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How We Traveled Malawi 2015

How We Traveled Malawi 2015

Traveling in Malawi was definitely outside my comfort zone.  I like lots of information. I like to sort through it, reject some of it, and come to a conclusion about what I can expect and what remains unknown. Unfortunately, you can’t do that in Malawi.  There are a few tidbits of information on the internet, all vague or outdated. We would have to rely on advice from other travelers and hostel bulletin boards.

Of course – considering I’m here writing about it all – we figured things out. Not without hiccups (stories for another day), but by the helpfulness of friends, strangers, and a few taxi drivers, we were able to experience the best of Malawi. In the spirit of paying it forward, I offer the details from our Malawi trip to the internet.  I hope it satisfies a google search or two.

WHAT TO DO IN MALAWI:

There are three main things to see in Malawi: Lake Malawi, Mt. Mulanje, and wildlife. The cities in between are just launch points. We had just come from a safari in Zambia, so we skipped the wildlife.

OUR ITINERARY:

Entered Malawi in Lilongwe

Bus from Lilongwe to Nkhata Bay (via Mzuzu)

Bus from Nkhata Bay to Blantyre (via Mzuzu and Lilongwe)

Mini bus to Mulanje, taxi back to Blantyre from Mulanje

Flight from Blantyre to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania (12 hour layover in Lilongwe)

Screenshot (9)

Lilongwe (arrived from Chipata, Zambia)

We arrived in Lilongwe from our safari in South Luangwa National Park. Lilongwe is the capital of Malawi, and also had the largest airport. We stayed at Mabuya Camp, recommended to us by travelers we met in Zimbabwe, as well as some of our safari compatriots. As most people will tell you, Lilongwe isn’t much. Many of the other travelers at the hostel were volunteers or working for NGOs. The city is a bit spread out, and you have to take a taxi (or bicycle taxi) most places. We did have a delicious dinner at Bombay Palace – an India restaurant downtown. It is expensive for Malawi, but not expensive for fantastic Indian food.

Lilongwe Malawi Travel

 

THE LAKE:

Nkhata Bay

There are a number of places to visit Lake Malawi.  Monkey Bay and Cape McClear are in the south and have sandy beaches.  Nkhata Bay is in the north and has rock cliffs.  There are many places in between as well.

We got to Nkhata Bay from Lilongwe by bus (to Mzuzu) and taxi. While it’s possible to take a mini-bus, we opted for the safer, big-bus option. AXA is really the only game in town when it comes to reliable, safe, timetable buses. Other busses don’t leave until their full; AXA sticks to a schedule. But the AXA bus doesn’t depart from the main bus station. It has a ticket office in City Mall and that is also where the buses arrive and depart. We bought our ticket in person the day before, but you can also buy the day of or on the bus (not recommended). The ticket cost about 6,600 kwatcha ($12) per person.

Malawi Travel AXA Bus

Once in Mzuzu, we took a taxi to Nkhata Bay for 12,000 kwatcha ($32). Again, you can also take a mini-bus for about 900 kwatcha, but it was getting dark and we decided to splurge on door to door service. The taxi ride was quite a trip. Many people walk along the narrow roads, so the taxi swerves around them, honking a warning to watch out.

Nhkata Bay Lake Malawi 02

Nkhata Bay is a veritable paradise. Situated on Lake Malawi (the world’s largest freshwater lake), we stayed at Mayoka Villiage – a hotel/hostel that consists of a group of wooden chalets, stone cottages, and winding walkways. Mayoka is built into the side of a steep hill that ends in the lake. There are several rocky points to enter the water, and people frequently utilize the kayaks, paddle boards, and canoes. We met up with our friend Rachel there.  It was a blast.

Nhkata Bay Lake Malawi 03

We considered taking the ilala ferry from Nhkata Bay to Monkey Bay.  It takes 2.5 days and criss crosses the lake. We chose not to because of windy conditions and the fact that we didn’t have a tent. The first class deck is open air (they have mattresses), which is nice, except that it was stormy while we were there.

