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.