I have now been in Africa for three months, and still there are surprises every day. The country itself is a continuing surprise. Having daylight lengthening (to thirteen hours) at Christmas is a novelty; looking up at the huge monoliths of Mulanje Mountain, practically overhead and gleaming with waterfalls, is not yet routine. The energy and good nature of the many people walking, bicycling, even running along the roads, and often carrying incredible bundles on the head-generally plus a baby on the back, in the case of the young women-- is still astonishing. A lorry full of workmen on the red, dusty highway will be pouring forth a full-throated, many-part song as it weaves with deadly speed among the people and goats. An elderly lady curtseys as she greets you on her way, or actually kneels down to speak to a shopkeeper. One loses count of the marvels of plant, bird and insect. Even the smells, for good or ill, are amazing.
It is probably easier for me to forget I am a minority--a non-black, in fact--than it is for the people I deal with, since I am looking at a uniform colour scheme and they are looking at the exception--the unnatural washed-out reddish skin with these ridiculous freckles! -- but they don't often remind me; and individually they are very polite about my disadvantages. They all expect me to be collapsing with the heat at 80F. Little do they know about Toronto in August! They seem to rush into jackets and sweaters at about 70F.
My school is large and handsome with places for about 400 students, most of whom also board in the hostels. Competition for places is on the basis of an official examination at the end of Standard Eight. Many more pass this than there are places, so that if a student does not report in October, his place will be given to a runner up. Some of these may not arrive for weeks, since they will have to round up the tuition fee, and also boarding fees if they do not live nearby. One man in Form Three walks thirteen miles each way every day, because no one in his clan can pay the fifteen or so kwachas needed for the term. (A kwacha is worth about $1.20 in exchange but represents a great deal more in actual food value here; imported things are very dear, but most people deal in very little cash, and that same kwacha might be a week's earnings.) Another boy is sponsored by four families jointly, since all are very poor. The ratio of boys to girls is ten to one. There are no girls at all in the third year because none passed the Junior Certificate Examinations last year. This seems to be the result of a firm social conditioning to the effect that girls must not compete with boys, and ought not to be interested excessively in matters which will not win them a good husband as soon as possible! For all that, some of the senior girls are very bright indeed.
Teaching English presents a good many problems which were not quite expected. A very large one is the fact that even after several weeks there are some students whose English I cannot understand at all, even though it is perfectly clear to others whose accent (to me) is relatively slight. There is also the fact that it is good manners to speak very softly, especially for girls! After guessing wildly what a student is saying for the third time, I sometimes resort to throwing it back to the class in case their responses will give me a clue! However the inspector tells me sternly that since making themselves understood is part of their aim, I should make them repeat as often as necessary for me. But what can you do when 'radio' and 'ledger' come out identical? When half the class cannot distinguish 'rugs' from 'rags'?
The students' biggest problem (since they don't consider their accent a problem) is the fact that they have never had any exposure to English idiom, and do not actually use English often in private conversation. They have all studied it throughout primary school, but not from truly English-speaking teachers. They have learned a lot of quite wrong speech, in fact. Another problem, especially for Form Three, is that since they have passed their J.C. exam and will not have a departmental exam this year they cannot persuade themselves that there is any real need to do any work. The real effort will come in Form Four, when they will be examined on two years work!
We teachers live in well-built, rather spacious houses either right on the campus or adjoining it. Single teachers share in pairs, or in my case in threes. An unexpected feature of this arrangement is the custom of almost every young female teacher of adopting and supporting any orphans or extra nieces and nephews who happen to he in need. This 'extended family' is the normal means of caring for the old, as well, in place of any public welfare. It does lead to a chronic shortage of teachers' housing. When my young son comes out to join me in the summer I expect to have to move off campus at least for a while--in the hope that more houses will be provided eventually. Present plans are to take an apartment at a rest-house-youth-centre part way up the mountain, where the Likhabula River pours itself down the long series of cascades over polished lava, and brims over a dozen beautiful natural pools. (One is warned to carry a torch at night to discourage the leopards and baboons).
I could go on at great length about Malawi at large, but much of what I have seen is of course public knowledge. The country has been independent only ten years, but is leaping into modern culture--and inflation-- at a dizzying speed. There are innumerable great projects going forward or already in full flower which various foreign powers have provided capital for. The piping of the mountain water into villages for miles and miles around is a fine example. There are research projects into tea, rice, pulpwood, coffee; land reclamation and conservation; animal husbandry and veterinary service, as well as many other branches of agriculture; road construction, a good air service; and perhaps most spectacular of all, the new Capital City at Lilongwe. I haven't yet seen as much as I would like, but in the
approaching holiday (three weeks over the year end!) a group of us is going to make a tour to elephant country and back along to the lake resort area. I have seen the lake--the size of Lake Superior, but warm; and busy with fishermen diving after fish from their dugout canoes!
I must quit before I wear out the exclamation key. But I feel privileged to be here, and you will hear more from me as the year goes on. Christmas greetings to all Canadian friends from the heart of brightest Africa.