Paddling to school in Zambia

The Zambian town of Mongu sits on a small hill. From its modest height you get an elevated view of the horizon across the Barotse floodplain, one of Africa’s largest wetland areas. The flooded Zambezi shows few signs of movement, though the water here is gradually flowing South, and will eventually gather speed to plummet over the majestic Victoria Falls. The 200 km long seasonal floodplain is home to around 250,000 people subsisting, as they have done for centuries, from fishing and cattle rearing.

Living on the plains is uniquely challenging for children, particularly with new uncertainties caused by climate change. One primary school in particular caught the attention of Zambia’s ‘Climate Change Ambassadors’, a child-led advocacy project supported by UNICEF. In 2010, a group of five secondary school students from the province began to lobby the Government and UNICEF for a solution for Malabo Primary School’s closing down during the annual flooding season. Their climate change adaptation project caught the eye of the UNICEF National Committee in Denmark and was awarded funding.

After some negotiations at the dockside in Mongu, we secure a speedboat and set off across the flooded plain. Although to the untrained eye it looks like a uniform wetland, centuries of human habitation have created an intricate network of unmarked canals and waterways. Fifteen minutes into the journey we leave the main channel, and progress becomes slower as the pilot does his best to avoid entangling the outboard motor with plant life across the surface of the water. On the way, we pass several fishermen in canoes, almost invisible in the reeds. Colourful birds make the most of the rich insect life.

A an in an orange life-jacket sitting in a boat looks across the bank at a school building on the shore.
© UNICEF/Zambia/2018/JamesArriving at the docks of Malabo Primary School, safe above the climate change-induced flood waters.

Gradually we see the primary school emerge from the waters. My colleague Gibson Nchimunya hasn’t been back here since the opening ceremony in 2015, and is immediately pleased to see the school in good condition. Across the floodplain, we pass small settlements of two or three homes just inches above the water level, now at its annual peak. Originally the school had mud walls and a floor, but now it’s been completely rebuilt on an elevated bank. At this time of year, it’s completely surrounded by water. The children – skilled paddlers and swimmers – have all arrived in canoes, which are now lined up by the school’s docks. Stairs, now submerged at their lowest rungs, rise to the main platform about two metres above water.

“It’s great that the flooding no longer affects the school and that we don’t close,” says one pupil, 12-year-old Mwangubia Njekwa. Previously, the school was forced to shut its doors for several months a year at the height of the flooding, putting pupils at a major disadvantage, as the Teacher-in-Charge, Mrs Kapui Susiku, explained. “Children were forced to stay at home. After a two-month break you felt like you had to start afresh,” she says. School enrolment has jumped by 50 per cent from around 200. “The community really appreciate having the school here,” she says.

The idea is very good – as you can see from the improved enrolment figures

With us is the leading district education official in the district, Mr Liwakala Muyoba, on his first trip to the school. “It’s a success, it’s a very big success,” he says. “Initially our local communities would live on the plain and then move to upper lands during the flood season. As time went on and socio-activity changed, it became difficult for people to move. So, the idea is very good – as you can see from the improved enrolment figures. The contact hours in the school calendar are not disrupted, so pupils can prepare for exams just as well as those anywhere else. It’s a success for access to education throughout the school calendar.”

A group of young school children sitting on the docks in front of a school building
© UNICEF/Zambia/2018/JamesChildren attending Malabo Primary School hang out on the school docks during break time. The school was reconstructed in 2014-15 on a raised embankment to give protection against seasonal flooding.

As our boat chugs away from the school, we watch one young pupil dextrously paddle his narrow canoe towards the school. It must be among the more unusual ways children arrive at school. But thanks to the investment in the ‘floating school’, both ancient ways of life and a modern schooling exist side by side.

The Climate Change Ambassadors project is currently supported by the US Fund for UNICEF.


John James is Chief of Communication, UNICEF Zambia.

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  1. It’s so heart warming to see Malabo School, the impossible floating school made possible thanks to a great Education team from concept to reality!