By Lyndsay Griffiths
LUSAKA, Dec 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Sloppy spelling, frequent truancy and zero interest in education.
And that's just the teachers.
When it comes to education, children in Zambia's most far-flung villages are often sold short, lumbered with unqualified or absentee teachers who hamper their chances of escaping poverty for a better life.
"When you compare the rural education on offer with urban - well, there is really a very big gap," said Kennedy Ng'andu who runs a college that trains teachers to work in rural Zambia.
"That was the springboard for our college."
Mkushi College is part of a seven-nation initiative that aims to improve shoddy teaching standards and equip graduates with skills that go well beyond sums and spelling.
Mkushi graduates can only take rural jobs and learn a multitude of practical skills, readying them to build toilets, paint classrooms, mentor parents - and even teach children, too.
They will, in essence, be community builders.
"Training teachers for rural areas is sorely needed. We simply don't have many, as all the new graduates want to be in towns. So we need a different kind of teacher - one who will live in the community," said Mwansa Katunga, director of programmes for the Zambian NGO that runs the college.
Part of the international Humana group of charities, DAPP trains thousands of teachers in Malawi, Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo and Mozambique, as well as running the Zambia programme.
So far, more than 35,000 teachers have been trained worldwide and the head of the inaugural Zambian college knows firsthand how a good teacher can change bad lives.
"We go to school to change our life status. Teachers should be fighting shoulder to shoulder with the poor. We need their passion otherwise these rural places will stay the same," Ng'andu told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
The young Ng'andu was one of seven children - two of whom finished school and both now work. He cycled 30 km (18 miles) to attend class, carrying a week's worth of food on his back and sleeping on matting on the hard school floor.
Ng'andu said he lapped up lessons as he envied the teacher his life - "he dressed nicely and drank tea. I wanted to be like him."
But many teachers fail to inspire their pupils and are holding back one of the world's fastest growing and poorest populations.
"If there is no heart, that teacher will not deliver," said the former science teacher.
The rural classroom is worst served, he said.
Many teachers have zero qualifications. Though banned, corporal punishment persists, he said, and superstition can often trump knowledge in the classroom.
As for a sense of calling?
"Many teachers nowadays just go to class, get a salary then go home again. The result is seen in the quality of the education," he said.
"Another big problem with these rural teachers is they run away. Give all sorts of excuses. 'Oh, the house is leaking.' Lame!
"They cite witchcraft, say they can't sleep at night, that they're being bewitched. Had strange dreams. Say there is no nearby market so they can't do their makeup or get their hair styled. Really not okay."
Numbers are hazy when it comes to attendance, for staff and children alike.
Rural pupils might rise at 4 am to walk 30 km to school; many arrive late, are whipped, or give up.
The persistent nod off at their desk - earning a fresh beating - as they gather energy for the long trek home and their evening jobs.
Admin is patchy.
Ng'andu has visited schools where the wife wields the chalk while the teacher rests, and another with a class of 90 children taught by one man, all ages together.
"It is not considered a profession," said Ng'andu of a job that earns about $250 a month.
C IS FOR CHANGE
The government is aware of the poor record and promises change.
"Our aim is to leave nobody behind," said Sinazongwe district commissioner, Protacia Mulenga, who runs a rural province with a population nearing 200,000.
Deep in the southwest of Zambia, Sinazongwe has the sort of statistics nobody wants. Be it longevity or literacy, employment or earnings, the figures make for bleak reading.
Which is why education is the best hope.
"People shy away. They don't want to be in rural areas. It's a challenge " Mulenga told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at his district office.
City dwellers struggle to sleep under thatch on a dust floor, often without sanitation or electricity.
Dirt roads turn into impassable mud baths in the rains, schoolrooms may not exist and the community can be hostile.
Locals can be hostile and superstitious – believing outsiders spell danger - and drive out newcomers with fear tactics or worse.
MEET THE HEAD
Mkushi training college, in central Zambia, was opened in 2012 and has put 78 teachers to work.
A further 116 trainees are in the pipeline and there is a deal with the government for the NGO in charge to open seven more colleges, creating 450 new teachers a year.
Prisca Bwalya, a dynamo from the capital Lusaka, finishes her studies this month and can't wait to take register.
She has taught at Sunday school for 13 years, has the passion of a preacher and all the makings of a future super-head.
"I was born to be a teacher and I believe I'm a leader," said 26-year-old Bwalya.
"It's not only about teaching class but being a teacher to yourself and bringing developments to the place where you work. We are ready to serve wherever they take us."
A city girl, she now has country skills at her fingertips.
"No bathroom? Build one," she said. "Door broken? Fix it. If the roof leaks, go to the bush, cut some grass, find small trees, plastics, sacks - whatever. Make it good again."
Fellow student Brian Chibwe, has a quiet calm next to Bwalya's fire but knows education can be a transforming.
One of nine children, his mother farms for the entire family; he has no father.
"I'm the only one to become a teacher," he said. "Three have died. One's a police officer, one works in mining. And the others? The others - well, they just do survival skills."
(Reporting By Lyndsay Griffiths, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
Travel for this story was supported by DAPP, part of the international Humana People to People umbrella network of NGOs.
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.