Monday, November 9, 2009

Eleven Dreamers

Like many of her classmates, Atupele Mwezewina dreams of becoming a doctor. To achieve this lofty goal in Malawi is not an easy task. On her senior examinations, she must score top marks in mathematics, biology, physical science, and English, the four most difficult subjects, and that is just so that she can have a chance to enter the medical track at university. In order to achieve the highest marks, a student must be able to study and read the textbooks on their own. As Atupele writes, “We must try ourselves because teachers are not there to teach us everything.” However, textbooks, at $15 each, are far outside of the means of most students’ families. To aid students like Atupele, whose ambitions exceed the limited resources of their families, I have decided to offer a book scholarship each year to one form three student who shows the most scholastic enthusiasm and aptitude. The scholarship is a set of textbooks, one from each subject that the student will take in their fourth year. Our school only has a single copy of most of the textbooks necessary for senior level studies, so a student who owns their own books will be able to excel despite the limitations of the school’s resources.

However, I didn’t want to just give the the books to the smartest student. I wanted to reward someone who is motivated as well as talented. So, in order to enter the scholarship competition, students had to write an essay about their career goals and how they plan to achieve them. And that is how I learned that Atupele wants to be a doctor. Eleven students entered the competition this year. Here are their aspirations.

Chrispin Mwenyefeza wants to be a doctor. Specifically, he wants to be a doctor of the heart. Chrispin is one of my quieter students and also one of the most studious. He is very serious and during class he is always crouched over his math exercises, precisely writing out solutions with the aid of a straight-edge. However, he is also one of the most generous students; I frequently see him giving up his own study time to explain the work to others who are at the bottom of the class. His mother once told him that poverty is a result of a lack education and I can tell that he takes this seriously. To study hard and educate himself out of poverty, or, to fail school and live with nothing, Chrispin believes that the choice is his.

Chikumbutso Genti also wants to be a doctor. Once, when he was a young boy, a man died at the hospital where he was visiting a relative because there were not enough doctors at the hospital to take care of all of the patients. From that moment he decided that he wanted to become a doctor. Chikumbutso is angry with the doctors who are educated in Malawi and then “run away” to other countries where the salaries are better. His role models are those people who involve themselves in health activities here in Malawi; he wants to be like them, working to make his country a better place to live.

My most brilliant student, unsurprisingly, also has ambitions of becoming a doctor but I didn’t learn this from his scholarship essay. Since the beginning of the school year, Morris Katunga has covered his exercise books and signed all of his tests with his self-proclaimed title, Dr. Katunga, so that I and his classmates should have no doubts about his future aspirations. And I believe that he is one of the few smart enough to achieve them. However, he has no patience for the sluggish pace of lessons necessitated by the abilities of his fellow classmates. He slouches at his desk, front and center, as I explain, for the fifth time, how to solve for x, only rousing himself to shout out the answer several seconds before anyone else has even digested the problem. Morris is the typical genius, excited by challenges, bored by repetition, and frustrated when things do not go his way. However, his quirks and quickness have made it a pleasure to work with him this year. Like many of his peers, Morris is strongly religious. In his essay, he prays to God for success in his future, and throughout the year I’ve found various scribblings along the lines of ‘God is great’ in his exercise books. Most amusing to me is the recent spate of ‘Dr. Potok’s that I have found in place of his usual name, and ‘Shalom’s written at the end of exercises and tests. I think Morris got a hold of Chaim Potok’s book, My Name is Asher Lev, which describes the life of a Hassidic Jewish painter, and has decided to switch religions, despite the fact that after I leave, there will be no Jews in Malawi. Regardless, I have no doubt that Morris will continue to read, and think, and try out as many ideas as he can lay his hands on.

A close second behind Morris, is Ellaton Siyabu who is also quite brilliant. But, unlike Morris, Ellaton studies hard to maintain his spot at the top of the class. Ellaton does not always get the correct answer with the first guess, and sometimes even gives a stammering and long-winded explanation in front of the entire class which turns out to be entirely wrong. However, whenever he does make a mistake, he labors to correct it and never makes the same error again. It just shows that he truly believes that “the worst in life is not to fall down, but failing to rise up”. Ellaton wants to rise up to become a doctor because he feels that by saving lives he will be working as God’s instrument. He does not think there are enough doctors in Malawi and believes that the career will give him personal dignity and honor.

Several of my students want to study accounting. Otis Wataya wants to be an accountant because he likes the responsibility of being entrusted with a company’s money. He writes that, “Success does not come on a silver platter, but it needs hardworking and perseverance.” From his work this year I can tell that he means it. He has worked his way from being an above average student, to one who is consistently among the top five, and he has done it without losing his easy-going attitude and circle of friends. In fact, he has motivated his friends to work harder so that, whenever I go over to his group to tell them to quiet down, I find that they are loudly discussing the math work that I have given them. What more could a teacher ask for?

Hannah Chikomo also wants to be an accountant. She chose the career when she was 14 because she admired her sister who is an accountant. Hannah is one of my most hard-working female students, and because of this she is always among the top three students. In a class where most of the girls perform below average, it is impressive that she has avoided the stereotypes and relationships which prevent girls from excelling in school. For a relatively young student, Hannah is very mature- her relationships with her fellow classmates, male and female, are more professional than playful and I rarely have to repeat myself to her. She is quick to understand and, once she has done so, immediately turns to explain what I have said to others who are still gazing at me in confusion. Hannah has set as her role model all women who are leaders in their communities, including Malawi’s vice president, Joyce Banda. When she sees these powerful women achieving and sees the acceptance of these women into society, she knows that she will accomplish her goals.

My newest student has dreams of attending college and studying accounting because he believes that accounting is a career which could allow him to see the world. When I first saw Chawezi Msumba on my list of book scholarship applicants I thought, “Who on earth is that?” In the same pattern of enrollment that has been occurring all year, Chaawezi joined the class a bit late, in the 4th-to-last week of the final term of the school year to be exact. And somehow he is expected to know all that we have covered in the past year and take his final exams in two weeks. Luckily, he is smart. In his essay, Chawezi attributes his success in school to hard work and abstinence from boy/girl relationships (because sex doesn’t mix with school). He encourages his peers to do the same, saying that this is the only way that Malawi can halt the AIDS pandemic and become successful. Chawezi likes Obama’s three-word slogan, and both he and I believe that it certainly applies to him.

Collins Gawani wants to be a journalist. As a writer, he is talented and creative in a way that very few Malawians are. As a student in other subjects such as math and science, he is slow and has difficulty with problem solving. It is an interesting combination, and I am always perplexed after hearing one of his articulate and interesting news broadcasts during a morning assembly, to find him, later that day, unable to follow my instructions in math class. Collins wants to attend the Polytechnic in Blantyre and study Mass and Media Communication. He knows that in order to become a journalist he must read lots of different books and study hard. He knows that he needs to improve his grades. However, he encounters difficulties when he is discourage by family and friends who do not want to support him; he lists food and school shoes as two examples where he would like to be better supported. I often see him in the staff room at the end of the lunch hour, looking for any leftover food. I imagine it is difficult to concentrate on math problems on an empty stomach. But, despite these problems, Collins tries hard and is optimistic that his future is bright.

Mutisunge Mwineya also feels like his family and friends are discouraging him from his goals. Almost every day after school, Mutisunge apprentices himself to an auto mechanic because he dreams of becoming an engineer. His friends tell him that he can’t serve two masters at once, but he knows that in order to become an engineer he must also go to school. His father used to encourage him, but he died when Mutisunge was 12, so now he must keep that encouragement in his heart as he studies science at Gracious each day and works in the garage every evening.

James Hoya is a talented ultimate Frisbee player who sings with a beautiful baritone in his church choir. He is generous with what he has, offering up his own exercise books as a prize for a Frisbee game, and he is polite and respectful when seeking out what he does not have. I have come to know James (known as Hoya by his friends) this year, through his visits by the house to ask for help with math and download pictures from his toy-digital camera. He has accompanied Jesse and I on a visit to his church, translating the Chichewa Bible and explaining the hymns, and he worked with Jesse to film a video of his church choir singing a few songs. What I did not know, before reading his scholarship essay, was that he wants to become a dentist. Unfortunately, in Malawi only the most academically gifted have a chance to enter the medical profession, and James is quite below average. He works hard in class; I can tell that he is in school because he wants to learn. He even does alright on some of the exercises. But, when it comes time for a test, he completely bombs, scoring little above a zero. It seems that he has a learning disability which prevents him from translating the thoughts in his head to written words on a page. And here, where all performance is evaluated by written exams, that is a severe impediment to success. James truly wants to help people; that is why he wants to be a dentist. Although I do not think he can manage this, I do believe that his friendly personality and moral character will lead him to a life helping his fellow Malawians.

