Teaching by sign language

25 08 2008
Monday 14th July was one of the most bizarre experiences of my life and yet was also one of the best days that I had in school.  In typical Malawi time wasting fashion all of the qualified teachers in the zone had to go the TDC (Teacher Development Centre) during school hours to be head counted.  As this was a good couple of hours walk away this obviously stopped them coming to school. 

This happened all over the district this week with some schools closing for the day.  My teachers had only found out on Friday or Saturday and did not think of closing the school which was good for me in the end.

This left myself, the volunteer teacher in ST3 and the volunteer teacher who was starting for her first day in St2.  The volunteer teacher in St4 was also away as he had taken up a post with World Vision and although said he would still be able to teach as well was pretty much away at training events etc from the beginning of this week.   This was highly frustrating as I had just managed to get another volunteer teacher so there would have been 6 teachers and now we were pretty much back to 5 again.

I had jokingly asked Lameck (the St1 teacher’s 18 year old son that I ran with and hung out with quite a lot) if he wanted to come in and help me for the day by translating in the different classes I went into.  Of course he said he would and then I felt really bad but actually I think he was enjoying spening time with me, practicing his english and learning new things as he asked me so many questions all of the time.  He was able to do this because he had finished secondary school the year before but had not got a good enough mark in his engish exam to progress to uni so was resitting it this year but this meant he was just studying from home through the year, hence why he was able to spend so much time with me.  You had to get a certain grade in english to be able to progress any further.

I think it showed the difference in cultures when he said to me near the end of my time there that he had learnt so much from me in terms of planning and being organised as I was always saying I had this, this and this to do today and knew what order I was going to do them in and what time I would be going running etc.  They were obviously not used to that at all and he was clever and would presumably have had a bit more of a structured environment in the secondary school but it was still so different.  I know that I could have done with having more time there to get used to not being so driven by time and lists.  I should probably have stopped wearing my watch but that would be more than I could bear and I still had lists on the go out there!  Somewhere in the middle between both cultures would great but that is what we say about everything!

Mr Kalivute did come into the school first thing in the morning since he lived in the teacher’s house right beside the school.  He gave Lameck a class though so that was my translator gone!  In some ways it shows how easy it could be for someone with an education and good english to teach in Malawi as the curriculum and teacher’s guides are so prescribed that he could just pick up the book and teach it.  Also with behaviour being so good there was no need to have training in behaviour management etc.  Not that I saw anyway; I am sure there are behaviour issues in other areas.  There are the other issues of fall out, time keeping etc that schools in the rural areas have to deal with.

Mr Kalivute...on a Saturday!

Mr Kalivute...on a Saturday!

So the St3 volunteer teacher took St1 and 3, the new teacher took just her own St2 class, Lameck too St 4 and 5 and Mr Kalivute had spent a long time preparing work to leave for St 6 and 7 which was questions which they had to use their own notes from previous work to answer.  Absence on previous days did end up causing a bit of bother with this!  I popped in and out on them a lot but they were so hard working and just got on with it fine themselves.

St6 and 7 working hard

St6 and 7 working hard

I started in St 5 and did some maths with them and let Lameck take St4, just calling him in one on the odd occasion when I could not make myself understood.  We did the rythmn clapping for their tables and used the number fans and then I gave them some written work which we then swapped over and, very simplistically, peer marked.  I was very anxious to get this up and running as the teachers, particularly in the bigger classes, wasted so much time individually marking each child’s work – in the class!  So the children sat there doing nothing while the sums were marked and then nothing was done about corrections etc either.  This was not as much of a problem at Gwengwe though as I had seen last year in the urban schools where the classes were huge.  I loved this whole time in St5 and they loved it too as they were so keen – desperate! – to learn and had an absolute ball trying out anything different.  There was probably an element of the fact I was doing it as well and that we had a good laugh trying to understand each other. 

hanging out at break time

hanging out at break time

Looking back it seems very strange to have been in school and to have been smiling and laughing all of the time while teaching as that is so different to how I have behaved with my p.7’s this year.  I am not just blaming the children here either, maybe sometimes I have not given them enough credit for what they could cope with in terms of humour and still get on with their work.  It would just be blissful though to be teaching Malawian children, and I am sure any children from less developed countries, all of the time as you could actually teach all of the time instead of dealing with disruptive behaviour so much and they would want to learn.

