Schools in emergency: learning from past mistakes

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GAZA, Mozambique, 28 June 2013 – After the third day, starved and bleeding from perilous survival further beset by a need to look after six high school students near the bridge in Chokwe, physical education teacher Francesco Salomao, only 29 years old himself, proposed to swim away from the group in search for something to eat. The students cried out in refusal, they would not let him go. How would they survive without his leadership? He’d been walking home from school when the floodwaters came from all sides. In a matter of moments, the students (5 boys and one girl) who were in Chokwe to sit for a college placement examination found this brave soul who would save their lives.

© UNICEF Mozambique/2013/Donna Goodman
Nercia and classmates stand in front of the school blackboard, which is permanently marked with the water line from the 2013 flood.

It is this position of influence of each and every teacher in the lives of our children that build the fabric of society. In Mozambique, on any given day, close to one-third of the overall population is attending school. For Francesco and his young followers, this meant another day of hunger until some tomatoes and other vegetables floated nearby. It was not until the fifth day that they found their way to solid ground.

Boiling water and growing trees

Nearby, at Escola Primaria Completa 24 de Julho, Deputy Curriculum Director, Olga Zita told us that “this school is always affected by floods, even if the floods were not as severe in 2013, still the children were out of school for six weeks because they were relocated to an elevated space, where temporary classes were held.” In this school , beginning with the third grade they conduct awareness sessions especially on the need for boiling water before drinking and emergency drills for evacuation together with parents and members of the community.

In a school that serves as a resource center and tree nursery for other schools in the district, the sixth and seventh grade students manage the planting and care for the saplings and vegetable garden for local food security and to prevent further soil erosion. Dulce Bila, age 10, noted that at her school they “like the garden because when we are too hungry we can come and eat the leaves, which helps us to be healthy.” In terms of chronic seasonal flooding, Dulce says “we learn two things, first to go up and second that flood brings cholera and malaria and damages our homes.”

Scaling up capacity

© UNICEF Mozambique/2013/Donna Goodman
Dulce Bila and classmate Berta Mussa water plants in the school vegetable garden.

Mozambique is a coastal country tormented by an increasing prevalence and severity of natural disaster. The Disaster Management Institute INGC reports a sharp increase in the past 10 years. To scale up capacity of the Education sector to respond to such crises, the Ministry of Education, supported by UNICEF and Save the Children, hosted a 4-day capacity strengthening workshop in June 2013 on disaster risk reduction and emergency preparedness in the school system in Mozambique. The workshop engaged provincial education-in-emergency focal points in a planning exercise to identify actions to be taken to reduce risk related to natural hazards such as floods, droughts, and cyclones. These actions ranged from simpler ones such as finding a safe place to stow student records, to more complex contingency planning, such as mapping of most vulnerable structures, planning for evacuation of children and their families, and provision of temporary schooling alternatives.

Thirteen-year old Nercia was one of the first to come back from the displacement camp where she had fled to safety with her family. She was also one of the first ones back in school, and, in the absence of organized response, was forced to help deal with the aftermath of the devastating floods that plowed through her village.

“I helped to clean the school so that others can come back,” she says. “The water was gone, but it was so dark and smelled really bad.”

Much needs to be done to make sure Nercia and the many thousands of children like her will never again need to shoulder such hazardous, adult responsibilities in the event of a natural disaster. As UNICEF Officer-in-charge Dr. Roberto de Bernardi said at the workshop, “we need to create a safe and protective environment for children, especially during emergencies.”

Story by Donna Goodman

For further information, please contact:

Patricia Nakell, UNICEF Mozambique,
Tel: +258 82 312 1820; Email:

Gabriel Pereira, UNICEF Mozambique,
Tel. (+258) 21 481 100; Email:

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