On our way from Nkhata Bay to Blantyre we spent one night in Mzuzu. The AXA bus from Mzuzu to Blantyre leaves early in the morning. We originally wanted to stay at a hostel called Joy’s Place – but it was booked. We ended up at a place called Mzuzu Zoo. It was quite inexpensive and had a decent restaurant and bar.

Blantyre

After the 10 hour bus ride to Blantyre, we found ourselves at Doogles – a popular accommodation for western travelers. It is next to the bus station (though not the AXA bus station) and has cheap, clean rooms, and a nice restaurant/bar. Blantyre has more of a downtown than Lilongwe, but not much. I was able to find contact solution at the pharmacy on the main drag – a product that had alluded me since South Africa.

Many people walk in Blantyre, though it is not a pedestrian friendly city. We started out taking taxis, but soon switched to walking – especially to our favorite restaurant there, Veg-Delight, a tasty Indian joint. We also prepared to visit Mulanje while we were in Blantyre, stocking up on food and leaving most of our stuff at Doogles while we were on the mountain.

 

MULANJE:

Mt. Mulanje was a highlight of our time in Africa – but we’ve already written about it. You can check it out here. We spent 5 days in Mulanje, 3 nights on the mountain.

Mt. Mulanje path

Blantyre-Lilongwe-Dar Es Salaam

We decided to fly from Blantyre to Dar Es Salaam to save time. The overland travel would have taken several days, cutting down on our time either in Malawi or Tanzania. We had also heard from other travelers that the buses in Tanzania were particularly bad. We ended up having to pay for the plane ticket in person, in cash, at the Malawian Airlines office in downtown Blantyre. All fligths to Dar included an overnight in either Lilongwe or Johannesburg. We spent one more night at Mabuya Camp and had one more dinner at Bombay Palace before saying farewell to Malawi.

 

TIPS:

Cell phone

Malawi has two major cell phone carriers: airtel and TNM. We went with airtel because it was widely recommended by other travelers. In order to use the sim card (which cost 3000 kwatcha, or $6) you have to load it up with “airtime” or “talktime.” You buy these little vouchers for certain denominations of money (from 100 kwatcha to 1000 kwatcha), load them onto your phone using the instructions (you have to dial a number and punch in a code) and then dial a different number to purchase either data GB or voice time. It is confusing at first, but once you figure it out, it becomes easy.

We used the data on our phone a lot, but our voice time would not load correctly onto the phone. We would put a significant number of minutes on the phone and then it would only give us one or two calls. If this happens, I recommend abandoning voice and trying to stick to internet or having the hostel make a call for you.

Internet

Malawi has a national internet service called Skyband. You can buy GB and use Skyband at certain hotspots (some hostels are hotspots.) This is an okay solution, but is not always reliable.

Recommended: Turn your phone into a hotspot if you can. We loaded our iphone 5c up with data (4GB for about $12) and used that. It was great. It was reliable and could handle our internet needs. We even used it to Skype. We did the same thing in Tanzania.  It was not more expensive than Skyband.

Money

Most places in Malawi only take cash. Also, the largest denomination currency equals about $1.80. So, get comfortable making multiple withdrawals at a single ATM stop.

FINAL THOUGHT

If you can, approach Malawi as a camping trip.  Every place we stayed had camp grounds and we saw a few people cooking their own food on camp stoves. None of the hostels had kitchens, so having a camp stove is really the only way to cook for yourself.  You can save a ton of money, plus have all the gear you need for Mt. Mulanje and for taking the ilala ferry in comfort!

Malawi is a beautiful country with wonderful people. We are certainly not experts, but questions are welcome!

Ciao,

Elizabeth

Special Message from a Singing Christmas Tree!

Special Message from a Singing Christmas Tree!

While wandering through the old city in Zurich, Switzerland we stumbled across a “Singing Christmas Tree” surrounded by delicious food vendors. It was one of the greatest surprises of the trip so far.

We saved this short video so we could share it with you all today:

Hope you’re having a wonderful holiday!

We’re celebrating in Venice.

Many new posts are coming in the New Year. Stay Tuned!

  • William & Elizabeth
Educator Voices: What’s the Purpose of Education?

Educator Voices: What’s the Purpose of Education?

