundreds—especially those from poorer backgrunds—with fewer options.
Gift Kingstone is one such student who is finding life difficult on campus. Kingstone is from a community of smallholder farmers in Malembo Village near Lilongwe, the capital. The third child in a family of six, his acceptance to university was a significant milestone for both his family and community.
“I am the first person to go to secondary and university in our family,” said the softly spoken 22-year-old, who was selected to pursue land surveying and is now in his third year. “At first, a priest assisted me in the first year of my secondary school, but he stopped and Blantyre City Council picked me up through the rest of the years.”
According to Kingstone, life at university was very hard, since he didn’t have money for things like stationery, but some of his classmates who noticed his condition helped out.
“I was being chased away from school now and again and that made it difficult for me to concentrate on my studies,” he said.
Not one to be easily discouraged by his then-seemingly unfortunate predicament, Kingstone scored 13 points—a good grade—in the country’s examination system (the best mark is 6 points and the worst 36).
Like any nation, the need for skilled and educated labor in Malawi is a necessity for the landlocked African nation.
Ripple Africa, a charity that has been working in Malawi since 2003, noted that “given Malawi’s growing need for high-powered labor, Malawi will be dependent on expatriate skilled labor far into the foreseeable future, unless the university system expands.”
However, as pointed out by different sources, including a recent paper by researchers from the University of Malawi and the University of Sussex in the UK, support for secondary and post-secondary education in the country is lacking.
For students like Kingstone, their only hope for education is receiving funding for their education. During his first year at university, the public institution refused to register him because he had no money. And although he was able to access partial tuition fees, the outstanding balance has accumulated to 300,000 Malawian kwacha (about $412), and he is not sure how he will pay it back while still in school.
“If proper procedures were followed, I would have been granted a full scholarship,” he said.
Like Kingstone, Dartin Chimuseu, who is studying land economy at the same institution, has had challenges dating back to secondary school.
Failure of his parents to pay his school fees, then 3,750 kwacha (about $5), led him to search for a job at a plantation. With 8,000 kwacha in his pocket from the wages, he re-enrolled at another school and later got selected for university.
Since the university selected him on a non-residential basis, Chimuseu has found it difficult to get rented accommodation in the nearest “private students hostels,” where the average rent is 30,000 kwacha ($41) a month.
His solution was to sleep in the classroom at the university. “This put my life at risk, and fear, for it’s not a comfortable environment, especially during the winter seasons when temperatures are low,” he said.
Local online newspaper Nyasa Times reported earlier this year that more than 300 students at the Polytechnic in Blantyre were in dire need of accommodation, tuition fees, and money for living expenses, quoting the dean of students at the institution.
At least one student was reportedly sharing a room with the security guards, and another female student was absconding from some lessons so she could make it home at a reasonable time, as she had to walk more than 12 kilometers (7 miles) due to lack of money for public transport.
Through the efforts of well-wishers like Stanley Onjezani Kenani, a renowned writer who has shared the sad stories of the students, some of them managed to get immediate assistance.
“For years, I set up my Facebook page as a public property—it belonged to any Malawian who wished to be heard. For that reason, students came to me to air their hardships, almost all of which centered on lack of money for fees and upkeep,” said Kenani.
“Some of the stories were so heartbreaking that it became necessary to launch a wider campaign to assist students in need. Maybe about 10 students were helped this way, though I wish we could help more.”
According to the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, the government is currently struggling with the increased number of student loans and cannot accommodate sponsoring more students.
Lindiwe Chide, a spokesperson for the ministry, said: “In the meantime, we are diversifying into distance learning rather than on the campus to reduce the cost of education.
“Currently, demand [for education] is too high and we just can’t rely on normal intake. As we expand, we’re also going into Open Distance Learning programs.”