So, who did we give the scholarship to? The goal of the scholarship was to provide the books to the person who would make the best use of them and who would, by having the books, be able to improve from above average to excellence on their senior level exams. After a long debate, the form masters (teachers in charge of form 3), deputy principal, principal, and I decided to award the books to Atupele. She is not the smartest, though she frequently scores among the top 5. She is not the most well-behaved, since I am constantly reminding her to stop chatting with those around her. And, she is not the most serious; she maintains a playful attitude, but still respects her teachers. However, she loves learning and even approaches the principal asking to borrow books. She loves to share her knowledge; I have several times caught her in a spare classroom giving math lessons to slower students, in English. She is quick and knows how to use resources which are provided to her. She is a female who is achieving, when her other peers are turning to dating and giving in to the cultural misconception that girls are not as good in school as boys. For these reasons, we chose to use Atupele as a role model and provide her with the tools she needs to excel. I am looking forward to seeing her succeed.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Common Entertainment

Gracious Secondary students may not be the countries’ most academically talented students, but they are truly enthusiastic performers. Throughout the school year there have been numerous events during which the students can show off their creative prowess to their peers and parents. In addition to weekly assemblies every Monday morning, we have had an Open Day for parents and the Gracious Graduation and MANEB Exams Dedication (prayers for the students’ success on upcoming national exams).

During each of these events, the sheer number of students vying to perform astonished me. Whenever there is a school function, the one hour reserved for student performances consistently stretches to 2-3 times that length. No one other than Jesse’s and my growling stomachs seemed to mind the delayed program though. Entertainment, regardless of the quality, is a valued commodity and no one is anxious for it to end.

Most of the performances are groups of students singing religious songs. Foremost and favorite amongst the student body and myself are the Chronicles, who write remarkably creative gospel/rap songs in English and Chichewa, with vocal stylings reminiscent of a middle-school boy band. The Anglican Choir usually makes several appearances, singing choral favorites like Lowani, The Blood of Jesus, and Yende Pita Patsogola. The choir has an absolutely heart-warming and cohesive sound, but I always have to laugh a little to myself at the image of Allen Makwinja (a form three student) towering two-feet over the other 15 young men and women who sing the back-up to his booming bass. SCOM (the Christian students group of Malawi) also often sings, but the best part of their performances is the semi-synchronized overly-enthusiastic dancing that accompanies each rafter-rattling song. The Muslim Students Association also usually contributes a piece, though the nasally modulated Arabic lyrics are underappreciated by the audience, especially when following directly after the gospel enthusiasm of the Christian groups.

In addition to a multitude of singing groups, Gracious also has it own theatre troupe, The Malambe (Baobab) Drama Group. The themes of their plays never stray from the merits of being a good student and dangers of boyfriends, alcohol, marijuana, etc, and the group loves to include taboos, such as witch doctor telling a father that he is supposed to have sex with his daughter to cure his money problems. Regardless, or probably because of this, the student body always welcomes any drama offering with loud cheers, which grow loudest whenever drugs, alcohol, or sex are mentioned. As for myself, I usually find the plots tedious and the two skits presented during the graduation ceremony made me slink down in my chair with embarrassment for the students onstage who had obviously neglected to rehearse even once. However, when the students actually rehearse, the performance can be quite good. The group presented one play during Open Day which began with a funeral and then traveled back through time to the events which had led to the funeral (which of course was back to the usual theme of good student/bad student). It was so well performed that parents would run up on stage in the middle of the play to give the actors money to show their appreciation, which led to loud cheers drowning out the dialogue of the play. But, audience participation was all part of the entertainment.

In addition to the singing and acting, the other main component of student performances is dancing. A dance is called a ‘gule’ in Chichewa and dancing is a hefty part of Malawian culture. The first dance I saw was during the Open Day performance and began with two young men rapidly beating wood-and-hide drums as the girls slowly came singing, stamping and clapping out toward the audience in a line. The girls knelt in a semi circle as one girl took her place in the center and began to cock her hips from side to side to the rapid beat. At this point the roar of the audience crescendoed and mothers came dancing out to present the dancers with money. The dance dissolved into a melee of running shouting and laughing to the asyncopated and rapidly deteriorating drum rhythm before the emcee finally called a halt and proceeded with the next performance.

The second dance I observed was not of the formal cultural variety, but a teenage disco thrown for the students following the graduation ceremony. Jesse helped set up the speakers, Peter (the computer studies teacher) DJed, and I wandered the room searching for and confiscating sachets of alcohol. Aside from the ear-splitting music echoing in a confined space and the giggly boy-girl dramatics, the scene could have come from any high school in the United States. Well, perhaps more boys were out in the middle of the dance floor rather than huddled around the sides. For me it was fun to see the girls free from their uniform blue and all decked out in their most colorful fashions. Even though each girl probably owned only one nice outfit, they all shared and swapped clothes around, mixing and (not-quite)-matching, until each girl had a sexy and unique outfit to wear to the dance. Their excitement was adorable and just goes to prove that teenage girls are teenage girls everywhere.

Malawi has a great fondness for dancing. Children dance, grandmothers dance, everyone dances: in the villages, in discos, in school, and even in the middle of the road at night. If I were to make an out-sider’s culturally-ignorant guess, I would say it stems from a time when the only entertainment to be had was the kind people could produce with their own voices and drums. Unlike most developed nations, that time does not exist only in nostalgia. In rural Malawi, when the electricity goes out and the sun sets, people still pass the dark hours before sleep in song and dance.

Since we arrived at the hut at MCV, the electricity has gone out from 6pm-7pm approximately 4 nights every week, sometimes more, sometimes less. We joke that it’s because that’s when the day-shift workers at the electrical plant change over to the night-shift, but probably has more to do with redistributing the power so the Blantyre never goes without. On most nights that the power goes out, the girls who board at MCV sit outside the hostel (just 40 meters from our hut) and sing. About a month ago, I finally went over to investigate.

As my eyes adjusted to the sheer dark, I found about half of the girls seated in a semi-circle and the others up and dancing. One girl was leading the song, the others singing along while two played drums. The girls did not remain in their places for long, sometimes one would jump up and start a new dance, and other would go sit back down or pull another less-enthusiastic girls up to participate. Frequently one girl would start leading a new song in the middle of another one and everyone would just join in on the new song, leaving a brief moment when both melodies hung clashing before one was absorbed into the other. Songs would break in the middle as one drummer would impatiently tell the other to switch rhythms (no, do it like, bum bum bah buh), but it didn’t matter because this was not a performance. It was for pleasure and not perfection.

Most of the songs seemed to follow a pattern that every girl automatically knew by heart, but individual lyrics seemed highly ad-libbed by the one leading the song. She would mention individuals by name and extol the virtues of boarding students over day-scholars. Sometimes she would even switch to English if there was a lyric she wanted me to hear. One song, sung entirely in English, repeated the chorus, “Choose-a, choose-a, the best of all…” and then went on to list names of students and teachers.

Many of the songs had specific ways of dancing that went along with them. One of which was about ‘katundu’ meaning luggage or load. The girls bobbed around to the beat of the drum singing a catchy and repetitive lyric while giggling and passing a bundle from head to head. Only after a few minutes into the song when I too had wiggled my butt around the circle while clasping the bundle to the top of my head, did one of the girls come up and tell me that the song was saying that I had lots of sins on my head and had to pass them off. Evidently ‘katundu’ also means sins.

The sheer number of songs that the girls knew was astonishing to me. But, perhaps it is not quite so remarkable considering that they have been surrounded by these songs since they were born. Music and dancing are simply a fact of living in Malawi in the same way that supermarkets are an inescapable fact of living in America. It will be a little sad to leave Malawi where entertainment is performed by everyone and return to the West where we leave our amusement in the hands of professionals.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Just Another Death

A student died yesterday and this morning in the staff room there was a large debate: to attend the funeral or not. This is Malawi where people die all the time, and yet the custom is to go to any funeral to which you are even remotely connected. Traditionally, even if you do not know the person, if there is a funeral nearby, you go anyways. There should have been no question; the entire school should have attended the funeral.

There were, however, a few minor complications. First, the girl had left school early in the year due to illness. She was admitted into a hospital in Blantyre and had been there for the entire school year. Recently it came to the attention of the school that she was pregnant. School policy is to expel any pregnant students (male or female, as it states in the official school rules) until after the child is born. However, since the girl had left school because she was sick, before it became evident that she was pregnant, there was never any formal expulsion. Hence the dilemma. Was she a Gracious student for whose funeral the entire school should arrive in uniform, or was she an expelled student to whom the school owes no formal obligation?

One teacher argued- if there was no formal expulsion, then she is still our student and we should go to her funeral. The principal countered, yes, but do we want to associate out school with this? Last year when a student died we took all of our students in uniform to the funeral. Do we do the same for this girl? Do we really want to form such a large visible presence at the funeral of a girl who died due to complications from pregnancy? At this, all of the teachers cringed and laughed. In the US, the general attitude is that teens will have sex no matter what you do and the result is that some of them will end up pregnant. It’s not the fault of the school if a girl gets knocked-up. Here the attitude is a bit different and schools are loathe to admit that any of their students ever get pregnant for fear that parents will not send their students to the offending school.

