Saturday, January 17, 2009

Teaching, Swimming, Eating

It seems like ages since I last wrote, when it had only been last than a week. I guess a week of teaching fills the time so that it seems like many days work is squeezed into only a few.

I teach four classes: two classes of 4th year biology and two classes of 3rd year mathematics. This week, however, both of my math classes were combined into one so that I had 43 students all together. At first, this doesn’t seem so bad. In many public schools in Malawi, a classroom can have upwards of fifty students. During lecture, having 43 students is fine. They listen, mostly quiet, and follow along as I demonstrate problems on the chalkboard and ask a few questions when they don’t understand. However, as soon as I ask them to solve a few problems in their notebooks, it is as if I have a room full of hungry infants. I have a few minutes quiet and then the room erupts in a cacophony of “Madam!” “Madam!” “Madam!” Everyone wants me to come look at their work and give them a big red check of approval. On Monday I told the class to hold on to their notebooks and that I would collect all of their problems at the end of week. This proposition was met by a chorus of “no”s and worried faces. “What is wrong with this?” I asked. One of the more vocal students stood (students generally stand when asking a question in class) and said “our parents’ want to see our work when we go home.” Well, that is a valid response, I thought to myself and so I asked “how should we solve this problem?” The consensus was that I should collect their notebooks everyday. Well, at first I thought it would work, but after spending an hour and a half grading, I decided that we need to find another solution.

Resources for teaching here are very basic. I have three different textbooks that I can consult for my biology class and three textbooks for my math class. I have a notebook, a pen, chalk, and my own brain. That’s basically it. The student’s do not have textbooks so I must write my class note legibly and completely and post them in the classroom so that the student’s can copy them down. I must tear out paper from my notebook so that students have paper no which to answer test questions that I write on the board. The science lab, which is shared by all students, is an empty room with a few tables and chairs. There are no microscopes, no meter sticks, no measuring tape, and no graph paper. There are large piece of paper, which I can use to draw diagrams for the students to copy and I hope to make use of these in the future.

However, despite the deficiency in supplies, I have never been in an institute of learning where students have such dedication to succeeding. On Wednesday afternoon during “prep”, an hour of the day which most closely resembles “study hall”, I told my math class that I would be in the science lab if anyone had questions. I had a steady stream of students from both my math class and my biology classes crowding around asking for me to explain how to solve a certain quadratic equation, or add two fractions, or how the nephrons in the kidney work. In the U.S. students who do not understand the first time often do not seek out the help of the teacher; in my experience, failing students often have to be forced to attend after school tutoring. Students in my classes know that they are having a hard time, either because they do not understand me when I speak in class or because they have always had trouble with math, but rather than give up, they ask me to slow down and help them after class.

MCV is only a few hundred meters from the shores of beautiful Lake Malawi. But, despite its proximity Jesse and I had not swum in its waters for fear of infection by the parasite Bilharzia (though it can easily be cured in infected persons). Several people had assured us that there were several nice resorts where we could swim without fear of Bilharzia or crocodiles which weren’t too far away. After a particularly warm day of teaching on Wednesday, we set off down the road in the company of a fellow teacher by the name of Andrea to go to the closest resort. Mulangena resort was about 1.5 km away and this was where we headed. Andrea told us that the resort was very popular many years ago, and when we reached it, we could see what she meant. The place was so empty that I thought it was closed. No one was posted at the entrance gate and no cars were parked in the car park. Paint was pealed, the cement sidewalks crumbling, and every tent and guesthouse looked abandoned, but when we reached the beach front we found the bar and restaurant staffed by two employees (but no customers). Despite the eerie abandoned feel of the place we had a very nice afternoon holiday including a swim in warm waters of Lake Malawi and a delicious dinner (with meat!) that must have been cooked fresh since it took an hour to prepare. To perfect the evening, on the walk home we passed a man on a bicycle selling mangos. We bought six of the most delicious mangos I have ever tasted for 15 kwatcha each (A math problem for you students: If $1 = 150 kwatcha, how much did the six mangos cost? Bonus: If my food budget in Malawi is $8 per day, how many mangos can I eat in one day?)

Speaking of food, my diet this week has been much simpler this first week in Malawi than it has probably ever been in my life. A complete list of my food would be: beans, rice, mangos, bread, jam, eggs, nsima (think corn mush), tomatos, chicken, pumpkin leaves, potato fries, a snickers bar, Fanta soda, and a beer. If you listed all the different food you eat in a week how long would your list be? It amazes me to think that most people hear eat nsima for all three meals every day of the week. I’m just happy we have mangos. For one, they taste good, and for two, they make Jesse make funny faces while he is eating them (he is sitting across from me eating a mango as I write this).

We have managed to find a place where we will be able to have internet access perhaps once a week. So, look for new updates each weekend. If you would like to send me a letter through the regular mail my address is:

Jes Coyle
Malawi Children’s Village
Private bag 21
Mangochi, Malawi

Until next time,


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Welcome to Malawi!

Hello from Malawi! Jesse and I have finally arrived at the Malawi Children’s Village and are beginning to settle in. The travel from Portland was very long: 4 hours to Atlanta, then 8 hours to Dakar, and another 8 hours to Johannesburg where we got to spend the night at a fancy little hostel complete with animal print fabrics and a swimming pool. The next morning we boarded yet another flight to Lilongwe (3 hours this time) where we were met by two folks from MCV who drove us the 6 hours back to MCV. Whew! I am so glad that we won’t be traveling again for quite some time.

Our first day here (yesterday) we awoke early (5:00 am) and after a scrounged breakfast of fried potatoes, we stepped outside of our house to be immediately greeted by Jim, a caretaker here, and given a tour of the campus. The facilities they have built here are amazing. I am so impressed by all of the land they use to grow food for the people that MCV supports. The school is very new and professional looking and I am looking forward to begin teaching there tomorrow. I have been assigned year 3 mathematics and year 4 biology.

Arriving during the rainy season has allowed us to see Malawi at its most beautiful. Everything is lush and green here and I fell like I have arrived in a tropical paradise. The heat, however, will take some getting used to. Yesterday I lay on the cement floor of our house trying to soak up its coolness. It must have looked ridiculous, but luckily no one but Jesse was there to observe.

Our house is wonderful. It has one room with a curtain dividing the bedroom area from the kitchen area. There is even a bathroom with running water, sink, shower, and flushing toilet! There is electricity, which we hope to not need to use too much. The money we raised for a new building has gone to renovate an existing building so that female students have a place to stay. The students had previously been sharing the guest house where we now live, but conditions were too crowded for this to be a permanent solution. This then allows them to use the guest house for us and future volunteers. I am glad that they were able to use the money for a construction project that they needed.

I am amazed by how much life surrounds me here. It’s not just the number of people, although it is strange to be surrounded by so many going about their work to keep MCV running. It’s the number of different birds that I see and hear and the many species of plants growing everywhere. It’s the ground covered by ants and other insects when I look down and the constant clucking of chickens in the coop next to our house. I have found that the chickens serve as a good dawn wake-up call as do the critters roosting in our thatch roof that make a huge racket as the sun comes up. The first morning this happened I sat straight up in bed, thinking it was a burglar coming through the window.

Life here is interesting and new. I look forward to writing more in future posts when I can. The internet is not available at MCV as we thought it would be since they can no longer afford to pay for it. So, it may be quite a while before I can post another update. Until then,