Our Malawi adventure

24th June 2005 at 01:00
A small group of Orkney teachers and pupils who won the Scottish Schools Africa Challenge ended their school year with a trip to Malawi with the First Minister, Jack McConnell. Teacher Sandra Towrie kept a diary of their experiences

Wednesday 18 May

Sanday to Kirkwall

The day starts with a ritual swallowing of anti-malaria and vitamin B complex pills, which my colleague, Nicky, has been assured will make us unattractive to mosquitoes.

The five pupils go off to sit their last exam. Afterwards they will be allowed to go home to complete their packing.

Nicky and I teach our classes on automatic pilot, the active parts of our brains focused on kit lists and things still to be done. Please let us have thought of every eventuality!

6pm arrives and the ferry docks. After a flurry of good wishes we board, pausing to pose for photographs. A final wave and the adventure begins!

Thursday 19 May

Kirkwall to Johannesburg

An early, bleary-eyed start as we struggle to eat to cushion the malaria pills.

At the airport we are minor celebrities as we check in, but soon are bidding farewell to grey, drizzly Orkney. No going back now. We are taking these children a very long way from home and well out of their comfort zones. How will they react? We have done what we could to prepare them, but have we done enough?

At Aberdeen, Nicky and one of the children are interviewed by telephone for a newspaper. We are joined at Heathrow by Sheila and Matt from the British Council in Edinburgh and by Hugh, who is Malawian and works for the British Council in London.

And so to the long night flight to Jo'burg.

Friday May 20

Johannesburg to Lilongwe

Heavy-eyed and lethargic, the children wait for the flight to Lilongwe. Underneath my calm exterior, I am bubbling with excitement at being back in South Africa. I have so many memories of last year's work in Kimberley as a Global Teacher working with Link Community Development.

This feeling intensifies when we board and I hear the distinctive vowel sounds of the cabin crew and eat potjiekos (a beef stew) and pumpkin for my in-flight meal.

Soon we have landed, collected our bags and are face to face with our pupils' counterparts from Malawi. They smile, shake hands, exchange names and we climb into a fleet of Land Rovers for the drive to our hotel.

Refreshed by a shower, the adults sit by the pool watching the children playing a ball game to learn each others' names.

Jovial, giant Brendan from the British Council hosts an informal barbecue for us before our beds beckon.

Saturday May 21

Mua Mission

Into the Land Rovers and off for the Mua Mission, established by the Roman Catholic church more than a century ago.

Our children sit with the Malawian pupils and talk for a little while but they soon run out of conversation. In our preparation for the trip, the Orkney children researched HIV and Aids and learned of the huge death rate in Africa from this disease, so they tactfully do not ask questions about families, thereby putting off-limit a topic of conversation.

I enjoy the drive. There is so much to look at, so many people I women walking with babies on their backs and burdens balanced elegantly on their heads, men riding or pushing bicycles with incredible loads, barefoot children also carrying babies or pots of water. There is the temptation to react with "Wow, it's so picturesque, so African". But - reality check - this is not a tourist attraction; these are Malawian citizens going about their everyday lives.

At Mua we tour the museum and learn fascinating facts about rites of passage.

This is followed by the Malawian take on the packed lunch. Sandwiches had been requested and provided, triple decker ones containing chicken, omelette, lettuce and tomato, served with a bundle of cold chips, mummified in clingfilm I surprisingly tasty!

We watch woodcarvers at work and spend thousands of kwatcha on exquisite carvings. A quick bit of arithmetic reveals that we have spent pitifully little in sterling.

Back into the Land Rovers for the drive to Livingstonia beach resort, where we are accommodated in picturesque rondavels with resident lizards. A stiff breeze over Lake Malawi is whipping up waves, which crash with a familiar sound on to the beach, so we go swimming in the pool.

In a quiet moment, Arlene talks about the day. "Miss, did you see all those women and little kids carrying things and the men sitting around doing nothing? It's not right I kids shouldn't have to do all that I it's just not fair!"

I am so proud of her. This is what we are trying to teach in citizenship education: the ability to form opinions and express outrage at injustice.

The evening is spent in getting-to-know-you activities. The Orkney children present gifts to their Malawian friends and share carefully prepared scrapbooks of life on Sanday. With a focus for conversation, there is plenty of talk and laughter.

Sunday May 22

Sugar plantation and refinery

The promised short - 60-90 minutes - drive takes over three hours, the final minutes through hectares of sugar cane in different stages of growth.

We are issued with hard hats for our tour of the refinery. As we promenade up and down steep stairs and along metal walkways above vats of boiling sugar, bathed in steam, Thomas points out that there is water dripping on to electric wires. Nicky calmly responds: "Make the most of this. You will never, ever get so close to an industrial process again."

We eat our packed lunch of chicken and chips in the sunshine. It is very tasty, though not quite cold as it has been in a hot Land Rover all morning. I push my food hygiene training to a distant corner of my mind and enjoy.

Back at the resort, the Malawian children are keen to learn to swim and the Sanday pupils are willing to teach.

The evening is spent learning dancing from both cultures, to be performed at a reception a few evenings hence. Again, with a focus, there is much camaraderie.

Minday May 23

Minga School

We dress in our Scottish Schools Africa Challenge shirts for our day at a school and our first meeting in Malawi with our First Minister and the press. There is an air of excitement as we set off for the comparatively short drive to the school. We leave the outskirts of Lilongwe, turn on to a dusty track for 3km and we are there.

Minga (which means "thorn") School looks tidy and well cared for. White-painted bricks line the paths and "Welcome" banners hang from trees.

We visit the classes in turn. Grades 1 and 2 (60-plus and about 40 pupils) have no furniture and the only teaching aids are a blackboard and a handful of chalk. Pupils sit on the floor, balancing an exercise book on one thigh.