The school eventually decided to send a small delegation of two teachers along with a few students and the condolences (money) they had collected from their classmates. For the whole school to attend would have been inappropriate, but the school cared about the girl and wanted to show some support for her family.

Perhaps my discussion of a student’s death seems too emotionless. Shouldn’t there be students weeping on each others shoulders in classrooms and an emotionally charged day as the school mourns its loss? Perhaps. But, death happens. Here more than anywhere else. Each person deals with it individually and those who knew the girl personally I am sure mourned her in their own way. In a place where death is common, society treats it as such and carries out its well-practiced customs with little surprise. However, amazingly to me, even in the face of such frequency, communities still manage to keep an individual from becoming just another death.

The notations of death are everywhere- in a funeral procession singing loudly down the road and the in the subdued faces of returned students who have been missing for a week.
Earlier this year, the Anglican choir popularized a beautifully catchy tune called Lowani, a song which is traditionally sung at a burial as the body is lowered into the grave. It is morbidly humorous to me that I frequently hear the students merrily singing this song in the corridors and classrooms throughout the day.

The events of this morning spawned an interesting conversation with Mr. Hawonga, Mr. Piyo, and Mr. Chisale about life-expectancies here in Malawi. The teachers were under the impression that the life expectancy in Malawi used to be 45 years (including infant mortality), but has recently dropped to 33 since the AIDS epidemic. Although I am convinced that this is fairly exaggerated, it is interesting to hear what they perceive to be the average length of time a Malawian lives. From life expectancy the conversation moved naturally on to retirement age- 65 for a teacher or 20 years of service, which the teachers all thought was far too old considering that statistics predicted they would be long-dead by that time. And from there to the salaries of teachers in the US- very low I assured them, to which they decided that unappreciated teachers are a problem worldwide.

It was an interesting morning. Teen pregnancy, retirement, death. We even talked about adoption for a while. But, even as two starkly different nations, I think it is better to talk about these common problems we face, rather than hide our superiority be ashamed to admit inferiority. Because, by discussing together the things we find most troublesome to discuss amongst ourselves, we discover our common humanity.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Blood Drives and Name Games

When I return to the United States after being in Africa for a year, I will not be allowed to donate blood for some jail-sentence worthy length of time. The Blood Bank of America is worried that I may have picked up one of sub-Saharan Africa’s many parasites that travel from bloodstream to bloodstream via mosquitoes, flies, and snails. My blood is possibly contaminated. No need to bother donating (even though all blood is, of course, screened). Today I sat under Gracious Secondary Schools’ central Baobab tree listening to a guest from the Blood Bank of Malawi urge our students to donate blood and save a life. The irony of my situation was not lost on me.

This is the second such blood drive that has happened at Gracious since I began teaching in January. In a country where our major district hospital runs out of antibiotics and has a total of three doctors, I was impressed to learn that there is an organization which collects and provides blood. Usually a patient needing a blood transfusion must wait for a relative to come give them blood; however, the Blood Bank collects blood for emergency patients who cannot afford to wait for a relative. With the AIDS epidemic, it is becoming more difficult to collect safe blood. The Blood Bank has recently begun hitting up secondary schools with the hope of obtaining “cleaner” blood, the rationale being that students are less likely to participate in risky behaviors and therefore less likely to contract the dreaded HIV.

But HIV is only one of a multitude of hitchhikers possibly inhabiting the bloodstreams of those of us who live in Africa. What does the Blood Bank do about Schistosomiasis or Malaria? Two things. First they ask, “Are you sick?” If so, then no blood donation for you today. That takes care of most malaria. Second, they screen the blood for diseases, just like we do in the United States. Is this safe? The representative today seemed to think so. Nevertheless, the US won’t be taking my blood when I return.

Aside from lectures on blood donation, Gracious has also recently had visits from the police, lecturing on road safety. It felt like I was back at an assembly in elementary school with the model of the yellow school bus with flashing red lights. ‘Okay kids- which side of the road do you walk on?’ Though, other than the general swapping of left and right that comes from living in a country where cars drive on the left, there were some differences. Instead of being told to “wear your helmet” students were told “do not ride in open vehicles” (that’s the back of pickup trucks, not convertible cars). And pedestrians definitely do not have the right of way in Malawi.

In addition to attending public safety lectures, I have been spending my free time slowly expanding my Chichewa vocabulary. After ten months, my stack of word cards has grown to fill four rubber bands and in addition to paging through the dictionary for humorous cultural insights and words that I will probably never use, I am now beginning to analyze the names of my Malawian colleagues and students. When searching for the perfect name for their child, American parents search baby name books for pretty-sounding (but still conventional) syllables whose vague definitions, far removed from their root tongue, proclaim general virtues like “strength” or “purity”. Not wanting their dreams for their child to go unnoticed, Malawians give their children unmistakably literal names. Upon first arriving in Malawi, I only noticed this fact amongst those students whose parents had decided to give their child an English name such as, “Wishes, Trouble, Innocent, Danger, Witness (his last name is Mine), Blessings, and … Fraction”. But now that my Chichewa is a little better, I have been having fun dissecting the names of those around me.

Most commonly, there is ‘Thokozani. -thokoza means ‘thank’ and ‘-ni’ is the suffix which makes the verb imperative. In others words, Thokozani means “give thanks”. My favorite so far is Mutisunge, mu- means ‘you’, -ti- means ‘us’, and –sunge means “keep”. So the translation becomes “you keep us” where I assume the subject of this request is God. I recently worked out a translation of our deputy principle’s name, Kambalame, though I am debating between two possible interpretations. Kambalame quite literally means ‘Tsetse fly’; however, the word mbalame means ‘bird’ and the prefix ka- is a diminutive conjugation which makes ‘kambalame’ mean “little bird”. Three of my form four students (2 girls and 1 boy) are named Chikondi, meaning ‘love’.

I often wonder whether Chichewa conversations are often confused by the preponderance of names which have meanings which refers to objects other than the person being talked about. I then imagine what conversations in America would be like if people started giving their children such literal names… “Give Thanks said that Hope told him that Gift saw Love yesterday.”… and I think, wouldn’t that be nice.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Picture Worth 1000 Words

The bus is called the Country Commuter and, aside from the National Bus Line, it is the way that the majority of Malawians travel over long distances. Even if the bus passes only once a day, people will wait rather than take a passing minibus, knowing that the bus fare will be up to 100 kwatcha ($0.60) less.

The bus pulls into the depot and vendors flock to the sides. This is the Salima bus depot and the offerings are relatively meager: mostly foodstuffs hoisted to customers’ windows by outstretched arms and sticks. But, from the window of this same bus in the Lilongwe bus depot, a person can buy almost anything: cell phone units, kitchenware, shoes, purses, and even bras.

The man whose back is covering the CO is making a sale. It is conducted like this: The customer on the bus indicates what they wish to purchase and holds up the bill which they will be paying with. The vendor then searches for change, often running to find a friend with some money who he will pay back later. The vendor then offers up the change along with the item to be purchased. Then the customer pays. The system is there so that the customer, who is stuck on the bus, doesn’t get cheated by a vendor who absconds with their money. But I have found that vendors are often more honest than their prospective buyers; before I learned the correct order of a bus window transaction, one boy chased my departing bus through the station to deliver my 10 kwatcha change.

Most of the items for sale at this bus are food. Common traveling food includes hard boiled eggs with salt (one man I bought from had ingeniously individually twisted small packets of salt in newspaper), sodas, boiled or grilled corn on the cob, fried pockets stuffed with potatoes or meat, and various forms of fried dough, the most common of which is a slightly smaller than fisted-sized ball. The dough is mixed in 30-gallon plastic tubs by women who spend all day dropping balls of it into pots of boiling oil. Jesse and I call these doughy snacks “donuts” and I have been known to consume three or four over the course of a long bus ride. Eating donuts is always a bit risky- sometimes I end up with a tasty morsel to which someone has generously added sugar and other times I get a stale mouthful of grit from the side of the road.

Even knowing that the donut will be eaten right away, the vendors always serve their food in a little blue plastic bag (seen here on the donut stick farthest left) and always tie them in such a way to make reuse impossible. These bags are everywhere: stretching under the weight of nuclear hot chips, filled to the brim with tomatoes, rice, or beans, but mostly littering the side of every road and footpath. The importation of plastic baggies has done more for the pollution of the African continent than anything else.

The vendors all have something in common. Have you noticed? They’re all men. Rarely have I seen a girl or woman selling wares in bus depots even though it is the women who cook most of the wares.