It was very hard to get accross to the teachers that they are the most important resource in the classroom and they do not need lots of other things to teach with and we tried to constantly reinforce this later at the inservice training but they still it as an impossible task without the things that we have.

Digression over.

I did the same without the written work with St1 and they then started doing it whenever they saw for the rest of the week which was something I just found so cute.  I also worked in St3 on similar things for a while and loved it!  St2 were also loving having a teacher today and the fact that they now had a classroom so that made the two hour meeting on Sunday morning and the amount of persuading I had to do worth it right away.

I also spent time moving desks around etc; it had been incredibly frustrating to come in that morning after sorting them on Friday to find they had been moved about for choir practice and church!  Another hazard of only having lockable doors in two classrooms!  

I did keep going into St6 and 7 but they solidly worked away, even refusing to come out for the first break because they had not finished.  Nearer second break I sat and did some work on number cards while they worked and they started asking me to help them with the social studies questions they were doing and so I ended up going over it all with them as a class as it was the same questions I was being asked all of the time.  They were so pleased about this because it meant they would all finish their work and because I was spending time with them.

Still working hard

Still working hard

After break I took them and St5 for maths and did splat and the times tables round cards that I had just made.  I, and consequently them, ended up crying with laughter at trying to explain and then get the games going but it worked well once we mananged that.  This continued when we gave up on lessosn after this and I took them outside to play rounders with the bat and ball I had brought.  Half the school ended up playing, although it was only a very vague sort of rounders as that was by far the hardest thing of the day to explain even with Lameck’s help.  They did not get the idea of counting points for getting round but instead seemed to go by how many people the fielders got out and whoever the batting team were they got very nervous about trying to bat and often passed it onto someone else!

Lameck, Patrick and Philippe, my bodyguards as I called them in Chichewa!, came with me while I used my phone.  As Lameck was there I managed to get a bit more information from the two boys through translation mostly so that was nice.  I asked them what they had expected before I came and they were talking about how they thought the teacher would just spend time with the other teachers and not them so they were pleasantly surprised.  They wanted me to come back again when the new term starts and to come back to Malawi later when their english is better so they can talk to me properly!

With my bodyguards, Phillipe and Patrick

With my bodyguards, Phillipe and Patrick

It had turned a bit colder today after two lovely weeks so there were not really many children about playing in the afternoon and I was able to work in the school without feeling that I should be doing something else with them and I took the chance to get a lot of work done.  I had felt though that there were a lot of children who were not warm enough at school today.  It is hard because I know that for most of the year it is very hot and so they do not need many clothes and that the stone walls and floors in the classroom without sun coming in keeps them cool but I just wanted to be able to buy them all a jumper today!

Lameck could not run with me today as he came down and said he had felt the first signs of malaria coming on after school which I was really shocked at but he said he would be fine as he had taken the preventative drugs but that he better not run!!!  It was the first time anyone had really mentioned illness apart from HIV and it brought it home a bit.    I ran with Jaylois and it was great fun again.

Lameck is in the middle

Lameck is in the middle

The days food was:

breakfast – dry roll (nice when fresh, a bit harder to chew after a couple of days)

lunch – nsima, fish (had it about 3 or 4 times) and a vegetable relish

dinner – dry roll and rice (the rice was served with sugar, I told myself it was rice pudding)

I would have been given a morning snack too, probably bread again but would have avoided an afternoon snack since I ran at about the time I would get it.  Carb-tastic as usual! Not ideal when I was doing so much less exercise than at home!

I also helped, well watched really, how to make groundnut oil today, which is basically peanut butter and it is delicious.  All that is in it is nuts and a little salt,  I could not believe how much moisture was in the nuts, nor how strong my host mother is.  She is basically doing manual labour all day every day!