However, we see good interactive teaching and a teacher who thanks pupils for trying, even if the answer is wrong, and uses games to reinforce learning.

Grades 3 and 4 have desks, made by a local craftsman, but far fewer pupils (about 20 and 10).

The grade 3 biology class is studying blood and the circulatory system, the last topic that our pupils did before the trip. The teacher has a small, home-made poster as a teaching aid. He is delighted when we present a large, nearly identical poster that, by happenchance, is among the collection we brought.

I am humbled by the results these teachers are achieving with so few resources. If this school can produce pupils of the calibre of the five who are travelling with us, what should well resourced British schools be capable of?

After classes there is time for a game of rounders. The Minga pupils all want to introduce themselves. We shake hands and talk and take photographs.

A couple of our girls feel intimidated by the attention and retire to the Land Rover for respite. Nicky and I worry how they will be when the press arrive.

In common with most schools in Malawi, the day is over at 1.30pm. The British Council provides lunch (chicken and chips or rice) so that the pupils stay until Jack McConnell arrives. The pupils from across the track see something interesting is happening and about 200 come to watch.

Our pupils sit with food on their laps, looking at the silent, wide-eyed children only a few feet away. It is Arlene who articulates what they are all thinking. "How can I eat this when they are watching and have nothing?"

I am about to say something about the need to keep up their energy levels for the arrival of the First Minister when Sheila retrieves the situation with bags of sweets for them to hand out after they have eaten.

At the end of lunch, a few boxes of rice remain. Someone seats the watching children in groups and distributes the boxes of rice. So great is the scramble that most of the rice is spilled on the ground. Our pupils say nothing but the looks on their faces speak volumes.

After a bustle of tidying up litter, hanging flags, replacing path-edging bricks and organising a receiving line, at last Jack McConnell arrives, with a coachload of reporters in his wake. Nicky and I need not have worried about our children. They smile, pose for photographs and grant interviews as if they have been doing it all their lives.

In the evening, we attend a reception at the British Council, where we meet some midwives from Edinburgh who are training midwives in Lilongwe. They describe horrific conditions and have heartrending stories to tell.

Tuesday May 24

Zomba Plateau and Blantyre

We take a long drive, partly along the border with Mozambique, pausing first to admire a distant view of Lake Malawi, and later so that Emmanuel, our driver, can buy fish for his mother-in-law. Market traders surround our vehicles to sell wood carvings.

We arrive at the market in Zomba, where I buy lengths of fabric and more carved wood.

Lunch at a hotel, more shopping and a walk on the plateau - the view is awesome - then off to Blantyre and a reception with Jack McConnell, where we perform our ScottishMalawian dancing. No one falls over.

Wednesday 25 May

Henry Henderson Institute and Mvuu Camp

To the Henry Henderson Institute for a tour with our First Minister. This school is - I hesitate to describe it as wealthier - less poor than others we have seen. The classrooms have desks and seating built from bricks and concrete: totally inflexible but the children are seated in groups. They wear shoes and socks and carry schoolbags.

We listen to speeches, watch displays of dancing and tour the church of St Michael and All Angels, with its memorial plaque to David Livingston.

We drive to Mvuu Camp, passing two funerals, a reminder that life expectancy is low in Malawi.

The camp is reached by boat and we are accommodated in luxury tents, which are actually brick chalets with comfy beds and en-suite facilities.

Mosquito netting, instead of glass, in the windows allows the occupants to fall asleep to the sounds of birds and hippos.

We take a game drive in open Land Rovers, stopping for sundowners by the river, then continue on a safari under a full moon and unfamiliar constellations.

Thursday 26 May

Mvuu Camp to Lilongwe

Early breakfast followed by a boat safari. We see hippos, crocodiles, impala, baboons and many birds.

All too soon it is time to leave. As we drive through villages I realise that this is a school day and I am again seeing hundreds of children who, presumably, do not go to school.

We stop at a pottery at Dedza for lunch and face the decision about how much we can carry in hand luggage. Knowing from experience that hand luggage gets heavier the longer you carry it, I buy coffee beans but no pottery.

We arrive at our hotel in time for a swim before getting dressed up for a reception at the home of the British High Commissioner.

After the reception we go to Brendan's home for farewell presentations, a final Malawian dance and "Auld Lang Syne".

Friday 27 May

Presidential Palace and farewells

We dress for a visit to the presidential palace with Jack McConnell. We have seen abject poverty in the last few days and now extreme opulence and a high degree of security. We relinquish cameras and mobile phones before being ushered to our places.

We wait and eventually the president and Mr McConnell enter.

The president has asked to be introduced to us.

The First Minister speaks and the president speaks. If they manage to do what they say they want to do, perhaps there is a glimmer of hope for this country.

A quick change of clothes and our homeward journey begins. Our Malawian friends wave us off at the airport as we assure them we look forward to welcoming them to Scotland in the autumn.

Saturday May 28


A long day spent on aircraft and in airports. At Heathrow the pupils reacquaint themselves with chocolate after a week without.

We are met at cold, grey, drizzly Kirkwall airport by Ken, the photographer whose newspaper broke the news that we had won the trip to Malawi.

We are in reflective mood at our last meal together before the final leg of the journey home.

Michelle will return after she has trained as a teacher and will take her mum, who is also a teacher. Thomas will take a gap year and return to do what he can. They comment again on how friendly and happy everyone was.

I remark privately, as I have done several times this week, that I did not see one single child crying, but the same niggly thought comes back: are they happy and content or have they learned that crying does not get them anything because there is nothing to be had?

The children talk about how Malawian people value their education, about the poverty they have seen and how they realise how lucky they are. They still do not talk about the children fighting over a handful of rice.

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