Whenever we visit a school we try to make our questions responsive to that school’s unique context. But there are a few questions that we like to ask everywhere we go. This is the first in a series where we compile the voices of the people we’ve met around those questions.

First up: What is the Purpose of Education?

Miluska, Instructional Coach with Ensena Peru:

“To help form people who are sensitive to the needs of others and the feelings of other people. Also, there’s a lot of social responsibility. There are always challenges to accomplish this; the labors of a teacher, not enough time, documents… But we need to better prioritize. We need to ask what our children need.”

Elementary Teacher at SPARK Schools in Johannesburg, South Africa:

“We’re not teaching content. We’re using the content to develop skills where they can use those skills in different areas. So, yes, the content is important, but that’s not our main focus. It’s equipping students with skills and personality traits so that they can deal with conflict so that they can independently go into university and be successful. So, it’s teaching them those additional critical thinking skills, problem solving skills and using the content to drive their development with that.”

Shaun Simpson, Headmaster of Rondebosch Boys High School in Cape Town, South Africa:

“You often read things that say, ‘The days of the teacher as the holder of information who gives it to the kids who are the receivers, those days are over now. It’s the time of the kids engaging and the teacher being a facilitator.’ That’s the sort of talk, and I agree with that. I don’t necessarily disagree with that… But intelligent conversation requires having a little bit of knowledge about a number of things. I don’t want to be standing as a stunned interloper in a conversation thinking, ‘I’ll quickly google that thing.’ Education should give you a very broad grounding to interact, to be able to draw from different places. When you listen to intelligent people speaking, they don’t just speak about their specific area knowledge. They draw from everything to make their points. And I think we’re doing kids a real disservice if we say that, ‘We don’t need to give the knowledge. We don’t need to give them information anymore.’ We’d live in a void.”

Senora Mamani, Principal of a school in Arequipa, Peru:

“Education is the only way for children to progress, to move forward and achieve big things in their life.”

Javier, English Teacher at Domingo Santa Maria in Arica, Chile:

“School, besides giving content and showing the way, needs to be inspiring. Yes, we should be inspirational, not just informative. And we should always help develop and cultivate values, human values. We should help students see the joy of finishing work. Now, they just do it because it’s graded or to avoid punishment. We need to get students to embrace learning for its own sake. Schools should be taught how to do that.”

Mr. Bamda, Head Teacher at a rural school outside Nkhata Bay, Malawi:

“As a developing country we have problems in our villages. We need leaders who can actually lead people into doing the right things. A good leader thinks of his or her own people. What are the problems they’re facing? How can those problems be sorted out? We are looking at that. If you can entrench someone who can look at the needs of the community, the needs of the village the needs of the family, then you’ll be achieving something substantial for development.”

Shannon Watt, Head of Elementary at Southern Cross in Santiago, Chile

“To help students acquire knowledge and common social skills that will enable them to be good citizens and help this country grow… As a whole, education should be the way a country helps itself be what it is.”

___

These are lofty, and surprisingly consistent, ideas about education. For me, they underscore the fact that there are two seismic shifts taking place in the relationship between education and the greater world. The first shift is social. Paul Griffin pointed out at the very beginning of this trip that, schools today have a greater obligation to create community and teach character than they ever have before. People point to a variety of reasons for this: parents are working more and there are more single parent homes, neighborhoods are more isolated and community organizations are on the decline, students socialized in virtual communities are slower to learn the physical and verbal cues that are such an important part of polite interaction, and there’s a growing recognition that ‘soft skills’ are just as important for success as knowledge. In this environment, the school has become a clear center of community and an obvious place for social-emotional development to be considered in a patient and deliberate way.

The second shift is economic. CEOs have been saying for years now that, skills like critical thinking and the ability to work in teams to solve problems, will only become more central to their work in the decades to come. Managers now focus less on how to do something and more on just what needs to be done. Even entry level positions require people to be able to think creatively. People on a factory floor used to be engaged in repetitive movements, but now they must diagnose and solve problems on their own.

