Simon sums up his first three months volunteering in Malawi

Simon is a VMM volunteer teaching in a secondary school in Sitima, Malawi. Here he reports his experiences of the first three months.

I came on November the 21st from an extremely cold England into the searing heat of the warm heart of Africa as Malawi is sometimes called. Heat is definitely an abiding theme of my time here so far so I will mention it only at the start and it can be taken as read that it has been mostly hot since I got here.

Simon and Bridgett on a boat on Lake Chilwa

Simon and Bridgett on Lake Chilwa

My first month here was spent with Damian and Bridgett who are both volunteers working with Network for a Better World. It was very nice to not come to an empty house and to have some people to show me how things worked. Most of November was spent acclimatising to my new circumstances in a brand new country. In this time I visited the school a couple of times, went to some of the teacher training centres in Malawi with Bridgett and also visited some of the local communities with Father Owen, the local Catholic priest. Probably a highlight was a boat trip across to the island of Chisi where we delivered some maize to a small village on the island in Lake Chilwa. It took an hour and half in the hot sun (last time I mention it I promise) with two men punting the way there.

Both Bridgett and Damian left mid December leaving me on my own in the house for the first time. It was a quiet month from then on as the school was on holiday and I didn’t have much other work at the time. Thankfully I was allowed to tag along with a group of Peace Corps volunteers who went up to the lake for the holidays. I think I have seldom been to a place that I like more than Lake Malawi. It is an incredible natural wonder and relatively unspoilt with only a handful of visitors while I was at Cape Maclear. If anyone were ever considering where to volunteer then having something like that in such close proximity is definitely something to consider.

W hen I came back at the beginning of January my work in the school started. Luntha Secondary School is a Catholic day secondary school with about 470 students. It has four forms divided into two streams of A and B. I took over all the English language classes of form 1 with about 50 students in each of my classes. Each form has about 5 classes a week giving me 10 classes in total. Each class lasts about 40 minutes. I had been pre warned about the level of the students when it comes to speaking English but despite this it was still a bit of shock. There are some in the class with practically no English whatsoever and the very best are still only able to speak at a very basic level. I think there was also an initial shock on the part of the students brought on by a very different style of teaching. After a couple of months the feedback that I have got so far is that I am the teacher that forces the students that were getting away with saying nothing into at least some contribution. I am still not sure if they meant this comment in a positive or negative way but I am taking it as a compliment anyway. Generally though I have stuck to my style of teaching and I think that after a bit of time it is starting to pay off. The true test will be the exam after the mid term break. To try and supplement my teaching hours I have also taken on the history classes with the Form 1s. This one is definitely a lot more of a challenge than English as it is something I have never taught before, although it was what I studied at university. A further problem comes from trying to teach a subject that is quite complicated in a language that most of the students barely understand.

Students playing table tennis

‘Round the World’ table tennis

Outside of teaching I have been trying to keep as busy as possible with various other activities. The students get a very long lunch break and most do not have any lunch to eat so a lot of it is spent just hanging around. A couple of times a week I have been taking out some table tennis bats and balls to play on the tables that Damian had built while he was here. At first they were just kind of knocking it over a plank being used as the net so I taught them a game called ‘Round the World’. In this game the players hit the ball back in a rally and then run around the table to play from the other side. Any player that breaks the rally in whatever way is eliminated until only two remain who then play for a final winner. I think that if they remember nothing else that I teach them then they will at least remember this game!

One of the aims that I was given when I first came out was to start a kind of homework club for the students. I tried one session of this but it soon became apparent that none of the students really received homework. Luckily I had a couple of reading books and so handed them out and we discussed the story a little. This seemed to go down pretty well as none of the students had ever really just sat down and read a book before. You definitely notice students with only basic literacy skills when teaching in the classroom.

Students studying after school

After-school reading club

This after school club has therefore morphed into a reading club where students can come and pick a book off the shelf and sit and read it. This has taken off recently with the addition of a good selection of books from the Peace Corps volunteer. At the moment the most popular books are the ones that deal with school subjects and facts but I am hoping that this will eventually lead to at least some interest in literature and reading for enjoyment. At the moment it is exclusive to form 1 but I have asked some other forms to create groups and plan times. I have also bought a children’s book in both Chichewa and English in the hope that some very small children can get a base in reading before attending primary school.

On behalf on Network for a Better World I have also been conducting some research in the local villages. This has involved going to households and trying to find out how many people live there and some other basic questions about how they live. It has also involved finding out about school dropout rates and the reasons behind them. It has been interesting to get out and speak to people (with the aid of an interpreter) but many of the answers have been more or less the same for each household. I also sometimes suspect that I don’t hear things which they consider to be blatantly obvious such as the fact that they grow some vegetables as well as maize. I also think they sometimes tell me what they think I want to hear such as that they need sleeping nets and blankets. I have still enjoyed showing my face though and it gets me out and about in the villages. It is also a chance for me to practise my Chichewa that I have managed to pick up. I am getting some classes most weeks but I have definitely not learned a language in an environment where there are so many people who are willing to let you practise with them.

The football team

The universal game

The immediate future for my time here is unfortunately going to be rather defined by an ongoing drought and food crisis. With the help of Network for a Better World and Sister Catherine, who teaches at the school, there will be porridge provided in the school during the lunch breaks. This is currently for the two weeks when the students are doing their exams after midterm break.

Hopefully on a more positive note there will be a new Sitima Premier League for some football teams. The Deacon and I have sounded out the youth of the area and unsurprisingly there has been a lot of interest. The details are yet to be finalised but hopefully we will get some teams registering in the next week and start the first games by the end of March.


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