From heat and dust to Sanday shores

21st October 2005 at 01:00
The Scottish Schools Africa Challenge, launched in February by the First Minister, Jack McConnell, and entrepreneur Sir Tom Hunter, invited secondary schools to write essays about Third World issues in the run-up to the G8 summit at Gleneagles in July.

Five teenagers at Sanday School in Orkney - the entire S3 class - won first prize for their pen pal letters contrasting life in Malawi and Orkney. The prize was an exchange visit to Malawi, a country where only one child in three completes five years in education. The pupils and two teachers went for a week in late May, taking part in lessons at Minga school on the outskirts of Lilongwe.

Last month five pupils, a teacher and a member of the British Council in Malawi paid a return visit, teacher Sandra Towrie writes

A train whistle blows and a tiny steam engine puffs into view.

The engine driver is Daniel Connor, headteacher of Sanday Community School, a junior high for 3- to 16-year-olds in Orkney. His passengers in the miniature carriages are five of his pupils and five from Minga school on the outskirts of Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi.

It is Sunday, the fifth day of the Malawian students' visit to Scotland and their first whole day on Sanday. Despite the persistent rain and a fairly stiff breeze, everyone is smiling.

We are the guests of a Sanday school pupil and his father Charlie, who runs the Sanday Light Railway, Britain's most northerly passenger carrying railway. "But where does it go to?" one of our Minga friends had asked on the way there. It goes round and round Charlie's garden and enjoys spectacular views of the other islands.

In the middle of the week, my colleague Nicky and I had travelled to Edinburgh with our S3 pupils to meet our guests and accompany them on a tour of the capital, taking in Calton Hill, the Royal Mile, the Castle and Our Dynamic Earth (a big hit with everyone). We toured the Scottish Parliament building and visited Bute House to meet Jack McConnell and members of the press and the pupils received goodie bags containing disposable cameras, children's books on Scotland and Orkney, shortbread and badges. The Malawi party appeared bewildered and our pupils remarked that trying to make conversation was even harder than it was in Malawi.

We left Edinburgh in a rain-sodden dawn. At Perth, Nicky's experience in organising school trips ensured that the quick change of trains happened smoothly. By the time we got to Inverness, the leaden skies were clearing.

The sun was shining as we disembarked at Thurso and drove to John o'Groats for the ferry to Orkney.

We arrived to see Orkney looking its best; a calm sea sparkling in the evening sun and vivid green pasture with herds of sleek, contented cattle.

We walked across Kirkwall to meet our headteacher and have supper in the hotel that we have used on previous trips. The waitress remembered us and welcomed our Malawian friends. A convivial evening ensued.

After a wind-buffeted visit to Skara Brae, we arrived at the council chamber to set up a display of Malawian artefacts, woodcarvings and fabrics from our visit in the summer. We had been invited to a reception and were expected to put on a presentation for Orkney officials and guests. Daniel talked about how the pupils did not so much win a competition as take on a responsibility.

They demonstrated how well they have accepted this responsibility by talking to the assembled group about their experiences. The Minga school pupils also talked about their impressions of Scotland and were given more goodie bags, this time containing Orkney T-shirts and fudge.

We took the ferry to Sanday and at last the moment came when the Malawi group had to split up and go to their host families. The two ladies (a teacher and a British Council employee) went with a school colleague and the five pupils were shared between Nicky and me.

My husband arrived wild-eyed and unshaven after 36 hours harvesting with very little sleep. I hastily sent him to shower and took my slightly startled visitors to explore my, now grown-up, daughter's wardrobe for jeans, warm sweaters, socks and trainers suitable for the activities we had planned.

There is a need for warm clothing at the miniature railway as blustery showers sweep in on a stiff breeze.

After the train ride, we set off with Rod, the ranger, for a beach walk.

The skies are clearing and we are sheltered from the wind. The teenagers are enjoying making footprints in the sand and Margret, from land-locked Malawi, is dipping a finger in the sea to taste and make sure it really is salty! We explore caves, climb the cliffs and eat a picnic.

Later in the afternoon we take our guests swimming. They are puzzled to be going inside to swim but puzzlement soon turns to delight as they splash and shriek.

The Minga school pupils each go off with a Sanday pupil for a meal and a family evening. Will they be OK? Will they cope without their friends?

The adults enjoy a meal out together but Nicky and I leave well before the children are due back.

They are brought back, one by one, cheerful and assuring me that they have had a good time. The chatter and laughter coming from upstairs reassures me that this is indeed the case.

We have two days in school, during which our visitors join classes. In my home economics class, they bake cakes and biscuits to share at break; in art they are enchanted to discover that by mixing two colours of paint a third is created; in ICT they learn how to use the digital camera that our school is giving to Minga school. Until such time as their school has electricity and a computer, the camera's memory card will be sent, via the British Council diplomatic bag, to Sanday to be downloaded. We will use some suitable images in our monthly wildlife magazine and some will be printed and sent back to Malawi. The visitors also have a violin lesson and cope with reporters and television cameras.

Watching one of the Sanday girls giving an interview makes me realise just how much our pupils have benefited from this experience. Six months ago she would have refused to talk before a camera but now she volunteers and speaks fluently and coherently without rehearsal; the reporter has his sound bite in one take.

For the visitors' last evening on Sanday, there is a social evening and dance. Our friends remember the dances we taught them in Malawi and join in with gusto. We reprise the Malawian dance we learned, with many islanders joining in. Everyone talks and smiles.

Camera in hand, I watch and think how well our guests fit in; they do not look out of place. They could stay and the warm-hearted community of Sanday would welcome them and nurture them as our island children are nurtured.

But, of course, we cannot keep them here. These young people and others like them are the hope for the future of Malawi.

The final morning dawns dreich and blustery. Our friends dress in their borrowed warm clothes and we head for a beach. The wind, nearing gale force, is whipping up the sand and stinging our faces. Undeterred, the Sanday teenagers do what children do at the beach; they kick off shoes, scramble to the top of the dunes and roll down. The Malawi pupils watch for a few moments and then join in, squealing with delight. They build sandcastles and, suddenly, they are all paddling, knee deep in the chilly water. We hustle them back to school and into hot showers.

The 10 teenagers crowd into my tiny room and Nicky and I bring cups of tea.

They are chatting, laughing, teasing. Nicky and I withdraw.

"I wish they could stay for another week with no cameras or reporters and just do ordinary things," she says.

Over the past two days, the teenagers have started to form real bonds between each other.

At the pier, we hug and promise to keep in touch. We stand, drenched in salt spray and tears, and wave while the ferry rounds the pier. The captain blasts the horn in farewell.

I walked one of the beaches yesterday. Wind and tide have erased the footprints but nothing can erase the memories. We must be unique in starting a school twinning of this nature with a pupil exchange. The logistics and financial costs are daunting. We are grateful to the Scottish Executive, the Tom Hunter Foundation and the British Council for making it possible.

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