Experiences in Malawi – “The Warm Heart of Africa”
At the end of August, Mrs Tasker, Miss Blake, Mrs Sapiano, Stevie and Sadie were able to visit Chipoka 2 Primary School, Salima, Malawi. Our school has been linked with Chipoka for the past three years through the charity Starfish Malawi, and we have contacted each other through letters (which take several months to arrive) and a minimal amount of e mails - extremely difficult and expensive to arrange. (To use the internet, staff members out there need to make two journeys – one by bicycle taxi then another one by minibus, pay for use of an internet café then make the journey home – way beyond their financial resources.) We needed to visit in order to make worthwhile contact and establish our relationship.
On our arrival at the school, the welcome we received was overwhelming. Several hundred beaming children ran down the sandy track towards us as we arrived by minibus. They were dancing, clapping and singing songs of welcome – so delighted that we had come to visit them.
The school has 700 learners on roll ranging in ages from six to late teens. The children’s education is often spasmodic, for although primary education is now free in Malawi, it is not compulsory and so home circumstances often prevent children attending. At the end of each academic year, children need to pass the end of year test to be able to pass into the next “standard”. Within each standard, it is usual to have a wide range of ages. For example, the ages of children in standard one ranged from six to thirteen.
Despite having only one dilapidated school block, about six rickety desks and no electricity, the school is well organised and led by a dedicated and warm hearted headmaster, who shows great care for all the children, as well as a burning desire to see the children in the area well educated. His vision and commitment is shared by the other eleven teachers at the school.
Each class has its own “room” under the shade of a tree. Blackboards are propped up against the trunk – although they tend to fall over when the wind blows. The children arrive at seven each morning and clean their rooms – sweeping away loose sand and plant debris with hand made rush and twig brooms. In the evening, if the floor has become too sandy, they draw water from the borehole, carry it on their heads to the classroom and smear the mud to make a smooth surface to sit on the following day. The children are able to sit on the floor without fidgeting for over an hour! They do not complain that they have no chairs and desks. They manage to write in their books balanced on their laps – well those who are lucky enough to have a pen to write. The government issues children with an exercise book, but writing implements have to be supplied by the children themselves. (The value of a biro is huge!!)
During our visit, we were able to observe lessons being taught by the Malawian teachers and we also had a full schedule of teaching in the school ourselves. After lessons, we shared a meal with the teachers (we gave money so that they could buy the ingredients and cook for us) and learnt how to cook Malawian style. Stirring a huge pot of nsima – maize meal boiled up in water (the staple diet) is tough enough, but with the acrid smoke from the burning logs of the fire making eyes water copiously, it is extremely difficult. It is a sad fact that an enormous number of Malawian women die each year as a result of cooking. The inhalation of the smoke over the years causes severe, fatal chest diseases. All meals have that “smoky barbecue” flavour. Nsima (maize meal porridge) forms the major part of every meal with accompaniments of beans, green leaves, cabbage, fish, goat or chicken - if you are lucky enough to be able to afford them. Mice are also trapped and eaten along with grasshoppers (although we didn’t get to try them!)
Chipoka 2 School is in an area that is, materially, very poor (one third of households do not have enough to eat). A government feeding programme operates at the school whereby the learners are given a portion of nsima at midday.
After lessons, the headteacher had organised a series of forays for us into the local villages so that we could meet people and get a real understanding of how they lived. We saw the handful of wells that served the community, the market selling fish, covered with flies. Many homes had a small shed for animals where their hens (and sometimes goats) would come back to spend the night after roaming free range wherever they chose throughout the day. Beautiful little children were everywhere you looked and many of them carried a younger sibling, strapped to their backs with a length of material. There are many orphans in a country where one in seven people are HIV+ and many other diseases are rampant.
On our final day in school, we were presented with gifts – some from individual members of staff and some from children. We were humbled as they gave to us, sacrificially, out of their poverty. A little boy had been to the lake early in order to catch a fish, several children brought us eggs, a small bunch of bananas, a few potatoes and a little rice as well as rush brooms. The most wonderful present was the traditional sign of friendship – a chicken. This was presented, with its legs tied together so that it would not escape and we were expected to bring it back to the UK with us. We managed to make arrangements for it to be looked after in Malawi, but the teachers think it is now enjoying life in England!
Now that we have returned home, we have not forgotten the precious time we spent with those who have now become our dear friends and we are working together with them to further the understanding of both school communities of those issues which affect both of us. We are also doing what we can to raise money so that more school buildings can be erected, thus preventing the education of some of the world’s most vulnerable children being disrupted; working together with them to help them lift themselves from the pit of poverty.