And so, education is changing in fundamental ways. Or rather, we know education should be changing in fundamental ways. Unfortunately, the education community tends to be more thoughtful with goals than execution. As Dee Moodley pointed out, “Listen, people always say, ‘We teach critical thinking.’ But what do you mean? How do you teach critical thinking? If you really drill down when individuals say that. No one can give you an answer… And changing seats doesn’t mean that it’s a collaborative space where the teacher is a facilitator. It could just mean that you’ve seated the kids in eights instead of twos.”

  • Will

Photo credit: Emma Scarborough

Hiking Mt. Mulanje Malawi

Hiking Mt. Mulanje Malawi

We have done a fair amount of hiking on this trip, but our four days and three nights hiking Mt. Mulanje was by far the most intense, interesting, and rewarding. When we arrived in Africa we had never heard of Mulanje but shortly after arriving in Zambia, we heard people talking about it as a ‘must do.’

Getting to Mulanje

Mt. Mulanje sits next to a town of the same name. The town is home to some of the largest tea plantations in the world and the landscape looks like a giant manicured garden. To get there:

  1. Get to Blantyre. AXA is easily the best bus company in Malawi. This is Malawi though so obviously all transactions need to be done in person and with cash.
  2. From Blantyre you need to take a minibus to the neighboring town of Limbe . The trip is about 10 minutes. (You can also take a taxi. It’s much more comfortable but also many times as expensive.)
  3. At the minibus area in Limbe you can fairly easily find a minibus to Mulanje. We sat in the bus for about 40 min before it was full with people to leave but this amount of time varies. (Again, you can take a taxi but it will cost closer to $35 instead of $1.50)
  4. Once in Mulanje, you can take a taxi or bicycle taxi to a lodge at the base of the mountain. This reservation you should call ahead to book.

Once you’re there:

Guides

To hike the mountain, it’s required that you hire a guide. If you’re in Blantyre and mention you’re hiking the mountain they will no doubt try to set you up with their friend as a guide. We strongly advise against this. The guides have a union where they alternate. We showed up with our own guide, and there was a minor but drawn out confrontation with the union guides when we arrived. We also learned that our guide was trying to overcharge us so we decided to go with a union guide instead. The guide will cost $25 a day.

We also opted to hire a porter for $20 per day. This isn’t required but the climb is very steep and most people recommend a porter.

The Route

Most people spend two nights on the mountain. They climb about 8 hours to Sapitwa Hut near the summit and spend the night. Then Summit in the morning and climb down to Chambe Hut (another 8 hour day) for the second night. The climb down from Chambe is just a few hours but there are waterfalls and pools where people like to stop.

We opted to slow this route down. We spent our first night at Chambe and then two nights at Sapitwa before coming all the way down on the 4th day. You could easily spend a week on Mulanje though. We heard the huts on the southern part had gorgeous views and pools but we didn’t see them.

Also, don’t worry about bringing water since you can fill your water bottle and drink directly from the streams on the mountain.

The Hike

We chose the less steep option for our first day. The rolling foothills are covered with beautiful trees.

Mt. Mulanje trees

There were pools  to stop and swim,

Mt. Mulanje swimming

and several places to admire the view.

Mt. Mulanje couple

Once on top, there are a series of valleys that flow between the peaks.

Mt. Mulanje Valley

After about five hours of hiking we reached Chambe hut.

Mt. Mulanje Chambe Hut

The next morning it was time to cross the mountain toward Sapitwa, the highest peak.

Mt. Mulanje path

Throughout the hike, we cooked over a fire in the stone stoves found in each hut.

Mt. Mulanje cooking

Our relaxed pace gave us plenty of leisure time, which we spent eating and reading.

Mt. Mulanje food and book

The huts have beer, but you need to use the nearby streams if you want it cold.

Mt. Mulanje beers

The sunrise is pretty great.

Mt. Mulanje sunrise

The next morning it was time to take on Sapitwa. It’s a tough slog, and very steep.

Mt. Mulanje steep

There were many beautiful and interesting passages up to the summit but the camera was away. At the top though, I marveled at the line drawn across the sky. Also, it was my birthday, so that was cool.

Mt. Mulanje line sky

Mt. Mulanje trees and rocks

The next day it was time to head back down.

