Nothing expressed here reflects the opinions of the Peace Corps or the U.S. government. I say this in part to protect them from getting blamed for anything I might say, but also to keep them from stealing my jokes.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Madam Chambezi

Life in the developing world has forced me to become comfortable with what it really means to be uncomfortable, but not in the ways you might expect. It has nothing to do with pit latrines, bucket baths, cockroaches, or catcalls (even though my life right now is full of all of these). Rather, for me, the feeling is tethered to having a specific job to do, guided by well-laid plans and lofty visions of how I’d like it to go, only to find obstacle courses and lessons in chaos theory barricading my every move. No matter how much I love this country, no matter how head-over-heels I am for this continent, and no matter how culturally fluent I become, I still marvel at how often the rug gets pulled out from under me – and how often I find that I was never standing on a rug to begin with.
It’s tempting to compare my Malawi experience so far with the distant golden idol of everything Tanzania was (which has been galvanized, cast in soft light, and encrusted in rhinestones by my memory), but the comparison is not really a fair one. Tanzania was a heady, perfumed rush even in the face of greater challenges than I’ve seen here, while Malawi has been a more measured, balanced mix of positive and negative, reflective (perhaps) of a more mature, independent perspective. But that perspective also parallels the nature of the demands – there’s not really anyone holding my hand anymore. It’s up to me to figure things out.
And perhaps this is why it has taken me months to find the words to talk about the real reason I’m here – to teach – and how it is going.
The landscape of the Malawian education system is, in short, nightmarish. It is No Child Left Behind taken to an extreme – a machine that hinges on the idea of teaching to the test. Secondary school students must hurdle over two major national exams to pass between junior (Forms 1 and 2) and senior classes (Forms 3 and 4). The Junior Certificate Exam (JCE) determines who gets to move on to senior level, while the Malawi Schools Certificate Exam (MSCE), taken in the final year, determines students’ ultimate fate. The results are destined to dog every job application they ever submit.
The national exams also determine how students are filtered through the system. Kids with the best scores and the most financially secure parents go to well-supplied private institutions or government boarding schools in the cities, while everyone else trickles into Community Day Secondary Schools (CDSSs) – the chronically understaffed, underfunded, overcrowded, mostly rural bottom rung of the educational pyramid. This is where Peace Corps comes in. And this is where I fit into the puzzle.
This first term has been spent figuring out a) how to teach, but also b) how to teach in Africa, which are two different animals. There was the daily game, for example, of fairly distributing 13 textbooks among 50 students without planting any imagined seeds of favoritism, while also weaning them off the idea that textbooks are the only way to learn. There was the surprise of showing up prepared to teach on September 3rd only to be told that no teaching happens on the first day because none of the students come. There were delays in grading the national exams, which meant that the Form 1 and 3 students – my kids – didn’t start coming to school until late September. And there was the maddening feeling of living in a Salvador Dali painting, of watching the clocks melt into distorted floppy pizzas all around me as staff meetings that could take thirty minutes instead drag on for hours (the record, so far, is six). The weekly assemblies scheduled for 7:00 a.m. always happen around 8:00 because no one (teachers included) shows up on time.
This is a world where rote memorization is the rule, where “teaching” often means leaving the students to copy notes from the board while the teacher drinks tea in the staff lounge. It is a world where geography classes are taught without maps, literature classes have ten kids huddling around the same book, and the main material required in the science lab is imagination – because there is no such thing as a science lab. And as a result, it is a world where learning stays frozen at the abstract level, rarely stretching out into practical, tangible application.
I’m vexed by the same challenges faced by any first-year teacher, but they are compounded by the fact that my kids have to translate everything I say two or three times over. How do I challenge the girls in the front corner who groan, “Yeeeeees,” every time I slowly, patiently ask, “Is this clear?” At the same time, how do I get through to the boys in the back who don’t even understand the question, “Do you understand?” I sometimes daydream about what it must be like to enter a classroom with a projector and individual desks and enough books for every student, or to be able to make a stupid joke and get appropriately sized laughs. (Not extravagant ones! Just little and polite, the kind usually given to authority figures. Even a small smile or two would be fine.) 
When I look out on the sea of faces, some are lit with flaming expressions so desperate to understand that it nearly breaks my heart, while others are dimmed in resignation. And it is hard to know why. Is it because they had to wake up at 4:00 a.m. and walk two hours to make it to school on time, and now they are (understandably!) exhausted? Is it because their parents don’t have a stable source of income and there hasn’t been enough to eat? (Uncommon, but certainly not unheard of, especially in the months before the rains come – nyengo ya njala, the time of hunger). Or is it because (and this is the scariest possibility of all) I’m just not doing a very good job? Add on top of that the lack of electricity or running water, the fact that we have a schedule but no one really adheres to it, that there are 50 kids in each class with a huge variation in language ability, and that really the only tool at my disposal is a chalkboard, and it becomes easy for the downs to feel abysmal.
But here’s the bright side: I love it. And I love it for the same reason that I harbor affection for harsh landscapes full of stark sharp lines, dry air, and animals and plants and diseases that could kill you: the roughness makes the highs even more exhilarating.
More specifically I love these kids, who are sweet and funny and who generally try very hard. I love the days where there is laughter, engagement, and visible improvement. I love the girls who draw me pictures and the boys who salute me when I walk in the room. I love being christened with the Malawian surname “Chambezi,” which sounds so similar to my own. I love the blossoming sense of rapport that is leading more and more kids to chat with me outside of school, to borrow books from my personal library, and to shyly seek extra help at my house. I’m in awe of the kind of determination – and courage, really – that it takes to come to your teacher’s house with only a faint grasp on the language of instruction and an even fainter idea of what you’re even trying to ask. One day, to help students apply for a World Bank bursary initiative, my headmaster walked into the croom and asked, “Who here has lost one or both parents?” In a moment that cemented my indomitable sense of respect for these kids, one-third of the students in the room stood up. Many of those same students make a four-hour roundtrip walk every day. I struggle to punish them for being late, really, because I’m reverent of them for showing up at all.
            Near the end of the term, several of the other teachers said something to me in the staff room that still gives me goosebumps: “Jaime, we’ve been watching you, and we think that you were born to be a teacher. We can see that you must continue, and we don’t care how you do it – if it’s at a secondary school or a primary or a university. But we know that you must. We think you were meant to do this.” (And then I excused myself to cry a little.)
I’m entering Term II with a lot of resolve, a lot of new ideas, and a better sense of what I need to do differently – but most of all, with the feeling that, at least for now, there is absolutely nothing else I’d rather be doing.

Form 1 kiddos writing letters to my friend Emily's class in South Korea

Petros, Thoko, Jacob, and Maggie: four of my favorite Form 3s. Malawians' favored pose for pictures is a solemn stare, and I have no idea why -- it's precisely the opposite of how they typically are.  Literally, they burst into laughter right after I took this.

Mtangatanga CDSS, as viewed from the main road

The row of latrines

Main courtyard, with the senior classroom block on the left,  junior block on the right, and the staff block in the distance

The school has four identical classrooms, one for each form. A major difference between the American and Malawian school day: the students stay in the same room, and the teachers come to them.

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