The woman in orange is about to board this bus. She has already secured a seat and knowing that the bus will not leave for several more minutes, is not overly anxious to board, given the long hours seated that lie ahead. She is wearing her best dress, cut in the fashion of West Africa, a style only fifty years ago brought to Malawi. Ironically, this style of dress is now called “national wear” and every woman who can afford one owns one. The woman’s orange dress is new; the back zipper stills stays up.

Despite the prevalence of secondhand rejects sent by the bagful to Africa, clothing is astonishingly expensive. My students (who are from families who can afford education) generally own one or two nice outfits, their school uniform, and a few chitenjes. Young children walk around in an assortment of oversized and holey garments because it’s just too expensive to bother clothing them.

For example, let’s count shoes. In this photo, three people are wearing shoes, five are wearing sandals, and two are barefoot. Outside the gates of the bus depot the proportion of bare feet rises dramatically. Shoes are simply too expensive for most people to buy. Jesse recently had to purchase a new pair of tennis shoes, but after three days of scrounging the market with superior bargaining skills, was unable to find a pair of used shoes for less than $30. Clothing is just as bad. After rooting through a pile of shirts on a tarp on a dusty street, the price is still the same price as a thrift store in the United States.

There is no luggage storage below the bus. So where to put the bags? Usually the first row behind the driver is reserved for bags which are piled high with no regard for the order in which their owners will get off the bus. However, once the first row is technically full there is always room for a few more precarious parcels which usually end up toppling into the aisle. There is also a shelf over the seats which some brilliant engineer designed so that a sharp curve will land the contents on the head of the person sitting in the aisle seat. On every bus there’s always an older lady who is determined to shove her burgeoning chitenje-wrapped basket onto this narrow shelf. But, no matter who gets on the bus or what they are traveling with, space is always found.

So that’s the bus depot. You can see deep blues and hot pinks, fancy dresses and undistinguishable rags, babies and crones, teachers, rappers, and feather-clad lunatics, just by sitting on the cement bench of the depot for a day.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Scene At A Distance

I have a feeling that my impressions of Malawi are warped by the fact that I live next to a tarred road. Most roads in Malawi are dirt roads and most dirt roads are actually little more than bicycle and foot paths from one village to the next. This becomes obvious as soon as one gains a little elevation and is able to look down on the crisscrossing web of traces laid down between thatched roofs and fields.

This time of year there are no leaves, except in those few places lucky enough to be tended by a man and a watering hose. Now that the pesky vegetation is out of the way, I can see all of the villages that were hiding behind the corn fields and bushes that line the road. Wanting to get a sense of how many people actually lived in our little lake-side neighborhood, Jesse and I set out to hike to the top of the highest point in the area before the temperature climbed too much higher.

Maldeco Hill, as we have been calling the 500 foot mound just north of our favorite little town, had what looked like path weaving up the side inviting Jesse and I to take a jaunt to the top for a view. We set off the main road, walking over packed dirt between mud huts seemingly set down at random angles. Some huts were appended by grass thatch fences which almost gave privacy to chitenje-clad women working to hang their laundry or cook an early meal. Other huts sat exposed in the middle of the road, with children lounging in the shade of narrow porches.

Our trespassing produced a few “azungu, halloo!”s and “giva me money”s, but not nearly as many as usual when we venture on foot. Several times we have been followed by a gradually growing entourage of 3-to-4-foot munchkins, who I have tried to dissuade by whirling suddenly and chasing them (which exacerbates the problem) or ignoring them (doesn’t work- we’re still so much more interesting than anything else happening). However, now that my Chichewa is better I’ve found that a combination of “musatsate!” (don’t follow!), “pitani kunyumba” (go home), and in desperate situations, “CHOKA!” (piss off!) will work every time.

Usually the kids are just looking for something to do. A wave hello, an exchange of greetings, or a short game is what they're looking for even though the request always comes out as “give me money”. I’ve appeased the begging boys in front of Peoples grocery by letting them play with my bicycle helmet. However, on a recent outing to visit a nearby resort, one little boy resorted to a money-getting tactic that I had not yet seen in Malawi. At the urging of his friends who hung back in the shade of their house, an 8-year-old boy approached the side of the dirt road as Jesse and I were walking by his house. He immediately started limping excessively and, with a poorly hidden grin curling the side of his lips, began saying, “ndidwala, ndidwala” (I’m sick, I’m sick). Obviously a hoax. I decided to show him that we were no ordinary passing white tourists. Hands on my hips I whirled around, bent down and made as if to chase him, growling, “Bodza!” (a lie!). He ran squealing back to his friends, leg miraculously cured. He didn’t managed to swindle us out of a few kwatcha, but I think he got what he was looking for, a little interaction with the foreigners.

On our way through the village surrounding the base of Maldeco Hill, we encountered neither disabled boys nor crowds of followers, only a few women gathered at the water pump who gave us curious stares as we passed. When we reached the base of the hill we were greeted by an incongruous artifact. The path up the side of the hill which we had spied from the tarred road, had resolved itself into beautiful white cement sidewalk set at an angle up the hill which no ADA regulation would ever deem acceptable. It even had standard sized curbs, an almost obscene waste of cement in a country where it is so expensive that only the government and NGO’s can afford to build with it.

From behind us I heard a shrill cry, “azungu!” Turning around, I saw the little girl who had yelled at us. She continued to yell, but didn’t come any closer, so not knowing what she wanted, Jesse and I continued up the hill. Her yells became louder and more detailed, but still completely unintelligible. Her concern was so earnest that my mind began to make up scenarios in which we were climbing the forbidden hill and upon returning would find ourselves chastised by the village chief or accused of witchcraft. After voicing these concerns to Jesse, his logical reply was, “Yeah, but then why would they build a cement path up to a secret ritual site.”

Still puzzled by the existence of our walking path, Jesse and I debated its origin as we began our hike up the sidewalk. “Looks like the government had some aid money that they didn’t know what to do with.” I said, while the little girl still carried on in the background.

“Possibly, but I think it was built by some NGO committed to improving public access to wilderness,” Jesse replied.

“In Maldeco?” I gestured to all of the surrounding huts, “Hardly wilderness, but I guess there are still some trees here. No, I think it’s a path in commemoration of some volunteer who died of malaria and used to love to climb this hill.”

No, Jesse and I have not become at all jaded about the use of aid money in this country. We finally reached the top to be greeted by a beautiful view and at least a partial explanation of the cement walkway. Two cell towers sat perched atop the hill and the path led right to the gate. Zain (the African cell carrier) had built the path, but with the existence of a perfectly serviceable road (which we followed on the way down) we still had no idea why they had wasted so much money on a cement sidewalk.

The view from the top was fantastic. On one side, the cliff plunged into the brilliant blue of Lake Malawi, dotted with fishing boats and lined by an undulating white sand beach. On the other, the shore was covered by a kilometer-wide swath of huts and gardens, giving a staggering view of the population density along the lakeshore. Behind the layer of human habitation ran a carpet of monotonous greenery (which we later learned was a tree plantation) and behind that rose a line of low mountains waiting for Jesse and I to explore. The dry season was starkly evident from this pseudo-aerial view. Every surface: bushes, trees, and huts were brown, as if they had risen fully-formed from the dust which surrounded them. Baobabs clawed their naked branches against the sky, but their magnificent size was made comically small from our viewpoint atop the hill. I was astonished by the number of Baobabs dotting the spaces between huts. Walking along the road I never realized that these trees made up the majority of trees growing in this area.

Sometimes, I get wrapped up in school, looking at the faces I know, passing the shops and huts on the side of the road that all are so familiar now. I forget to distance myself and look at my surroundings as the outsider that I am. It’s scenes like the view from the top of Maldeco Hill, seen at a distance and appreciated as a whole, that remind me over and over that, yes, I am in Africa. But, the hills stretching away from the tarred road and the paths leading back to unseen villages also remind me that my experience is only a small sample of what life here can be.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Responsibility and Consequences

As a teacher, I enjoy being responsible for the mathematical and biological education of my students. Being the authority figure to a group of 40 students is exhilarating and the maturity I have gained from the experience is invaluable. However, sometimes responsibility feels like a blow to the heart.

It began when I was outside supervising my class while they were studying in groups. I heard what sounded like sizeable party going on in a neighboring classroom and stuck my head in the door to see if there was a teacher in the room. There wasn’t and the students had decided to take the opportunity to run around the classroom and generally cause as much noise as possible rather than study. Just as I was about to tell everyone to sit down and be quiet, in through the door came one of the chief trouble-makers carrying one of his scrawnier friends who was yelling to be let down. This was too much and I decided that it was time for an example to be set for the rest of the class who, even though terminal exams were a mere four weeks away, had been slipping farther into behavioral rowdiness and academic lassitude.

“Put him down and both of you come with me.” I said loudly enough to be heard over the din in the classroom. There was no response to this command from the two main offenders, but the rest of the class quieted down and turned towards me and after several seconds the boy was set down. I tried again, “Both of you come with me, let’s go.”

