Peep show perils at exam time
et us join hands against a common enemy: likhasa," I read across the top of the exam paper on my way to invigilate at one of Malawi's six teacher training colleges.
"Who is likhasa?" I ask my class of student teachers, before the exam begins. They laugh and repeat my question to each other.
"Madam, likhasa is corruption," they explain.
"Oh yes, madam," they continue cheerfully. "In Malawi some people are used to cheating. They even peep in examinations."
"But it is very bad," cautions another, earnestly, "because it retards national development."
A murmur of assent.
"Well," I resolve sternly, "in this exam there will be no corruption, no ... er ... peeping. Let us join hands against our common enemy and work together for the development of Malawi."
This uplifting way of speaking is catching after a while.
In this spirit, I make the students separate their desks. At first they laugh, assuming I am joking. When I insist, they are most disgruntled but eventually move their desks a symbolic inch or two apart, looking at me reproachfully, as though the idea of peeping had never crossed their minds.
Hard-hearted, I start the students on their science exam and soon there is relative silence.
Like many problems in this small, southern African country, corruption is seen as a malign, external force outwith the control of Malawian people.
Despite the great public display of solidarity in condemning cheating, it remains a persistent feature of the examination rituals in Malawi's education system.
It starts with the relatively innocent "peeping" as pupils crane their necks to check their answers against their neighbours. Other students rely on meticulously prepared likhasa booklets, in our case, miniature transcriptions of the entire student's handbook. Once I confiscated one confidently and topically labelled "My Weapon of Mass Destruction".
A friend at another teacher training college told me about one student who had copied the science pages from the handbook on to her petticoat, complete with diagrams, banking on his embarrassment to protect her.
However, unfortunately for her, he lacks any such sensitivity and she was duly turned in.
Moving up the scale, there are regular cases in the press of "leakages", where copies of the examination papers are circulated in advance by unscrupulous teachers or secretaries. Often poverty is the incentive, as papers can be sold to prospective candidates. In other cases papers are exchanged for sexual favours.
The most iniquitous form of corruption involves complicity from those in authority: teachers or invigilators who selectively condone cheating in exchange for sex or money; threats of poor marks if sexual favours are denied.
Last year there circulated the tale of a headteacher who had offered several of his female pupils to the external invigilators if they joined hands and turned a blind eye to the common enemy, in an attempt to improve the pass rate of his primary school.
After reading this, I braced myself for queues of students flinging their bodies at me in exchange for previews of the English comprehension passage, but, inexplicably, temptation did not come my way.
Done badly in your exams? Do not despair. There is plenty of scope for manipulating marks and results after the examination papers have been gathered in, petticoats have been washed and "weapons of mass destruction" have been disposed of. Your final mark can merely be seen as a starting point for haggling and negotiation.
Although scripts for national examinations are marked externally, within schools and colleges unscrupulous teachers can be persuaded to "review" a student's marks for internal exams, given the right incentive.
A colleague involved in marking national exams was startled to find a message neatly written across the top of one exam paper. "Dear Examiner," he read, "I am a very beautiful girl. If you pass me in this exam, here is my cell phone number. Please consider this request."
Obviously confident in the power of her charms, this candidate had not felt it necessary to answer any of the questions, so regretfully my friend felt unable to respond positively to her request.
So what is Malawi doing to tackle this widespread corruption, this impressive catalogue of resourcefulness and ingenuity? Well, the Malawi National Examination Board (MANEB) is doing its best.
Pupils sitting national examinations are brought together in "clusters" so that pupils from nearby schools sit exams in a neutral location to be supervised by allegedly neutral invigilators. A good system - until you hear of some teachers sitting the exams in place of their pupils, presumably in exchange for bribes or sexual favours, and trusting that the invigilators or other pupils will not recognise them or turn them in.
National examinations are marked centrally and last year our college was one of the national marking centres. Lorry-loads of exam papers rolled up in a cloud of dust under armed escort and unmarked papers were kept in a bolted room under 24-hour armed guard. For a month the college basked in its new role as top security centre of national importance.
However, after meeting one of the guards at the local bottle store just before his shift, struggling to carry three bottles of beer and his rifle, you have to question their usefulness to defending the integrity of the MANEB exams.
And the latest anti-forgery strategy from MANEB is that all candidates sitting final school exams should submit a photograph to appear on the certificate (printed, incidentally, in the UK at vast expense, to avoid corruption at the printers). Fine, as long as the one who wrote the exam is the one whose proud face adorns the certificate.
As the exam continues, I pace up and down, squeezing myself between the rows of desks with difficulty. Some of the students take this opportunity to move their desks back closer together under the guise of "being helpful to fatty invigilator".
I am on a "peeping high alert" and glare fiercely at one particularly persistent offender. "Madam, we are using the pair work method," he risks, grinning.
I hurriedly grant one student's urgent, hissed request to leave the room to "pass urine" but deny one student's vague wish to "fetch something from the hostel". He sulks for the rest of the exam, looking at me balefully.
I glance at some of the papers. This is science, but not as I know it.
Question 4 reads: What is the difference between a syringe and a bicycle pump? This conundrum appears to fox many students, though I am assuming because they do not know what is expected of them, rather than any real confusion over these evidently different objects.
One student gamely explains that "a syringe is used in a hospital whereas a bicycle pump is used for bicycles".
Science here appears to be a matter of being one step ahead of a wily and malevolent universe, knowing how to outwit the army of common enemies.
Another student is struggling with the spelling of "grease". Greace? Greece? Greese? he wonders, before opting for the much safer "lubrication".
Finally the time is up. I collect the papers in, refusing the help of students who see collection of papers as a useful opportunity to compare their answers with those of their friends. Back in the staff room, a pile of impressively creative crib sheets is on display. I wonder how many students in my class made use of them, despite my eagle-eyed invigilation.
You can easily imagine the consequences of all this. Aside from the fact that some pupils pass examinations which they should not and some student teachers gain professional qualifications where they undoubtedly should not, the regular, almost institutionalised sexual abuse of girls in schools has a serious impact on the number of girls completing either primary or secondary education.
But what can you do? Corruption will continue in Malawi until people realise that the common enemy is within, until the serious penalties which do exist are actually implemented when cheating is discovered, until teachers and invigilators are paid sufficient that they have no need to accept bribes, until the status of girls and children is raised so that sexual acts with pupils by teachers are seen as the abuse that it is, until people have faith in the integrity of their leaders, until AidsHIV is defeated and the subsequent dire shortage of qualified teachers is no more.
And that day still feels like a long way off.
Elspeth Mackay is working through Voluntary Services Overseas as a primary teacher trainer at one of Malawi's six teacher training colleges.
She writes here in a personal capacity