What motivates many poor rural children near Chibuluma Mine to attend school is not just a great education, but also the chance to wear a school uniform for the first time.

“The children are immensely proud to be seen in the community in their new school uniforms,” says Ms. Beatrice Ngoma, deputy head teacher at Mulemu School. “We know of one girl who walks far out of her way to attend Mulemu School, when she could easily go to one closer to her village.”

Instead of buying the uniforms off-the-shelf from some faceless company in the big city, Chibuluma Mine, which funds three rural schools, buys them from a group of local women it set up in business. Equipped with a battery of Singer sewing machines, the women use material and accessories supplied by Chibuluma to manufacture uniforms for girls and boys.

“This is empowerment,” says Bernadette Mulenga, Community and Social Services Unit Manager at Chibuluma.

The children are eager to learn, despite having to battle odds that would defeat more fortunate schoolchildren. They walk long distances to school, and don’t always have enough to eat. It’s one reason the school operates a lunch programme which sees daily meals being made on the premises. It is a joint initiative between the Zambian government and the World Food Programme.

In spite of the challenges faced by the students, Chibuluma-funded schools like Mulemu boast pass rates in excess of 90% – one achieved a 100% pass rate for two years running. The really bright kids are brought to the mine’s attention, and a fortunate few will be sponsored through high school.

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A walk through Mulemu School’s classrooms shows a largely female complement of smartly attired teachers standing at their blackboards, textbooks in hand, engaging with children who sit attentively in neat rows at their desks, seemingly riveted by their lesson. The content on the blackboard, in unusually neat handwriting, leaves no doubt about the quality of the lesson.

The infrastructure built by Chibuluma Mine is evident everywhere – the classrooms, the borehole and water pump, the water tank and sanitation structures, and the ablution block with flushing toilets.

“There was a time when children and teachers had to go into the bush to answer the call of nature,” Mulenga says, pointing to the area behind the toilets.

When Chibuluma’s CSR department first encountered Mulemu School in 2010, it resembled anything but a school. It had only two, semi-completed classroom blocks. There were no desks, so pupils sat on the floor. They had no uniforms. There was no water, no ablution facilities and no electricity.

With a budget of $196 000 and a plan, Chibuluma went to work. The unfinished classroom block was completed. Desks and chairs were brought in. Nine new fully equipped classrooms were constructed, as well as a multi-purpose school hall, ablution blocks and toilets, and a teacher’s house. Two drinking-water boreholes were sunk, electricity was connected, and the students were given uniforms and textbooks.

“Mulemu became a fully functioning school, and the impact was immediate,” says Head Teacher Catherine Gondwe.

“Chibuluma-funded schools like Mulemu boast pass rates in excess of 90%”

Government provided additional teachers to match the new infrastructure. Parents who might otherwise have kept their kids at home now sent them to the school. Pupil numbers went from 200 in 2010 to more than 700 by 2015. The additional teachers brought the teacher-pupil ratio down from 37 pupils per teacher to a more manageable 14. The school’s academic performance improved, with pass rates rising rapidly.

Chibuluma has repeated the Mulemu experience at two other schools on its books – Chabala School and Kamuchanga School.

“We operate in a rural community where education is arguably the most important long-term challenge facing families,” says Mulenga. “With a good education, many things become possible. We can’t fix every rural school, but we can focus on a few to supplement government efforts and try to make a difference.”

The Mulemu story is not unique, and mines throughout the Copperbelt and North-Western province are actively involved in improving access to quality education in areas most affected by mining activities. For instance, it’s not unusual for a large mining company in Zambia to be funding and supporting more than 20 schools in its area. This may mean building new schools from scratch, or extending existing ones. Equally, it could mean improving a school’s water and sanitation facilities and access to electricity and lighting, donating equipment and supplies (desks, books, computers, etc.), or funding teacher training, awards, sports teams and academic competitions.