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Giving friends a sporting chance

Roderick Thorne, the former head of Sanday junior high, took an Easter break in Malawi to visit the Orkney school's twin at Minga and strengthen ties

A year ago five pupils and two teachers from Sanday Community School in Orkney won the Scottish Executive's Africa Challenge competition and headed for a whistle-stop tour of Malawi which coincided with Jack McConnell's widely reported trip.

The week-long visit took in Minga School, where they met five pupils chosen to accompany them on their trip, which included a visit to a sugar refinery, a stay at Blantyre's plushest hotel, safaris at the Liwonde national park and a final night in a luxurious lakeside hotel.

Four months later, the five Malawian pupils and a teacher made a reciprocal trip to Sanday, where they attended lessons, visited the light railway, swam indoors and explored the beaches.

Since then, further letters have been exchanged, more money has been raised and the Sanday community is keen to strengthen the links. That is how we came to be visiting Malawi again.

"Open that, please," said the customs lady at Lilongwe airport.

We unzipped the bulging bag.

"What is this?"

"It's a set of netball shirts, trousers and bibs for a school team. These outfits are a gift from our school to the pupils at Minga."

"Are they new?"

"Well, perhaps not brand new, but fairly new."

She let us through.

We were driven 15km along a pretty good road before turning off and into the countryside. It was all very green; the rainy season was continuing and there was optimism about the maize harvest. On one side of the track was a small herd of cattle, marshalled by a couple of children and a cattle egret; on the other was a much commoner straggling flock of goats.

There were cheers all round as we arrived; the whole school was standing in the central grassy square, bounded on three sides by the two classroom blocks and a staff block. Open-air greetings were followed by more formal introductions inside by John Phiri, the new headteacher.

My wife Sylvia, who is Sanday's art teacher, had volunteered to teach an art lesson during our visit. We had brought 100 pencils, 20 packets of felt-tip pens and many triangular pieces of paper.

A couple of weeks before, Sanday's S1 and S2 pupils had put together three-part half-hexagon pictures on different themes such as sport, weather and school. The challenge for form 1 at Minga (pupils aged 12 to 20) was to complete the hexagons with equivalent pictures. The pupils listened intently as Sylvia explained.

Just as alien to them as the idea of an art lesson was the approach of working in groups. They set to with a will.

As I went around the groups, trying to help, I was asked to explain the purpose of wellies. It was clear they had never seen them and they found the notion ridiculous.

"If there's too much water we walk through it. If we have shoes we take them off," they said.

There were around 50 pupils in the room, rather more than the composite class of 15 in Sanday. And it turned out that another class of 50 pupils - form 2 - was waiting next door, expecting the same lesson at the same time.

It wasn't easy trying to retrieve some of the pens for the pupils in the next room. If you have never played with colours before, you don't want to forfeit your chance, no matter how old you are.

An hour went by quickly. Everyone was delighted with the results of a task shared with pupils 70 degrees of latitude apart.

Next, at the whole-school assembly, it was announced that we had brought a gift, and there were mighty cheers every time something was taken out from the sports bag and flourished. The assembly coincided with break-time in Sanday, so we made a mobile telephone call to Nicky Thompson, the geography, history and religious studies teacher.

We held the phone out and the assembled company yelled: "Hello."

The netball team put on its new regalia for us and then it was time to go.

The Scottish Executive had agreed last year to give a significant amount of money towards improving the buildings and facilities in the school.

Sanday's own fund-raising will be used to sponsor the five Malawi students so that they can complete their secondary and further education. Florida and Chisomo are halfway through their final year at Minga. Esinta, Tionge and Angellah have left school after taking their exams and need money to go to college.

Nicky Thompson is hoping to arrange a special account, to be administered by the British Council, from which the students will be able to claim their education fees by the start of the new academic year. Any money remaining will supplement the resources provided by the Scottish Executive. The money will probably only be released after Nicky and Sanday's headteacher, Daniel Connor, have assurances from the Scottish Executive and the British Council that the funds are being received and used in accordance with agreed expenditure.

Next session, Nicky is going out with Sanday's school secretary, Irene Brown, to work alongside the Minga teachers for a week during our October break.

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