Mt. Mulanje down

There were many beautiful flowers.

Mt. Mulange flower

Along the way, there was again time for swimming.

Mt. Mulanje waterfall

Muyende Bwino

Mt. Mulanje thanks

  • Will
Zambia Safari: The Animals of South Luangwa National Park

Zambia Safari: The Animals of South Luangwa National Park

Our previous game drives were all a precursor to our big Africa treat – a 3-night safari in South Luangwa National Park.  Located in northern Zambia, the park is known for its high density of big cats, among other wildlife.  The end of October is an excellent time to go because animals are easier to spot – the brush is thin and animals all gather at the same, limited water sources.  We went with a safari company called Kiboko, which would drop us off in Malawi at the end of the trip.

Zambia safari africa travel

We saw too many animals to picture in one post, so here are the highlights.  These beautiful zebras were a frequent sight. We even caught one scratching it’s butt on a tree stump.

zambia zebra africa travel

Impalas are everywhere in the park. They’re quite dainty antelopes with distinct markings.

impala africa travel

These baby warthogs are called piglets.  Moments later they started chasing the antelope in the background.

warthog africa travel

Baby baboon hangs on tight.  This arrangement doesn’t deter mama baboon from jumping from limb to limb or trying to steal human food.

baboon africa travel

These two waterbucks were best friends a minute ago and will be best friends again several minutes later.

zambia safari africa travel

It’s unusual to see the whole hippo.  Mostly we saw half-submerged hippo heads. Can you tell which ones are babies?

hippos africa travel

As the sun gets hotter, animals take naps.  We caught these two baby elephants napping together.  Other elephants were also napping around them, with one elephant standing up to keep guard.

elephants africa travel

One of my favorite sightings – the guinea fowl, with a bright blue head and polka dot feathers, runs kind of like a turkey.

guinea fowl africa travel

And then there were the lions.  We got word at afternoon tea that there had been a buffalo kill sighted.  On our evening game drive, we headed straight for it.  Most of the lions had finished eating and were lounging about.  These two – a young adult and one of the older lions – were last to eat.

lion africa travel

Here the alpha female tolerates her playful cub.  Later, she swats him away.  Don’t you know Mommy’s digesting?

lion africa travel

Lions in a food coma.

DSC_1312

On our final night drive, we were able to catch this leopard.  Our guide was able to get out in front of his path so we could watch him walk by. Sorry for the blurriness!

leopard africa travel

Our Zambia safari was more than we expected.  We saw a remarkable number of animals, had some great times with our fellow travelers, and enjoyed the camp where we ate, slept, and went for afternoon swims between game drives.  There is nothing like seeing animals in their natural habitats.  If you get a chance to go on a safari – you should.

Excellence and Inequality: Reflections from an International School in Blantyre, Malawi

Excellence and Inequality: Reflections from an International School in Blantyre, Malawi

Elizabeth and I have a lot of experiences walking into classrooms. We’ve done it hundreds upon hundreds of times. The basics of the scene are generally the same. The teacher usually talks while students listen and take notes. Sometimes students work in groups or independently while the teacher circulates. Either way, it’s normally possible for us to find a few students to talk with. We ask students what they’re learning and if they can explain it to us. This is one of the most informative parts of any classroom visit. But at St. Andrews International School in Blantyre, Malawi our attempts at conversation were continuously foiled. The students were simply too busy working together to have time to talk with us.

We walked into a science classroom where students stood in groups of four around lit Bunsen burners. Each member of each group was focused and occupied. They were using sulfuric acid to make some kind of salt. Occasionally students would turn to each other to discuss observations or next steps and record their findings. The teacher circulated, but the only thing we heard him say was to emphasize elements of the safety protocols.

Next we were taken to an 8th grade classroom where students were preparing food. They chopped vegetables, walked around with pots of boiling water, and spoke quickly to one another. The teacher told us about the emphasis on healthy eating and about how after the pizza lesson last week many students went home and cooked for their families.

We visited a geography class where students were analyzing different methods countries use to control population growth around the world. In a French classroom, every student was engaged and the teacher consistently asked questions to put thinking on the class. When students made jokes, she laughed along with them and redirected the conversation.

