Avocados and loo paper

2nd April 2004 at 01:00
In the first of a three-part series, Jude Mallatratt finds life in an African kingdom quite an education

After too many years in education at all levels, I have finally quit teaching: no more unwilling acolytes, no more aggressive or anxious parents, no more planning and marking. I left to reactivate a spasmodic writing career - and where better to escape than a small African kingdom? Swaziland is a mountainous country the size of Wales, population one million, completely landlocked by South Africa and Mozambique. If I thought this was the end of my dealings with enlightenment, I was mistaken.

Having a nine-year-old son and now several weeks into the Swazi education system, I'm struck by the huge differences with Britain. Here, children pay for school, weaving in and out as their financial situation dictates; it's not unusual to find 16 and 17-year-olds working their way through Years 5 or 6.

Uniforms are worn proudly; education is high status. Standards in this developing country appear to have British primary education knocked into a cocked hat. My son only just scraped through the admissions test for his new school; in England he was in the top of his Year 4 class. The teachers here shook their heads and admitted him only after I undertook to tutor him outside school to bring him up to speed. Apparently, his fumbling attempts to partition (as per national curriculum guidelines) when performing addition and subtraction had them baffled. "Why is he doing that?" they asked. "Why doesn't he do it the simple way?" - that is, using traditional methods. It's a question I've been asking since 1989.

My husband teaches computer science in the solitary technical college here and the respect he is tendered by students is overwhelming. We live on campus (a euphemism stretched to its finest point) and it's not unusual for students to tap discreetly on our door in the evening, seeking help. We've had requests for a bicycle pump, sticking plasters, avocados from the prolific tree in our garden, editorial advice on job applications, and even help carrying water during one of our all too frequent water cut-offs. The capital city of Mbabane, where we live, offers a water supply with all the efficiency of a sieve.

This isn't a tale from the chalkface. More like "have plug, will travel" (and spare loo roll, though I won't go into that right now). In Swaziland, you'll discover a bath plug and loo roll are the only vital accessories.

Oh, and a copy of the national curriculum to convince the locals that the English are all mad. Failing that, it could come in quite handy, out in the bushI Jude Mallatratt is a medieval historian and writer who currently lives in Mbabane where her husband, a development worker, teaches ICT at Swaziland college of technology. Next week: tears in the classroom

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