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.
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.
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.
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.
*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.