We were invited to join a meeting of the heads of the math department and asked the department head about his priorities. “First you must love math. Love is contagious,” he said. “First comes love and then comes progress. If students don’t look forward to your class then you are failing. And ‘chalk and talk’ is not going to work.”

international school students cooking education

The visit ended in the drama classroom where students were finishing their monologue unit. Over a dozen students were spread around the room dressed in casual clothing (they change for drama class). Each of them was in the midst of an animated performance of their own monologue. As time passed, some would naturally pair up to offer one another feedback. At the end of class, students gathered to take turns videotaping their monologues so that, they could be sent to England for evaluation.

Like I said, Elizabeth and I have visited a lot of classrooms in a lot of schools. Sometimes we find a school where one or two classrooms have this level of student engagement, but we’ve never seen a school where the quality of engagement was so consistently high across every classroom. We were impressed, but we were also alarmed at how different St. Andrews was than the other schools in Malawi we’d seen or heard about.

St. Andrews is an International school, which means it teaches the British curriculum to the children of ex-patriots from around the world, as well as the local families who can afford it. Since the ex-pat community in Blantyre is relatively small, there are a large number of local students, but they come from the super-elite of Malawi society. Most people in Malawi make less than two dollars a day. St. Andrews costs tens of thousands of dollars a year.

Our experience with other schools in Malawi was very different. Most students are in overcrowded classrooms where they engage in antiquated curriculums that focus entirely on identification and repetition. They end up learning more about following directions than they do about the world. The result is an education according to one’s class. The wealthy learn to think, and the poor learn to listen.

The consequences of this reality are disheartening. Education should be the great equalizing force in a society, the foundation for development and social mobility. But the failure of this promise isn’t unique to Malawi. The way education perpetuates inequality in the United States may not be quite as pronounced as in Malawi, but that’s not saying much.

We can and should learn a lot from the quality of the learning at St. Andrews. But we can also use Malawi’s system as a whole as a window to judge our own. Do we think all students deserve access to the same educational opportunities? How many American families can afford to pay for college? What kind of country to we want to be?

  • Will

For more about the different types of education offered to students of different income levels in the US and Latin America, check out our previous post about poverty and education.

Chobe National Park Day Trip, Botswana

Chobe National Park Day Trip, Botswana

There are many national parks in Africa, and one of the most celebrated is Chobe National Park in Botswana. It’s located at the intersection of Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia.  You can visit Chobe from any of these countries, and can spend up to 3 nights camping in the park.  We spent one day there – which included a river tour and game drive.  Given our short time there, we were impressed with the number of animals we saw.

Our morning started with a river tour – where these birds greet us.

safari chobe 01

Our guide had to carefully point out this camouflaged baby croc. Baby crocs have to hide because adult crocs will eat them.

safari chobe 02

Like this guy… who played dead as our boat pulled up right next to his face.  Our guide assured us that crocs can’t jump (into a boat, for example.)  We were assured he was alive by his slowly blinking eyes.

crocodile chobe botswana travel

While this buffalo chowed down on grass, his bird friend chowed down on the bugs swarming the buffalo’s face.  Will was jealous – he definitely wanted one of those birds for himself.

safari chobe 05

This kudu was enjoying a drink at the river.  The kudu’s horns grow another twist every few years.

kudu chobe botswana travel

We spotted a young male elephant on his own, probably just cast out of the herd as happens to male elephants in early adulthood. Here he is contemplating whether to cross the river.

elephant chobe botswana travel

The most impressive bird we saw was the fish eagle.  Check out that wingspan!

safari chobe 09

There were many hippos in the water, where they spend most of their time. Hippos in the water, however, don’t make good photo subjects. Here, we caught one crossing a river island with his bug birds on his back.

hippo chobe botswana travel

After lunch we got into the safari truck and started our drive.  There were many, many elephants near the river- some crossing, some cooling off, some heading back to the bush.

elephant chobe botswana travel

A huge group of mongooses swarmed a tree as we passed.

safari chobe 13

We caught a group of elephants running down to the river… this baby tripped a little as it tried to keep up.