The boy who had been carried came over, but the one who had been carrying him kept walking away with his back turned all the while saying, “Okay, okay Madam.”

“No, let’s go right now.” I said again.

“Okay okay Madam,” he kept saying and as he reached the back of the room he sat down in his seat.

At this point I realized that he was not going to come. The school has a policy of suspension for open defiance and insubordination and so I decided to remind him of this fact to give him another chance to change his mind and follow my directions.

“I am very serious,” I said, “Do you really want to disobey me right now? Let’s go now.” Still he refused to follow, so I repeated my order twice more before saying, “Alright, that’s it, I am reporting you to the discipline committee.”

Maybe he didn’t believe that I would actually do it. The school has a long history of making obviously empty threats as well as making reasonable threats which they never carry through with. Jesse has also been dealing with effects of such lackadaisical discipline on a problem student in his home room class. However, I have a feeling that my student did believe that I would report him, but couldn’t bear the embarrassment of having to get up in front of all of his friends and follow a female teacher who was half his size. Maybe if I had handled the situation less publicly he would have come with me and avoided the ensuing consequences.

I went directly to a member of the discipline committee and reported the incident. Within three hours a letter was drafted and the verdict was final; the student would be expelled from school and would only be allowed back to take his exams. Upon reading the letter I learned that this student had been suspended twice previously this year for insubordination and that the transgression against me was merely the final drop that overflowed the pot. Several teachers came up to me that day voicing their support of the expulsion decision. The right thing had happened, they said with varying degrees of gleefulness, he needed to be expelled and now finally his class (which had been having problems all year) would become more serious in their studies.

I felt an empty sense of vindication. I felt triumph that I had won and that the school was finally proactively supporting its own discipline policies. As a young female teacher from a foreign culture, my authority and words are all that I have to maintain discipline. If students do not respect me then I am sunk. I cannot do my job and more importantly I cannot guarantee the safety of myself and the students in my classroom. A student who demonstrates a lack of respect to a teacher must be dealt with or removed lest the isolated incident spread to the rest of the class.

But this is a cerebral argument. My heart feels that this was an empty victory. Beneath his macho careless attitude was a student who really wanted to learn. Despite failing test scores, he repeatedly indicated to me that he wanted to do better in biology, but his poor behavior kept getting in the way of his studies. After being informed that he was to be expelled, the student’s reply was to say that the school couldn’t make him leave and that he would keep coming to class. Only a threat of police involvement convinced him that the school was in earnest and that he needed to pack his bags and go.

Throughout the day of his suspension I kept wondering if there was another way to rehabilitate rather than punish. If the student had not been expelled and instead studied hard in school for the next four weeks, I truly believe that he may have passed some of his exams. As it is now, I do not think that he will pass any of them. And I was the one to do it.

I do not feel guilty, but I do feel that I need to acknowledge the consequences of my actions. Yes my involvement was only the last straw, but a straw it was. No, I was not the one who made the decision for expulsion, but that was the end result. In a country where a young person is lucky to even have an opportunity at a secondary education, a high-school dropout doesn’t get second chances. There is no GED and a person who cannot afford to pay for additional school or to retake their exams is a person who will not advance far in life. Employment options are orders of magnitude lower for an uneducated Malawian than for someone who has passed their high school exams. I can rationalize my actions in the classroom and the school’s decision as much as I want, but in the end it comes down to a simple statement. A young man no longer has a chance to succeed and I am responsible.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Six-Dollar Cheesecake

The best time to travel in Malawi is 6:00am. This is when fast buses leave the depot and when it is possible to obtain a seat if riding on their slower relatives. Disregarding this repeatedly-experienced fact, Jesse and I began our trip to northern Malawi at 3:00pm on the side of the road in front of MCV on a Saturday.

Our first two rides were excellent; a lucky lift on an actual bus and then a speedy matola. The only hitch was the matola conductor’s reluctance to accept the local fare from two white people. “Who told you this price?” he kept demanding, not seeming to believe that we could actually learn real prices after seven months of living in the area. Our third ride, however, turned into a minor disaster. I had my first doubts upon boarding the minibus and spying the second-hand steel-bars welded in place above our heads which appeared to be holding the van’s walls together. An hour and a half later and only 10 kilometers from our destination, we were broken down on the side of the road in the dark while the driver poured water into the engine only to have it spill immediately out onto the road, all this being done by the light a few cell phones.

I decided it was time for a bathroom break and discretely moved off into the bushes. When I next turned around, the taillights seemed to be a bit farther away than I had remembered and after walking toward them only to have the red lights recede even farther, I realized that I was being abandoned (p.s. Jesse was one of those abandoning). Luckily they hadn’t managed to actually get the minibus working, so I was able to catch up to the human-powered vehicle after an initially panicked jog.

With 15 people waiting in the dark for the next lift, I prepared myself for a very cramped 20 minute ride whenever the next vehicle chose to arrive. However, after about 30 minutes of waiting, we were rescued by a sight in Malawi rarer than a pint of good beer: an empty minibus. It came down the road like a UFO coming in for a landing, almost silent with fluorescent lights glowing sterilization-blue through the spotless windows. The door slid open. ‘Welcome aboard earthlings.’ But no, there was a Malawian in the driver’s seat; we weren’t being abducted. Not only was the minibus completely empty, but it was brand new, the seats still wrapped in plastic had all their cush and the windows hung with neatly folded curtains. I was only sorry that the other minibus hadn’t broken down an hour earlier.

The next day’s bus ride up the lake shore road from Salima to Nkhata Bay was a tour through the textures of agriculture. Being unable to read in the swaying bus, I spent the four-hour ride staring out the window at the changing patterns of the landscape. Cassava, whose digitate leaves trigger thoughts of more valuable crop, sprouts from 2-foot mounds dotting the ground like a mogul field laid horizontal. Further on the dirt ripples where empty corn fields await the next planting, as if just tended by a Zen Buddhist and his rake. The corn fields climb the hills, some stepping up terrace by terrace, other tackling the slope head on, daring the rain to erode away their soil. But as we pass the final stretch into Nkhata Bay, I spy row after row of tall straight trees, their bark peeled off like candy canes. Looking closer, I perceive a thin white groove spiraling around the trunk to collect in an unobtrusive wooden cup near the base of the tree. “Look Jesse,” I say, finally interrupting him from his book, “they’re making rubber!”

was relaxing as a vacation should be, and as a result was unremarkable. We stayed at a rather unique place called Mayoka Village, which took a rather unprofitable bit of property perched on a steep lakeside precipice and by digging flat platforms into the hillside and connecting them by haphazard stairways created a popular hangout where every room (and campsite) has a view. Even the composting toilet, decked out in the epitome of eco-chic, looked out through curtained windows on the lake. The highlights of the three days, included a less-than-stable jaunt in a dugout canoe (Jesse acted at the out-board motor, prostrate on the bottom of the canoe with feet kicking out the back after we realized that there was no way we were going to remain uncapsized with both of us sitting on top) and meeting two American Peace Corps volunteers with whom we had cathartic discussions about our shared teaching experience as well as two Canadian missionary women who were fascinating to talk with and were the personification of hospitality and kindness.

The missionaries gave us a lift back to Mzuzu where they were working and where we would refuel for our next adventure to Nyika National Park. We had been repeatedly warned that Nyika was REMOTE and that attempting to get there without a personal vehicle would be DIFFICULT and that by no means should we try to leave on a Sunday. But, a landscape like no other in Malawi beckoned and we’d had good luck with hitching so far.

This time we arrived at the bus depot at 6:00am. For a nominally higher fare, Axa’s City Trouper buses will carry you on airplane-standard seats directly to your destination. We didn’t realize the change in class when we first boarded the bus and it wasn’t until we sped past the third group of mothers, babies and chitenje bundles gathered on the side of the road that I realized that this bus stopped for no one. As we were to discover later, the best thing about City Trouper is that it will drop people off anywhere, but it won’t stop to take on extra passengers. This effectively halves the travel time when covering long distances. We arrived in Rumphi (the jumping off point for reaching Nyika) at just passed eight in the morning, a time for which we congratulated ourselves and anticipated an early afternoon arrival at the park with premature optimism. You’d think we would have learned by now.

Despite a tailgate which was modestly filled with luggage, we were the first passengers to board a large matola in a row of three trucks sitting under a tree in the depot (picture a very dusty and windy dirt lot, no benches). After waiting about an hour, Jesse decided it would be a good idea to fortify ourselves with a hot meal containing some protein and with this goal in mind, headed over to a garishly painted concrete take-away restaurant common to all Malawian bus depots. The bed of the truck gradually began to fill with people and I became nervous that we would leave without him. But then Jesse came running back. “Your half is in there on the table,” he said, indicating that I should go finish our meal for which he was too cheap to purchase a take-away box (though Jesse is now claiming that it was too dusty to eat outside). I ran to the restaurant, gulped down the stringy dried-out chicken, expecting to hear the truck start up at any moment, and then raced back outside. I needn’t have worried, though, since the truck didn’t actually end up leaving for another hour and a half.