Check out the muscles!

Check out the muscles!

My poor attempts, but I really wanted one of those pestle and mortars to bring home!

My poor attempts, but I really wanted one of those pestle and mortars to bring home!

I had a fabulous day that day but at the same time was very aware that time was running out on my stay in the village and was getting concerned already at the thought of leaving.

I am sure the St1 teacher will not mind me mentioning it, as she told me within about 5 mins of meeting her and she was secretary of the whole district’s association for it, but she was HIV positive.  I am pretty sure, although I did not ask, that Lameck was not from what she told me about how she contracted it.  She kept pretty well and went to Dedza every 3 months for drugs and was also given special sachets of gel type food with extra vitamins etc. If she did get a cold etc she would be off school for a few days to make sure she recovered well and she always had to make sure she got plenty of rest.  One of my few moments when I threatened to get upset was on my second night when she introduced me to a girl in the school who was also positive.  She had not been in school much lately as she was quite sick and she looked it too.  I found this hard to deal with and I did just kind of block all other thoughts of it from my mind as the chances were 1/3 to 1/2 of the children I was meeting at school had it.  There was also the numbers who would have been affected by parents having it etc.  When I mentioned this when I came home some people thought I was worried, or were worried for me, about catching it but it was not, as I know I would have to be doing something really pretty stupid to be at risk, it was more that I could not in my head cope with knowing these children, teaching them and playing with them and knowing that they might be sick and have a low chance of survival.  I am sure most of them would not know they had it and even if they did would not be getting drugs.  On my previous trip to Malawi and even more especially the year before in Cambodia I had been very upset a lot by homeless, or just very poor children and I did not want to be getting upset here while living in the village so just had to put it out of my head.  To put into context how upset I was in Cambodia, on my last afternoon there I just could not bear to leave the hotel room as I could not cope with having to see these children anymore and deal with trying not to cry and inevitably failing anyway and crying and getting upset in front of them and trying to hide it.  I did love it there and would love to go back.  I think I would cope better now, well I hope I would.  So I did quite well in Malawi this year and I am glad as it was one of the things I was quite worried about.  I had a couple of lump in the throat moments but that was mostly when people were giving me nice speeches etc, until I left that is!

Mme Gwengwe following my example of making big charts and doing one for her HIV+ group

Mme Gwengwe following my example of making big charts and doing one for her HIV+ group

Sorry, this has been a really long post but I wanted to get thoughts etc down that I was worried I would forget or that I had been unable to write in my diary at the time.  It has taken me about a week to write this one as it is hard now I am back at work.  And made more difficult when you go away to Cardiff all weekend to see Madonna in the millenium stadium.  She was amazing, worth every penny and hour standing waiting on her but there was a slight guilt feeling about how I can spend that if I wish while still writing up all of this about people for whom that is unimaginable!

Into the Groove



2 responses

26 08 2008

I think so many aspects of this trip must have been a fantastic, and at times, bitter-sweet collection of experiences for you Caroline. At Cathkin later this year, we are thinking of organising some kind of seminar/ blogathon/podcast event for world Aids day consisting of different activities and workshops. I wonder if you might feel able to come along and talk about your experiences and about the way HIV/AIDS affects children and education in Africa ? We could perhaps follow this up with contributions to your Malawi GLOW group from our students ?


26 08 2008

No problem. If it is on the actual day I will put it in my diary right now! I am going in to a couple of secondaries in the East Kilbride area to do talks/work with social studies departments for different year groups so if you want anything else done too or another department in your school does that would be fine. I am keen to disseminate to as wide an audience as possible and this is the time to be doing it while I am not in a classroom! I may also be doing some fundraising and secondaries schools in my experience are good for that! Maybe best to keep that other work, if there is any, to after your big event though so it is fresh for that. Anything with glow would be great as well, in fact I will make you a member of that group and send you the link to your email just now. Then you can let me know about making kids members later. Caroline

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