elephant chobe botswana travel

We were hoping to see a lion, even though it was the hot afternoon – the worst time for lion sightings. Our guide took us to the site of a dead elephant, which the lions had fed on earlier.  At first, we didn’t see anything- the elephant carcass was too far into the bush. “I’m going to take a risk,” our guide said and drove the truck into the tall, dry grass.  Sure enough, as we approached the elephant, a lioness came into view. She had a new wound on her shoulder and gave us a glance as we came near. Our guide quickly navigated the truck back to the trail.

lion chobe botswana travel

On the way back, we ran into several giraffe and endless impala beating the heat in the bushes.

safari chobe 16

Chobe is a breathtaking park both in wildlife and landscape. We could have spent more time here if we hadn’t planned to go to South Luangwa in Zambia for a 3-nighter. More on that soon!

A Pride Premature: Lessons from a School in Malawi

A Pride Premature: Lessons from a School in Malawi

Phillip is a young man with a broad smile. He’s not a teacher, but the school where we’re sitting wouldn’t exist without him. He enjoys talking about how it all started; how he and the village chief met a British expat, named Kevin, and approached him about financing a school, “And then we needed bricks, and we could either buy bricks or we could make bricks. And since buying was too expensive, we decided to make the bricks.” He talks about how they built the ovens for the bricks, and how he contracted with bricklayers to make the buildings. And then there were issues with the government, who said they couldn’t open a school with only one building. So, they had to secure funding for a second building and make the bricks and create that building as well. Desks were built and latrines had to be dug. Phillip speaks with a smile on his face and a tone of kind-hearted ambition. When he finishes, I ask him something I ask of nearly everyone, “What are you most proud of?” He straightens his posture and smiles even more broadly, “I’m very proud because, before there was no school, and now we have a school. Now we have education.”

At first, I was enchanted by the story of the school. But as I visited classrooms and talked with students, that enchantment began to sour. I saw very little evidence that ‘education’ was taking place.

making bricks in malawi

Bricks must be stacked and burnt before they can be used in construction

I visited four classrooms. All of the rooms had students but only one had a teacher, and she was a visiting teacher from Belgium. The rest of the teachers were in the administration building, chatting and watching a Nigerian soap opera while students were left to socialize. In one classroom, I asked students to tell me something they had learned in class this week. After a bit of silence they began to stand, one at a time, “I am studying English.” “I am studying physics.” “I am studying math.” I thanked them and asked if they could tell me something more specific. After a brief silence, Mr. Bamda, the head-teacher escorting me, explained that their English wasn’t strong enough to answer that question. This struck me as problematic, since all of their national exams will be in English.

This school, about a 40min uphill walk along a dirt road from Nkhata Bay on Lake Malawi, has a lot of advantages. There are several shelves of donated books and a room with computers (though no electricity). The school charges fees that limit class size. (It’s common at public schools for classes to expand to fifty or even ninety students per teacher, but here the largest class I saw was around twenty students.) The faculty all have college degrees and the students are so committed that, many of them travel for hours each morning to reach the school.

school resources education in malawi

The computer and resource room

Later on, I met with the teacher from Belgium who had been enthusiastically leading her class through a text. I asked what surprised her the most about education in Malawi, and she said it was the attitude of the teachers, “They will just write on the board and leave the room. They’ll give students an activity and then go watch a DVD. There is not the idea that, they have a role to play when students are working.” She was also frustrated with the prescribed English curriculum, which focuses almost entirely on grammar, identifying parts of speech in sentences disconnected from any larger context. “And they never practice speaking [English] because there is no speaking on the exam. But I don’t know how you can learn a language if you never speak it.”

I asked about student participation and she said that they’re not used to it, “You ask them what they think and they don’t know what to do, because no one ever asks them that. It’s all just listening or repeating what the teacher says.” Still she hasn’t given up, and a couple months in she has one class where students are getting more comfortable with the idea of sharing their ideas.

head-teacher school in malawi

Mr. Bamda

When I spoke with Mr. Bamda, he talked inspiringly about the need for education and the school’s goal of producing quality students who can contribute to the development of Malawi. He talked of the need for leaders in Malawi’s villages and the importance of listening to other people’s opinions. He spoke about how people need to understand that education is not just for white collar jobs but that, it can help everyone. A farmer with an education will be a better farmer than one without an education.