The distance from Rumphi to Nyika was 90km and when the pavement ran out after the first ½ kilometer I realized that it was going to be a long ride. With my sunscreen out of reach under a pile of luggage and bodies, I flipped my shirt over my head, tying the sleeves in a make-shift turban and hunkered down. However, a nap to speed the time was not to be after a large brown hand pushed a luke-warm Fanta under my bowed and shaded head. “Have a Fanta,” offered a man in green camo with a discharged US Army knapsack. He then proceeded to haggle with the woman who owned the Fanta crate on which he was sitting and from which he had just procured my bottle. A price slightly higher than usual was settled on and then he turned back to me and Jesse. “I like to chat with people…” he began our conversation. He did like to talk with people and was very friendly. He also liked to guzzle beer from a canteen he kept at his feet and take occasional swigs from the bottle of cane liquor that made rounds around the bed of the truck.

After the first hour I was pretty sure that Jesse and I were the only sober adults remaining in the truck. I marveled at everyone’s ability to balance on the sides of the truck bed while we lurched over potholes and boulders and wondered how often someone fell out. When I asked our new army friend about the distance he was traveling he replied, “You will get off in another 3 hours, you see, because of the poor condition of the road.” And then about ten minutes later, “I won’t get home for another five hours, you see, because of the poor condition of the road.” After another ten minutes, “Its only 60km to the gate, but that will take us three hours because of the poor condition of the road.” For the rest of the journey he frequently informed us of the remaining distance and time which was, as always, made longer by the “poor condition of the road.” When we were finally dropped at the turnoff to the campground after 4 ½ hours, I was pretty sure of two things. One, that hell is full of drunk people and you’re the only one sober, and two, that I never again wanted hear about the condition of any more roads.

We were dropped at the end of a 16km road which led to the campground we were going to be staying at that night. We were already inside the park, and despite warnings from the guidebook that hiking without an armed guide after dark was strictly prohibited, the park ranger at the entrance gate had not seemed worried that Jesse and I would beginning our 4-hour hike in at 4pm. Luckily for us, after about 3km, a park service vehicle picked us up and thus we avoided a very long hike after a very tiring day.

Having escaped a long hike the previous evening, we set out on a 24km loop the next day, free from cumbersome packs. Nyika is a plateau of rolling hills covered in grass. Due to a recent fire, it was a patchwork of black, yellow, and green and the grass was so short that it was quite easy to spot wildlife from a fair distance. We saw the Roan antelope for which the park is famous, but most fascinating to me were the fields of ferns just sprouting from the ash of the fire.

Hiking in Nyika was everything I had looked forward to and I felt like I had finally found a true piece of wilderness in Malawi. However, one full day of hiking over empty rolling hills was enough and we decided to head out back to Mzuzu the next morning. That morning was, of course, a Sunday. Knowing that we had a potential walk of 16km (or more, since matolas are scare on the lord’s day) if we failed to hitch a ride out, we awoke early and were just heaving on our packs at 7:30am when a member of the only other group staying in the campground traipsed over. “Would you like us to take your packs for you?” she asked in a charming Flemmish accent. Now Jesse and I had been eyeing their rubber-duckie-yellow land cruiser for the past two days, coming up with various schemes by which we could ask for a ride out. But, after learning that they had driven all the way from Belgium and were packed to the roof, we just didn’t feel right entering so far into the realm of Moochdom that they would be obligated to give the poor stranded hikers a lift. So instead we conspicuously packed our bags. However, that they would offer to carry our bags for us hadn’t entered any of the various scenarios we had discussed in the tent the previous night. “Wow that would be fantastic.” I said, “Thanks so much. We’ll get going now so we can get as far down the road as possible.”

Thus began my initiation into the sport of cross-country speed walking. Buoyed by the lack of 35-lb packs and hurried by the threat of their inevitable return, we walked 12km non-stop in the 2 hours it took for their vehicle to catch up to us. At which point the driver stopped the car, got out and announced, “Okay, we’ve I think figured it out…” I sat on Jesse’s lap in the front seat, the two other women crouched in the back seat, and the second man clambered up on the roof where he passed the 90km ride back to Rumphi in the well of the spare tire. Belgians have now tied Canadians on my list of the friendliest people on the planet.

Our final destination was the Viphya Forest Reserve (confusingly referred to as ‘Chikangawa’ by everyone except the guidebook) where we hoped to stay at the Luwawa Forest Lodge (and campsite). We again boarded that miracle of Malawian public transport, the CityTrouper, and arrived at the dirt road leading to Luwawa at just past eight in the morning. Here we sat and waited for a lift. And sat. And sat. Then a truck pulled in and just as we jumped up excitedly, turned off to the side where the workers in the back hopped out and started loading it up with timber. So we sat and waited some more. Patience is not one of my virtues, so at this point I demanded that we start walking just to have something to do. Despite his aching knees, courtesy of a set of bad shoes on our walk the day before, Jesse good-naturedly agreed and off we went.

The road was dusty, six-inches deep dusty, and we went 3km uphill before realizing that the only solid footing to be found was in the ditch. So we walked straddling road, me on one side and Jesse on the other, calling back and forth to each other from our respective channels. After a while we even stopped looking back in hopes of a ride. Supposedly Luwawa was 10km down the road, but I was really hoping our three-day distance total wouldn’t actually reach 46km. Then the road split and in true Malawi style, there was no sign. There were, however, friendly chitenje-clad mothers and grandmothers doing their laundry at the bore-hole pump who yelled, “No, no, go that way,” when we started off down the wrong road. “Near or far?” Jesse asked, “Near.” They assured us, but I didn’t catch the last part of the Chichewa and now suspect if went something along the lines of “Near, for us Malawian women who are used to walking everywhere, you white kids don’t stand a chance.”

Up the hill, down the hill, past a village of huts made of (gasp) actual wood planks hewn from the surrounding pine forest, the road got narrower and narrower, at one point even becoming blocked by a stack of pine 2-by-6’s that had tumbled into what could now only be classified as a path. “This can’t actually be the road,” I said, but everyone we met kept urging us “Uko!” (“That way!”). Finally we entered a village where a man on a bicycle with a monogrammed polo identifying him as a lodge employee, gave us detailed directions for the final stretch.

Upon reaching Luwawa Lodge, we soon realized that we had entered via the local route, while the road curved around to the true entrance. Dropping our packs in what appeared to be the campground, which was already occupied by a weatherworn overlander (the ubiquitous cross between a bus and monster truck by which many visitors tour Africa) full of highschoolers, we made our way to the office. We were greeted by a very laid-back ex-Brit: “Um, yeah… so you can put your tent up anywhere… we’ve got hiking and boats and rockclimbing… and… a sauna, just give us a yell if you want to use it...” It appeared that extended use of psychoactive substances may have affected his communication speed, as his eyes wandered around everywhere but where we were standing as he drawled this speech. But, he was friendly and we were excited to arrive in a place that offered so many appealing activities in relaxing wonderful outdoor environment.

First up after our three days of hiking was a sauna. Never thought I’d be so excited about a 150ºF wooden room in Malawi, but there was a cold shower outside and we spent 2 hours going back and forth between the two. The next day, still recuperating from our travels, we opted for the easy hike and spent the rest of the day lazing around. That evening, after cooking our standard camping meal of veggie curry, I felt like a bit of a treat and so enquired at the lodge’s restaurant about the possibility of dessert and how much such a dessert might cost.

“Six dollars!” I exclaimed upon returning to Jesse who was sitting in front of the fireplace in the lodge, “For cheesecake! That’s, like, 900 kwatcha. We could eat for three days on that if we didn’t buy any chickens.” Sadly my plans for the next evening of splurging on a beer rather than cheesecake were foiled when I discovered in the guestbook that our lovely sauna had cost us $5 to ‘cover the cost of wood.’ “That’s bullcrap,” Jesse again put up with my raving, “that wood would cost 40 kwatcha in Mangochi (which is pretty much deforested) and here we are surrounded by a freakin’ pine forest.”

Unfortunately, travel in Malawi just wasn’t set up for two Americans subsisting on a budget the size of a Malawian teacher’s salary. By the end of our trip we had to return home a day early because we literally did not have enough money to pay for another night of camping (p.s. that’s like, $5). However, unlike our fellow teachers, we weren’t supporting all of our extended family and thus were able afford the money for buses to transport us to see other parts of this beautiful country. Talking with other teachers about our trip, few of whom have even seen their own national parks and can rarely afford to travel home to see close family, I was humbled, and even more thankful that I have had the opportunity to travel and experience such amazing places.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Test Your Knowledge

It’s exam time again and I have finally finished grading all of my tests. This time around the form fours took “mock” MSCE examinations in order to prepare themselves for their national tests coming up in October. For biology (the form four subject I teach) this involves one paper testing general biology theory and a second paper testing practical skills such as following lab directions, measuring, sketching, calculating magnification, and constructing dichotomous keys.

