Serena and Daisy's Africa Teaching and Volunteer Project 2018/19

 

You’d think after over five hours in a car and more than seventeen hours on a plane, arriving in the isolated village of Nkope, on the peaceful south bank of Lake Malawi would be a bit of a blur to me. But it wasn’t. There was so much to take in, not least the unbelievable amount of dust, which would stain my clothes, face, shoes and hair for the next six weeks! But what I remember more, is all the children who ran behind the car, the only car, in the entire village. They followed us, laughing, singing and waving, so excited to meet us, even touch my hand on the window, almost like we were famous. At first it seemed bizarre to me, but when I thought about it later, I realised it wasn’t. These children have almost nothing. They live in tiny, rickety huts with no running water, no electricity and almost no material goods. For them, I was something new and exciting. I was their own little gateway to a world of knowledge they have very little access to. Of course, having signed up for a teaching volunteer project, I was passionate about education for all but at the time I didn’t fully appreciate just how important it is. Education is an incredibly powerful tool; it teaches one about the world around them, it expands horizons, and arguably is one of the biggest creators of new opportunities.  Having been privileged enough to have such a well-rounded, broad education I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to give this gift to just a few children who may otherwise never have the chance to learn the things we told them. And I am very proud of that.

Daisy and I settled into our daily routine fairly quickly. Monday to Wednesday we’d work at the primary school in the nearby village of Nakundu each morning, whilst on Thursdays and Fridays we’d teach at the new ‘Forest Nursery School’ which we’d walk to from the cottage where we stayed. I taught English, Maths and PE to the primary school children ‘Standard 6’ (10 and 12 year olds) with the help of their teacher. Daisy taught English, Music and PE to Standard 8 which had children between the ages of 13 and 14.

At the nursery school we would teach together which I loved and were given complete authority over what to teach as long as it was English-related. This gave us the freedom to be really imaginative with our lesson plans which allowed us to include lots of active learning which Malawian schools really lack. As well as reading stories we also taught them the colours, animals and numbers to name a few. Often we’d take them outside and we’d play a game where they’d have to run to the teacher holding “yellow” or “red” which they really enjoyed! I also remember another time when we set up a treasure hunt with counters. For most children in England, a treasure hunt with counters probably would not be too appealing, but for the children in Nkope, this was VERY exciting! They could not wait to do it and it was so lovely to watch them having so much fun.

The heat was too extreme around mid-day so at this time, we’d eat lunch and have a rest before walking over to the ‘Resource Centre’ for afternoon activities. We would choose a sport to play every day but the other activity we would change on a daily basis. These included extra English, extra Maths, nature and arts and crafts. For the children, afternoons were definitely their favourite part of the day, because it was a chance for them to enjoy doing things which they would otherwise never have the chance to do. The schools in Malawi have very little funding, so little that the children have no desks and the classrooms are almost bare beside the chalk board and teacher’s chair. Even at the Resource  Centre, all our equipment had been donated by volunteers so Daisy and I really did have to use our imaginations in order to ensure we were planning activities which did not involve too much stuff. So we would often play games such as ‘Sharkie Sharkie’, ‘Duck Duck Goose’ and rounders. Having never played rounders before, explaining the rules, even with the help of Patuma, our lovely translator (who was just one year older than us!) proved rather difficult. However after playing it for a few days, the children, more or less got the hang of it, and Daisy and I were very proud of having taught them a new game. I remember saying to the children: “You choose what you’d like to play, as it’s our last day today.” They picked rounders. That was really special because it told the both of us they really loved doing it. What I loved as well was the way anyone could play. The older boys would sprint around the pitch but we’d also have three year old girls who we’d help to hit the ball and carry them round the posts! Seeing the village children every day meant we got to know them very well. This did make it really hard to leave, especially as you know unless I go back in the near future, I will most likely never see them again. It’s a heart-breaking thought, but the reality is, some of them will die young. Infant mortality rate (IMR) remains high at 38.5 (2017). To give you some perspective on this, the UK’s 2017 IMR was 3.9.

Perhaps what surprises me the most, looking back is the amount I learnt from the trip. Despite the fact that I was the one teaching the children, I probably learnt just as much as them. Being put on the spot and told to just teach a class of eighty children, I definitely learnt how to think on my feet. There were moments when I did get overwhelmed, as the children were not angels all the time, especially the older primary school children. PE lessons were particularly difficult due to the lack of equipment; when a ball or skipping rope appeared, the children often fought over them, making it very difficult to teach. However, this did teach me how to be more authoritative as well as learning from my mistakes. For example, learning not to show them any equipment until they had been told all other instructions. The children also taught (or perhaps forced!) me to be loud and confident, which seems a bizarre thing for me to say, but being a relatively quiet and shy person, these are actually quite useful skills!

Arguably the most important thing I gained an understanding of, was about the levels of poverty in our world. I have always been aware that I am very lucky, but, I don’t think I fully appreciated the extent of poverty. I learnt to be incredibly resourceful because I had no other choice. There was a budget for everything: medicines, paper, food, water, petrol; the printer budget had been exceeded before I even arrived. I remember when we decided to make a gorgeous bunting with all the children’s names on it in an arts and crafts lesson and we had to cut the triangles so small because we simply did not have enough paper. The government schools were the same. As I have said, they had very little funding and therefore are very under resourced. The idea of becoming a teacher is very unattractive to most Malawians because it’s simply too difficult. I remember seeing piles of UNESCO aid boxes piled in the headmistresses office; that was another moment when I realised how poor Malawi really is.  ‘UKAID’, USAID’, ‘EU AID’, signs were everywhere; it really does not take long to realise without aid who knows if these children would even have a school to go to. It is the seventh poorest country in the world and it’s very easy to see why. What hit me the hardest though, was when the nursery teachers went on strike due to not being paid. Of course this seems a legitimate reason to strike, however this had a terrible domino effect on the children. No teachers, meant no one to cook the school’s nsima (a bowl of hot flour and water). To see the children going hungry was heart-breaking, particularly when you knew for many of them nothing would be waiting for them at home either. To us this seems alien, it just does not happen, but in Malawi the level of poverty is so great that ’Naturally Africa’ - the charity I volunteered for simply did not have the money to pay the teachers, so until they did, it was just me, Daisy and Patuma effectively running the school.

As sad a situation as it is, it makes me feel that however small a contribution my six weeks of volunteering was, we really did make a difference. The way the children ran up to us as we walked towards the nursery school every morning told us they really did appreciate us being there and that means a huge amount to me. The whole experience was life-changing, not always easy, but the feeling of pure joy these children give you is truly unforgettable. Their smiles are infectious and what I would say to you, is please, go and see for yourselves! You definitely will not regret it!

Serena and Daisy

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