Saturday, June 02, 2007

Trying to catch up again

(Assembly at St Theresa's. )
June has arrived in a rush - what happened to May? - and only now am I able to get back to the material Matthew sent me some time ago. He has received books I sent him, but to read them all "might require a bit more effort than I can master at present after the long days of teaching, then washing clothes, cooking, writing lesson plans, marking books etc. " This from someone who had a job appreciating the teacher's lot not that long ago! "The rains are heavy at present and we have regular power cuts. Today we thought we had one, but just had to flick the circuit-locators. We felt stupid, but it was after two days of not eating a proper meal.

(Donal and Mr Phiri in the staffroom drinking tea from

plastic cups and eating bin laden. )
"We have a radio here and I listen avidly to BBC World Service on a Saturday to hear the Saints' results. The last time, the cable had broken so I tried a trick someone used previously at the school. I got the two bare wires, put a match in the safety socket and then placed the wires inside the other holes. Then I turned on the switch......BOOM!!! There was a huge explosion and the electricity went off. All was resolved quietly but I was very lucky (wasn't killed just scared). I shall definitely never try that again.

"I was distressed that England were beaten so badly in the Ashes - and it looks like more of the same in the one-day series. I am desperate to talk to people about sport, politics and film but there really isn't anyone. The time I spend with the other volunteers is dominated by small talk (something I think you have difficulty with too). I get on OK with Donal, though we see things differently. My use of speech and view of the world and the environment don't coincide. But it's a good atmosphere in the house and we can share a joke so it's not a bad situation in any sense.

"I have become closer to some locals, resulting in some really good friendships - in particular with Sammy and with Gama, our Ghanaian next door neighbour and a fellow teacher at St Theresa's respectively. Gama, Donal and I climbed Sochee Hill not long after coming here. That is the big feature in view from the picture of the school courtyard, and is also where the picture was taken of me with my arms stretched, presenting the scene of Limbe, Blantyre. Chichiri and about fifty different villages and townships, including Chiwembe, where St Theresa's is situated. (The camera didn't quite have the quality to show them all!) The whole experience of climbing the hill was great."

(Donal - can you see him? - uprooting weeds in "Chimwembe Jungle")

Matthew reveals he is writing all this in school, having borrowed a red pen "to keep the continuity".

"I am sitting in 6B teaching mathematics because the teacher has not turned up. I have briefly taught the class what prime numbers are and have given them a competition to see who can find all the prime numbers between 1 and 100. (It gives me a bit of time to write this.) They are all around 10 years old, but I imagine one of them will complete the task within half the lesson......Anyway, back to Sochee Hill or Mount Sochee, as I prefer to call it.

"The idea was to visit Gama's home (about 30 minutes away) then move on to the base of Sochee Hill (another 30 minutes). Chiwembe is a very "middle-class" Malawian village, but, cross the river (in one place crossing a brook on a bridge made of scrap metal nailed sporadically to two wooden poles) and a feeling of real adventure prevails, not to mention us being particularly conspicuous. After the 30 minutes' walk through narrow paths darting between people's houses on uneven dirt paths in a dominantly dusty yellow landscape, we reached Gama's house. The place is typical of Malawi's ultra-basic accommodation, with no running water or electricity, sandwiched between other 2-room houses. There was little inside - a few plastic chairs that wouldn't be out of place in the garden of No 4 St Johns Hill, a basic table and a few pictures of scantily-clad women Gama admitted he would have to take down if his mother came to visit from Lilongwe! It is humbling to see a person equal if not higher than us in Malawian society (judging by our roles as teachers) in much less impressive housing. Our house I'm sure is a source of envy for some at St Theresa's who live in one-bedroom houses with a wife and two kids, when they are plainly much more competent at their jobs. The privilege of the white man is undeniable.
"Anyway we quickly snacked on some popcorn and began the journey to the hill. Luckily it was the hot dry season so there was no worry of rain; but by the end of the day my t-shirt was wet-through with sweat. I think I lost a considerable weight from that climb, even though we had brought a picnic of mandazi (very fatty doughnuts) and eggs.
"It took about one hour to reach the peak - a small metal pillar on top of the highest rock. We were later to find out that the pillar had been there to hold a flag of Malawi and to honour the life of President Dr Hastings Kamaza Banda - but when he went evidently so did the flag.
"From the top of Sochee the view was magnificent and looking down on all the Blantyre district. From up there it almost seemed as if we were in a plane, except that, in a plane, you do not get that sense of atmosphere that comes with the wind and the sounds of carpenters working, cocks crowing and women chattering.
"On our ascent through jungle-like patches of growth and this slippery ground made of dust and stones, I had expected to encounter people and animals, but the reality was the only people going up there were Rastafarians to celebrate on Sunday, or men with big machetes to cut down more of the sparse lonely trees for charcoal. We spotted a man with a large machete on the other side of the hill when we reached the top and Game thought it best we didn't let him know we were there. After a few minutes' larking around on the rocks, peering over the edge and taking photos, we made our way back down, seeing plenty of monkeys in the trees. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) we didn't see any leopards or hyenas, which, we had been told, do live up there.

(Donal and I climbing a Shamrock V2 in Chichiri Museum)

"It was great fun and I hope we can climb a few other hills like it when the weather clears up in May-June. The Blantyre area is surrounded by similar rocky hills; but they dominate most of Malawi's landscape (along with the lake, of course)."

(I have become one of those people who thinks everything their pupils do is brilliant! But I feel genuinely proud to have got these kids to draw abstract patterns such as this. They needed prompting as they are used only to copying basic images from the blackboard; so to have them use their imagination was new for them and they've done excellently)