Setting up and administering the practical exam was one of the most frustrating things I have done so far in Malawi. I wrote the exam a month ago and at that point consulted with the head of the life sciences department and the principal about procuring the supplies I would need. The list was modest, consisting of a bag of potatoes, salt, 20 razor blades, and 50 small plastic containers. The principal and life sciences head assured me that there would be no problem getting the supplies, after deciding to ask students to bring in used plastic water bottles which we could cut to make containers. I had my doubts about the administration’s ability to collect 50 bottles in a month, but decided to trust to their judgment and organizational abilities. So that’s why I found myself the evening before the test scrubbing the lab’s entire collection of plastic and glassware (amounting to a grand total of 19) which, supplemented by plastic cups from my hut, allowed me to set up 8 stations for the 76 students to take their test the next day.

After finishing the glassware, I returned to my desk to collect my things and head home only to discover a neat stack of the next morning’s exams awaiting collation and stapling. Armed with a finicky stapler machine which required a seemingly random and perfectly placed amount of pressure to produce a staple through three sheets of paper, I experienced the joy of ‘pinning’ biology tests with a stomach that grumbled that it was definitely time to go home.

Pinned exams in hand, I returned to the lab for one last check that everything was in order. With the light flipped on, I realized a key detail that had somehow escaped my notice in all of my earlier preparations. The walls of the lab were covered in beautifully detailed posters explaining such pertinent topics as the digestive system, circulatory system, and excretory system. Those extra hours I spent with my markers and colored pencils had just come back to bite me in a sensitive place, but it was my stomach that protested the loudest. To my ire, upon closer inspection, I noticed that students had penned in their own sideways and less than academically motivated notes across my own officially markered explanations. I ran back to the hut to get some blank poster papers to cover the offending diagrams, all the while devising threats to any who would dare take their pens to the virgin sheets.

Although the task of preparing for the exams was onerous and the actual grading to the exams even more so, I do look forward to the random bits of biological knowledge that I learn from my students whenever they get a chance to put pens to paper. This last exam period was no exception. I learned several interesting facts about reproduction, such as that the testes are both the place where ovaries are produced as well as where fertilization takes place. I also learned that diarrhea is caused through sex-intercourse.

My general understanding of the classification of life was also expanded after reading these answers:

“…bacteria is a virus that cause disease in humans.”

“Algae are flowering plants that decompose.”

"The bacteria can develop legs to enable it to move fast when it realise that the antibiotic coming will definitely kill it."

And my favorite-

Q: What type of plant is plant specimen A?
A: animal cell

But, I am always impressed by my students’ ability to get their point across, creating new words if necessary, when a certain vocabulary term escapes their memory:

“…it cause some species unend or disappear on the world. Population had caused the species of some animals and plants to become unexistence either by killing them or cutting them.”

In case the reader would like to try their wordmaking skills against those of my students I have selected a few questions from both of my exams. Being a mathematician, I of course had to keep track of how many students answered each of these questions correctly, which is why there is a number in parenthesis next to each questions. In case anyone is interested in the math curriculum, I have also posted a few questions from my math test. Next week Jesse and I head up north for a bit of exploring for a two week vacation before it is time to hunker down during third term for some serious review time. Based on those numbers in the parenthesis, my students really need it.

Samples from Form Four Biology Test:

1. The following is a chemical equation for a reaction:
6CO2 + 6H2O -----> C6H12O6 + 6O2

a. What biological process involves this reaction? (80%)
b. In what type of living organism does this reaction occur? (75%)
c. Give two uses for product C. (49%)
d. Why is the conversion of product A into product D important for an ecosystem? (28%)
e. Other than the molecules in the equation, name two things necessary for the reaction to occur. (52%)

2. Briefly explain the role of each of the following in the process of reproduction:

a. meiosis (11%)
b. follicle stimulating hormone (15%)
c. testes (78%)
d. placenta (54%)

3. Describe how vaccination causes immunity to a particular disease. (6%)

4. What is the role of each of the following in digestion?

a. saliva (74%)
b. peristalsis (43%)
c. stomach (62%)
d. villi (37%)

These are three essay questions which the students were required to answer:

5. Describe two ways that rapid population growth can affect an ecosystem.

6. Use the theory of natural selection to explain how the use of antibiotics can cause the evolution of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria.

7. Describe how insulin and glucagons act as chemical messengers to regulate the amount of glucose in the blood. Make sure to specify the endocrine glands and organs involved.

Samples from Form Three Math Test:

1. Simplify (2 1/2 x 2 1/4) – 5

10 (4%)

2. Make y the subject of the formula. H = P + 3x

2y (4%)

3. Given that logx1/3 + logx12 = 2. Find the value of x. (17%)

4. Find the equation that has solutions x = 5 and x = -3. (16%)

5. Solve the equation 5(x+2)2 = 20. (6%)

6. A girl 1.5m tall measures the angle of elevation to the top of a tree as 60° from the horizontal. If the tree is 6.5m tall, how far from the tree is the girl standing? (4%)

7. A circle has a chord of length 8cm that is a distance of 2cm from the centre of the circle. What is the radius of the circle? Leave your answer in simplified surd form. (11%)

8. Find the image of the set {1, 2} under the function f: x------->log2 x. (3%)

9. The sine of an angle is 4/5 . What is the cosine of the same angle? (13%)

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Not That Far From Home

Sometimes riding down the road on the back of the bicycle, passing thatch roofs and naked children, I feel like I am on another planet, rather than only half-way around the world from my home. A twenty-dollar phone call to Delta to change my airplane flight only cements the feeling of isolation from my previous life. But when news of Sarah Palin’s resignation reaches me via an email from my mother only 12 hours after its announcement in Alaska, I am reminded that I’m not really that far from home. Certain news items do filter their way, with surprising speed, down to us Malawians living in our mud huts.

Before the event drifts too far into the misty and forgotten past, I must comment on the effect of the death of one pop culture icon on our rural secondary school here in Malawi. I wonder if the students here even knew that he wasn’t even really black any more. That didn’t seem to matter. My first inkling that something as amiss was a cut-out photo and painstakingly hand-written obituary posted on the notice board by a student. Held back by the crowd of students craning to read the newest announcement, I didn’t notice the subject of the obituary and thereafter forgot about the post until the next week during Assembly.

Every Monday morning we have an assembly in which student groups perform songs and plays and the week’s announcements and admonishments are read by the teacher on duty. Running late from and extra-long staff meeting prior to the assembly, there was only time for one student performance before getting on with business. That one performance though, was priceless. The Chronicles, a group consisting of three young men from form four, are known for their self-composed gospel/rap songs in English which, though full of catchy harmonies, are often performed without sufficient rehearsal, leaving the audience laughing and cheering. The administration isn’t too fond of the group since it is composed of three of the school’s trouble-makers, but I’m actually rather impressed with them and hope to get a couple recordings before I leave. On this particular Monday morning assembly, the group’s leader, Evison addressed the school saying that this was to be their final performance before the graduation ceremony to be held on September 19th and that the group’s fans would have to wait until then. At which point the deputy principal leaned over and informed Evison that The Chronicles would not be performing at graduation, an announcement which cause a good three minutes of uproar. When the student body was finally settled The Chronicles began their last performance, a tribute to Michael Jackson.

I’ll have to try to get Evison to give me a copy of the lyrics they sang that day, but I have to say it was probably the most heart-felt song that was sung for the infamous pop artist in all of Malawi. Of all the group’s previous assembly performances it was by far the most well-received with the student body cheering through the whole thing.

The Chronicles were not the only students to acknowledge Michael Jackson’s death. Upon walking into my first class that morning I spied one young man in the back row wearing one white glove and I’m sure it wasn’t just because the weather had turned cold, though I guess it is possible that he only had one glove. Later that day Evison came up to me during biology class with a question about America. He’s always asking random cultural questions and like most students has dreams of going to the US one day. He even asked me to find him a pen-pal. Anyone want to exchange letters with a 20-year-old Malawian song-writer who like rap? Anyways, on this particular day he wanted to ask me about funerals. He had watched Michael Jackson’s funeral on television the night before and was shocked to see that his brothers carried the coffin. “Is that really true?” He asked me, “do relatives really carry the coffin in funerals in America?” I told him that, yes that was our tradition. He was very incredulous and informed me that the tradition in Malawi is to hire outsiders to carry the coffin so that family members are able to grieve properly.