But it was also clear that, he hadn’t given much thought to what must be true in the day-to-day life of the school for these goals to become reality. He explained calmly that they do not choose what to teach but follow the government curriculum. When I asked what makes a good teacher, he talked mostly about a teacher’s dress. When I asked what he meant by a ‘quality’ student he described someone who has good behavior. When describing his challenges and priorities, he focused entirely on infrastructure projects like building a new administration building, houses for the teachers, a new class block, and a girls dorm*. Ideas like helping teachers to improve or creating opportunities for students, didn’t come up. At one point, he even said that he didn’t need to worry about the teachers.

When I think back to this school, my first feeling is still one of admiration. I didn’t expect to find a ‘model of excellence’ in a rural village of one of the world’s most undeveloped countries. In many ways the visit surpassed my expectations. It’s hard to imagine many communities in the US organizing to build a school from mud, water, and cement. But there is an unavoidable sadness around my reflections as well. I think about parents around the community struggling to save for school fees, and the students who walk for hours each day as an investment in their education, and I wonder what, if anything, the sacrifices will bring.

The school exists, and people seem to be content with that fact. The resources inside are confused for the learning they’re meant to facilitate. Students show up, and there is an assumption that they must then be receiving an education. But, of course, it doesn’t work that way. It actually takes a lot of focused effort to turn a school building into a place where education happens.

Will

*The school does seem to be fairly progressive in its commitment to girls’ education. Phillip explained that the motivation for this came from the international community. He also explained that while it’s OK for boys to commute, girls should live at the school because, if they live at home, they end up being tasked with all of the labors around the house and can’t get away to attend school.

A Black Rhino Fight and Other Highlights

A Black Rhino Fight and Other Highlights

“We want to see a rhino,” we told the hostel manager. “Then you want to go on this game drive,” she said, pulling out a pamphlet.  Several days later we were being picked up in a safari vehicle by Patrick, our incredibly knowledgeable, and obviously passionate, guide.

“Welcome to my office,” Patrick joked as he opened the game reserve gates. “Any requests?” ”Rhinos,” we chimed.  Patrick explained that Stanley & Livingstone Game Reserve was part of the black rhino breeding program, an effort to increase the population of this endangered animal.  The reserve started with three rhinos and now has nine.  “There’s no guarantee we’ll see one,” he cautioned, “but we will try.”  Will and I tempered our expectations as we bounced around in the back of the safari truck.

Safari Zimbabwe Travel

The drive started with some elephants and giraffes.  This was our first game drive, so we were excited.

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As the sun started to go down, Patrick took us to the area where they sometimes see the rhinos.  Straining our eyes in anticipation…we saw a beautiful sable instead.  It’s unusual to see the sable, a relative of the zebra.  We began to believe this would be the highlight of the evening.

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There was one more spot to try, though, Patrick assured us.  There were several man-made watering troughs that the rhinos frequented.  We pulled around a bend, and there he was.  A dinosaur among animals.

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Two skittish zebras waited patiently for the rhino to finish drinking, keeping a safe distance.

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The male rhino finished and began to walk around the area, marking his territory with spray pee.  Just then, we spotted Mama Rhino and Baby Rhino approaching from a distance.

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THREE RHINOS.  We couldn’t believe it.

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The male, who we learned was indeed Daddy Rhino, postured to claim the watering hole and Mama Rhino gave him a run for his money.

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black rhino travel

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Ceding the area, Daddy Rhino spray peed a few more bushes on his way out, but ultimately exited the scene.

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Mama and Baby enjoyed a drink and then Baby had its dinner.  At that point, Mama noticed us and stared, so we headed on for our sundowner (when you have a drink and watch the sun go down…a safari tradition.)

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We couldn’t believe our luck – three rhinos, including a baby and a FIGHT!  It was not only a highlight of Zimbabwe, but a highlight of the entire trip.