The concept of a classroom may seem simple. For a child growing up in the UK, a classroom is a place that has a whiteboard and designated areas to keep their belongings in. It has a roof that stops them from getting wet when it rains. A classroom has a teacher that they can speak to every day. It’s a place that a child can call their own.
In Malawi securing this type of learning environment for pupils can be challenging
Classrooms in rural areas often have a ratio of one teacher to 60 pupils. As a result, classrooms can become over-crowded and students end up being taught outdoors. The implications of being taught outside can be serious:
- Limited means of teaching large classes effectively puts additional stress on teachers and students’ ability to learn
- There is restricted access to one-on-one feedback and resources
- Crowded, open spaces cause over-stimulation, distraction and lack of focus
- In the rainy season many students don’t show up
When accessibility, privacy and individualism are taken away from students, their motivation can cease. Drop-out rates in Malawi are high for this reason.
The Mlambe Project therefore wants to focus on building additional classrooms in rural areas
By providing more rooms, not only will shelter be provided in the rainy season, but the number of pupils per class will be smaller. In effect, the classrooms will be more focused and easier to manage. A controlled and safe environment where pupils can carry out their school curriculum include additional advantages:
- An increase in student retention rates
- Privacy for students when they need it and a sense of belonging
- More space to store resources and therefore more access to them
- Job satisfaction for teachers whose needs can be met more effectively
Putting schools and communities at the centre of this project will be key
They know better than anyone else how the space needs to be designed and their capacity to maintain them. Working alongside local chiefs is also crucial. They need to confirm that the ownership of these classrooms will be that of the local community. Building the infrastructure sustainably will further involve the local community by creating a means to a solution that is cost efficient and easy to replicate.
One way in which The Mlambe Project has achieved this is through the Earthbag method. This method was first made popular by architect Nader Khalili from the Cal Earth Institute. Khalili wanted to find affordable housing solutions that would avoid degradation of the environment. This resulted in ‘sandbag architecture’ which included the Earthbag technique.
The Earthbags are made of soil or natural materials that can be found on site. They can be produced easily and at little cost. They are then stacked on top of each other to create secure walls. The labour involved in creating these walls is very intensive and a large work force is needed to finish them. As a result, members of the local community are hired to build these walls, creating employment opportunities and income for their families.
The Earthbag technique has already been successfully implemented by The Mlambe Project. Storerooms, computer rooms and teacher’s houses for The Mlambe School have been built using this technique.
Sustainable building techniques are constantly evolving and offer a variety of options
Since then, The Mlambe Project has moved away from Earth Bag building to SSBs (stabilised soil blocks). The same ethos of sustainability and community involvement still exists behind SSBs. Through safe training, SSB manufacturing will be taught to local communities, a technical skill which once learned increases employability in the local job market. These blocks do not need firing either, making them significantly better for the environment than standard bricks.
Building classrooms sustainably and passing on those techniques to communities helps bridge the gap between local pupils and their education. By nurturing our environment, we can help to nurture the educational journey of young Malawians by providing indoor classrooms.