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Blog: Our Malawi Debut!


Oct 2010

Our Malawi Debut!

Posted by / in The Book Bus /

Week 2. Chipata, Zambia to Lilongwe, Malawi then onto Mangochi and Blantyre.

Part A

So Saturday morning saw the Bookbus truck and crew ready to negotiate the international border between Zambia and Malawi. Everything went without a hitch and we were soon in Malawi! Changing money from Zambian Kwacha to Malawian Kwacha was offered to us by nearly every single person we saw! The Malawian money is in much smaller denominations than the Zambian, with $1 being worth 175 instead of 5000!! However the biggest note is only worth approx $3 so changing a few hundred dollars makes it look like you have robbed a bank, with all those bundles of notes that you get given!

So after financial transactions, we were on our way, direction Lilongwe for a quick overnight stop before heading for the lake. One small hitch….the police! Barely 5 minutes into Malawi and we were stopped! “Steve” the policeman seemed very grumpy at first and wanted to give us fines for not having the correct insurance, which we absolutely did and a hundred other little things. After a bit of “chatting”, (I told him he was the first Malawian I had spoken to and that he wanted to rid me of my money the minute I entered the country, and that wasn’t making me feel welcome, but unfortunately I couldn’t give him my phone number as I had just arrived and hadn’t yet got one (small fib there!!)) his frostiness soon melted and we got away with a small fine for our reverse light not being bright enough!!

After a quick overnight in Lilongwe, where we picked up 2 more volunteers, we set off, direction of the lake, to Mangochi where the bus would be based for a week of school visits and the famous Lake of Stars festival. The landscape here is much hillier than that of Zambia, the winding roads with hairpin bends that took us up and down the valleys, were great and the views spectacular. In Zambia you can often drive hours without seeing many signs of life but here human habitation is evident everywhere. Also noticeable is the lack of trees due to massive deforestation. En route we stopped at Dezda and visited a local pottery, where many souvenirs were bought. The road out of Dezda is interesting for the fact that the houses on the left of the road are in Malawi and the houses on the right of the road are in Mozambique!

When we reached our new home at Nkopola campsite, we were again impressed by the location, right on the shore of the lake and very peaceful! We pitched our tents, had a quick drink on the beach, gazed at the water, which was very much like the ocean and wished we could swim without the risk of a nasty snail borne disease and then went to prepare for our first Malawian school visit.

Mtonda Primary School was the first school in Malawi that the Bookbus rolled into. There are 1600 children with only 12 teachers! An average class size is 120! There are not enough classrooms so many lessons take place outside under trees. Malawi Primary Schools cater for standars 1 to 8. We worked with 7 & 8 and the lessons were well received and the project was given the thumbs up by all! The children clearly weren’t used to small group work but soon came out of their shells when faced with exciting activities! I spent a long time talking to teachers to try and find out the basics of the Malawi Education system for the purpose of this project and also to prepare and contrast it with Zambia.

Some of the things that I learnt are;

Children are called LEARNERS and not pupils or students.

Classes are called STANDARDS and not grades or year

Primary Education is free for all and no uniform, books, shoes or bags are required. Learners start school with 6 years.
Primary Education is from standards 1 to 8
1-2 is Infant
3-5 is Junior
6-8 is Senior

One of the biggest differences from Zambia is that here the children are taught up to standard 5 solely in Chichewa, the local language, except for their English lesson. In Zambia they start being taught in English from grade 2. From standard 5 they learn 9 subjects, which are: Maths, English, Chichewa, Science, Social & Environmental Studies, Life Skills, Agriculture, R.E and Expressive Arts.

Exams take place at the end of Standard 8 and those that pass can continue to Secondary education but for this fees are payable. Secondary education is for 4 years from Form 1 to 4 with exams at the end of Form 2 and 4. The school year begins in September and is made up of 3 terms of 3 months with a month of holidays in December, April and August.

But the biggest shock is the class sizes and the lack of teachers and classrooms. It is not uncommon for a teacher here (who earns less than $100 a month, with no housing provided or allowances given) to have a class of over 150 pupils that is taught under a tree. When it rains there is no class! The classrooms that exist often have over a hundred learners inside, many sitting on the floor and when the outside temperature is 40degrees and there is just a metal roof covering the room, you can only imagine the heat inside. Despite all this the pupils are smiling, engaged and willing to learn.

Tuesday took us to Makawa school, our biggest ever, with 2290 learners and 36 teachers! We were warmly welcomed but faced with MASSIVE standards. We took standard 7 which has 183 children between 3 teachers, but divided into 2 and then standard 8 which was smaller as the children are streamed after 7 at this school and only those which have a good chance of passing the exams are allowed in standard 8, this is to improve the schools results! One shocking thing that I noticed was when we were taken into Standard 8 class there were about 90 learners, there were some desks but only enough for about half the children. Only boys were sitting at the desks and all the girls were sat on the floor!!

Both of these schools we were the star attraction for all the childeren, teachers and passers by. The old faithful songs came out to entertain the masses of small eager learners and Gerald the Giraffe, in large format, made his Malawian debut!!

Continued in next blog.

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