The British Council is signing up teachers to help Botswana develop its education system. Stephen Hoare speaks to some new recruits.
The urge to drop out of the rat race and travel the world can strike at any age. Backpackers beat a path to Kathmandu and some mid-career executives are suddenly seized with the urge to sail around the world.
Thirty UK and Irish teachers and teacher-trainers have found another way of experiencing the adventure of a lifetime: at the end of August they are setting off to work in southern Africa.
The teachers have been signed up by the British Council, which operates the only recognised recruitment scheme for Botswana's state schools.
Most of the teachers who take up the British council's offer of one, two or three-year contracts are either newly qualified or newly retired. Music lecturer Rick Pugsley, 61, who attended a recent "acclimatisation" course in Farnham Castle, Surrey, said: "I'm retired but not retiring, if you know what I mean."
The workshop, organised by the Centre for International Briefing, gave the group an opportunity to question teachers who have recently returned from Botswana and gain a foretaste of what life is like there.
Botswana, which is as big as France and Belgium combined, is the largest diamond-producing nation in Africa. Some of the mining profits are being poured into education and the aim is to double the numbers of students in senior secondary schools by 2003. The illiteracy rate is about 30 per cent.
English is the formal teaching language and a growing per-centage of pupils sit GCSEs. But Botswana is recruiting across the English-speaking world.
British teachers are valued for their adaptability. That is an essential quality because the teachers often do not know whether they will have to work in lower secondary or senior secondary schools. In many cases, the schools have not even been built. Some recruits, therefore, have to make do with makeshift arrangements when they arrive.
As the British Council points out, there are several plus points. Newly qualified teachers often take on more responsible posts than they could in a British school. Many schools provide homes in their grounds, and the crime rate is relatively low. Dr Kevin Shillington, a consultant who briefed the group at Farnham Castle, said that the risks in the big towns and the capital, Gaborone, are much the same as in London, while rural communities are welcoming.
"One word of the language, Setswana, is essential: dumela (greetings). In town and country, everyone greets everyone else," he said.
There are, however, financial penalties to taking a two-year career break. Pensions and savings can take a knock. Eddie Rigg, a financial adviser, told the latest recruits to forget the traditional image of the ex-pat executive with huge tax-free earnings. "Botswana is a third world country and the pay is low by our standards," he said. An annual salary of pound;6,000 to pound;10,000 is enough to cover living expenses, but Mr Rigg advises people to maximise tax breaks by transferring building society savings to an offshore account.
Such concerns did not seem to dampen the spirits of most of the British Council's recruits. Michelle Smith, a newly qualified art teacher from County Mayo, said: "I'm 100 per cent confident about going. Botswanan children seem to be eager to learn and teachers have high status. Home will be 6,000 miles away, but I can always send e-mails on my laptop."
Further details from Pat Sandford, at the British Council, tel 0161 957 7381