I’m always surprised by the ways that I gain insights into the culture here. I learned about marriage customs from conversations in the staff room, witchcraft from the newspaper, and now funerals from the death of Michael Jackson. I look forward to the next random source cultural revelation and I rest assured that if anything else important happens in the world, my students will keep me informed.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Easy Fixes

Our toilet has the small problem that when the flow of water is low, the reservoir doesn’t fill with water. Unfortunately this small problem becomes quite large and odorous when one considers the fact that the flow from the water tower is always just above a trickle and frequently intermittent. Last week, after tiring of the stench emanating from our bathroom, I decided to fix the toilet. Solution: it was easy. I bought a bucket. Now we have a flush toilet again.

Malawi is full of easy solutions. Got a flat bicycle tire? Don’t buy a new tube, just get some sticky glue stored in an old penicillin bottle, apply it to the affected area, and slap on a cut up piece of an old tire tube. Repeat thirty times as necessary. Then, when you are ready to fill your newly-fixed tube with air, don’t bother finding a bicycle pump that actually fits the valve on your tube; simply find a scrap of plastic bag (called 'plastic paper') and wrap it around the valve until you have a nice tight fit. Works every time.

Each Sunday I am greeted by a colorful collage decorating the bushes around the girls’ hostel. Lacking a clothesline, the girls drape their clothes over the neatly trimmed hedges when it comes time to dry their laundry. Walking down to the beach, the sight is the same as women bedeck the sand with skirts, shirts, and chitenjes. No need to spend money on a piece of string to hang clothes, when the sand is hot and brushes off when dried.

The school has recently been having a shortage of blackboard erasers (called ‘dusters’). Each class tends to go through an entire duster in about 2 weeks and with 8 classes and a limited budget, the expense was just getting too high. At one point three classrooms were sharing the same duster so that each time I filled the board I would have to send a student out to go search for a way to erase it. The school’s simple solution was to contract the tailoring shop to sew new duster pads stuffed with scraps of cloth. These lasted about three weeks before they started bursting open under the strain, spilling their innards onto the floor. I now erase the board with a duster bearing close resemblance to a spider puppet with too many legs.

Innovative fixes are so common here that Gracious Secondary school found it necessary to include in its school rules “Do not make dangerous electrical connections.” alongside the old standbys of “Show respect to teachers.” and “Do not bring cell phones to school.” Since our hut is not technically on school property, Jesse has decided to follow a more Malawian approach to our broken electrical appliances. He fixed the plug on our electric water boiler by installing a new fuse (after first electrifying the ground circuit of the entire house so that anyone who touched the refrigerator received a rather large shock) and when I accidentally cut through the computer power cable by smushing it with the sharpened leg of my chair, he cut the cord, stripped the two ends and wrapped the wires back together. Of course, we don’t have any electrical tape so any movement of the computer cord now runs the risk of shorting out the power converter. But don’t worry, we’re not trying to burn down the hut.

While many cultures spend their creative power in intricate weavings or beautiful pottery, Malawians have put theirs to use to treat problems for which they simply don’t have the money to solve the original cause. Coming from a culture that prefers to throw away broken problems and start anew, living here has done more for my appreciation of the value of reuse than any well-intentioned “save the planet” speech. I save all of our plastic bags so that I have trash bags and grocery bags. I save all of our paper scraps so that we have fire starting material. I hold onto cardboard, plastic containers, and even bits of string in case I can find a use for them in any of my classes. It’s been fun to try to come up with creative ways to use supplies I might have otherwise thrown away. I’ll have to add the skill to the quietly growing list of things I’ve learned from living in Malawi.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Little Treasures in Donationland

One topic remains in the form four biology syllabus before I begin the process of revision and preparation for terminal exams in October. The topic is Ecosystems and as an aspiring ecologist one would think that I would be excited to teach my favorite part of biology. However, as I look at the neat list of bulleted points to cover I feel a rising sense of panic. Energy flow, nutrient cycles, disturbances and succession; these things I know well and are applicable to any ecosystem. Experimental design and ecosystem sampling methods; these are a little trickier when students are not used to investigative thinking, but I should be able to have some quadrat frames made over at the woodshop and the students will enjoy going outside. But when the syllabus instructs me to ‘describe the diversity and adaptations of plant and animal communities in the tropical woodland savanna’ then I get out my three textbooks and go searching. Nope, nothing in there. So now I ask myself, how do I teach students about an ecosystem which I know nothing about when they have lived in it their whole lives?

The strategy so far has been to teach the general concepts and then take the class outside and ask students for names and examples. When we were measuring the diversity of the plant community in the field behind the school, students were able to name all of the plants on the ground (including the different types of grasses) sometimes with two names, one in Chichewa and one in Chiyawo. The botanical know-how resulting from a childhood spent outdoors is quite impressive.

This week I did manage to find some information about the fresh water ecosystem in Lake Malawi. Microscopic phytoplankton (algae and diatoms that make up the base of the aquatic food chain) are surprisingly difficult to describe without pictures, so after leaving my class slightly puzzled and wondering about the sanity of their biology teacher (who had just claimed there were little miniature plants floating in the water), I headed over to the MCV library to look for some supplementary learning materials of the more visual variety.

The ‘library’ consists of three rooms. Each room is situated about two feet below the previous room and slightly off-center, giving the impression that they were glued together by a four-year-old. The first room is a quiet study area with several desks and a stack of newspapers available for reading. The librarian sit behind a small table with two notebooks in which she records who takes out which books. Unfortunately there is no register for which books are currently in the inventory. To find the books, one must descend into the other two rooms.

The fiction section is a dim cave crowded with simple wooden bookcases whose sturdying upper cross-beams give the feeling of 6-foot ceiling rather than its actual height of 10 feet. One can squat in the aisle (through which an average American would need to turn sideways), to scan the titles and discover a surprising range that is appealing to many literary tastes. On one occasion I came away with a pile of reading material containing, Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte.

To find books of a slightly more factual variety, one must go down into the third chamber. Measuring 6-foot by 10-foot, the room feels a bit… squashed. One bookcase is devoted to old middle-school math textbooks and on the other shelves I have found a mixture of mostly old textbooks and other hardbacks that are vaguely grouped into categories ranging from biology to history. Several oversized picture encyclopedias lie in a pile on the upper shelves, and around one dark corner I found a tome on the history of mathematical thought. Gems like Eyewitness’ metallic-covered Electricity are mixed in with locally-irrelevant period pieces like Let’s Travel in Japan (from 1960) which are interesting for their comedic value, but pretty much useless to anyone here.

Considering that the library is stocked primarily through donation, I have been continuously impressed by the resources and entertainment available in it. However, one must go in ready to search and should not be frustrated by the lack of alphabetization or subject categorization that usually eases the way in such endeavors. As most things in Malawi, a trip to the MCV library is a bit of an adventure and takes a little extra time, but you never know what treasures you will find.

It was while searching for a picture of phytoplankton (remember my incredulous biology students?) that I found the greatest treasure yet. Shoved into a dark and spider-webbed corner I came across stacks of musty old National Geographics. Those iconic yellow borders cued my brain’s ‘superior-photography-here’ circuit and I automatically reached my arm back into an area I would usually reserve for the end of my broom and started flipping through pages. I kid you not, but the third magazine I picked up had five full-page photographs of diatoms as seen through a microscope. Mission accomplished in less than 5 minutes. Realizing the educational potential of these neglected annals, I vowed to come back the next weekend to count the treasure.

So, last weekend I spent two hours hauling the magazines out into the fresh air, dusting off mouse turds while trying not to think of Hanta virus, taping and matching covers to the coverless, and chronologically ordering them to encourage further utilization and organization of this unique resource. When three shelves were full of neatly labeled tattered yellow spines, I had tallied about 150 magazines ranging in date from 1943 to 2005. Granted, some topics are more useful than others, and while I find the June 1956 issue on Alaska to be fascinating from a cultural standpoint, students here probably wouldn’t see the appeal. But then they might find the 1972 article about the Barabaig of Tanzania to be similarly entertaining.

As a Land of the Poor (monetarily, that is), Malawi is also a Land of Donations. Case in point is the wonderful library just described. And whether it be ancient National Geographics, or the faded Frisbee golf disc that I found several village boys tossing around last week, these donations can yield a trove of little treasures. Unexpected finds appear every week; Jesse and I are currently enjoying season 5 of the television show House copied from another teacher’s “flash” (as they call USB drives here). And while some American cultural phenomena are sure to cross international borders (Rambo V for instance), I definitely did not expect to find a sarcastic medical drama with incomprehensibly fast dialogue.

The misplaced artifacts are not all of a material nature either. While calculating the height of a tall dark tower using trigonometry, I was surprised to learn that my students already knew all about Rupunzel and her golden hair. Every time I find such an out of place snippet of American culture, I can help but think, “How on earth did that get here?” I like to imagine its journey. Who told these students that story? Whose suitcase did the Frisbee golf disc travel in? Through whose hands has it been bought, sold, and traded? Then I look six months in the future and wonder what little treasures I will end up leaving behind.