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Catching up with friends

Roderick Thorne, the former head of Sanday school on Orkney, is welcomed back to Minga, in rural Malawi

two years ago, five pupils from Sanday Community School in Orkney won the Africa Challenge competition, sponsored by the Scottish Executive. They had written letters to imaginary pen pals in Malawi and part of their prize was a trip to that country.

Their destination was a school in Minga, seven miles from the capital, Lilongwe. Since then, the schools have remained in touch.

After my retirement from the headship at Sanday, my wife Sylvia, an art teacher at the school, and I returned to the village last year - and this Easter we went back, prior to a visit by Sanday's new head, Daniel Connor.

Francis, the taxi driver, picked us up from our hotel in Lilongwe and we drove south on the Dedza road, passing cars, bikes and hundreds of people, nearly all carrying something to sell at the market. Less than half an hour later, we started down a rough track, impassable from rain just a fortnight before.

We soon recognised the football pitch, the village and then we were at the school. More than 100 boys and girls, all looking smart in their black and white uniforms, were waiting, many of them singing.

John Phiri, the headteacher, made informal introductions to his staff outside, then took us into his office to do so again formally.

We went back outside for assembly and the national anthem: no music, just pure unaccompanied voices. Quite a few announcements followed. The public exams would begin in two days' time. A photographer was due to come for candidate identification purposes. This was a return visit: would the pupils concerned please make sure their eyes were open this time - not as easy as it sounds, in the glare of the Malawian sun.

When lessons started, Sylvia was assigned to Standard 4, a class of 30 or so pupils aged 15 to 18. The lesson was on life drawing, concentrating on scale, so there was a fair bit of holding pencils at arm's length and gauging proportions by drawing a faint triangle to incorporate the top of the head, the back and knees. A few students were seated at desks, but most just sat on the floor. Sylvia had brought them pencils and paper.

After an hour, classes changed and she took the same lesson with the Standard 3 pupils, who numbered 40. The drop-out rate increases with age, as state education is only free for primary children.

During the break, we were invited to the staffroom for a cup of tea. There was general astonishment that neither of us took sugar: several teaspoons is the norm there.

The National Cricket Academy of Scotland had given me a couple of sets of Kwik Cricket - a plastic version of the equipment used to introduce the game to children in the UK - and I walked with 10 boys and girls to the nearby primary school, which had a rough and ready playing field, to show them the elements of the sport.

Before I'd finished pacing out 22 yards, we'd been joined by 100 or more youngsters, who had either abandoned lessons or come back after the school day was over. I made a couple of attempts to signal them back, but there was no need to worry. Just about every ball hit was caught easily by the nearest onlooker, some only 5 years old. Any one of them would have been welcomed at Sanday cricket practices and most would have ousted the more senior team members. We had great fun, and left a cricket set at the school.

After our pupils visited two years ago, in the company of then First Minister Jack McConnell, the Scottish Executive promised money to build a library and laboratory and pay for the installation of mains electricity.

We were shown around both buildings, still roofless. Close by, the water pump that wasn't working last year had been fixed. The project is expected to be ready for the new school year.

And what of the five Minga students who visited Sanday? Our community has responded enthusiastically to fund-raising appeals to cover their living expenses during tertiary education, while their tuition fees will be paid through the British Council by a non-governmental organisation. Esinta and Angellah have enrolled at Blantyre Business College, studying human resource management; Tionge has started a business management course in Lilongwe; and Chisomo plans to retake her Standard 4 exams; but Florida has yet to decide on a course.

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