Diary of a gap year: In at the deep end

Louise Heaton
Louise Heaton

Gap year adventurer Louise Heaton talks about her first impressions of Malawi, where she plans to spend the next six months teaching at a small school.

Sunday, January 19: The last couple of weeks have flown by, while at the same time it already feels like we have been here for months.

Before arriving, we were warned that it takes around two months to feel entirely settled and the last thirteen days have certainly brought us many moments of excitement and a number of trials too.

I think it is expected that if you move to somewhere new it will take some time to adjust to the culture differences, and at times culture clashes.

Many things work differently in Malawi to the Western World which is probably the most difficult adjustment to make.

For example here many children live with their parents until they marry and begin their own lives - this more often than not can mean the children stay at home and are looked after until their mid-20s.

Back home I am very used to having privacy and independence, which at times has been fairly difficult here - with ten living under the same roof, it is understandable that a touch of claustrophobia has crept its way in.

The family that were looking after us until our own house was completed, were so accommodating and taught us all the basics we need to know.

However, since we have moved into our own house and started cooking a little variation into our diet, we have been very anxious that we might be causing some offence, as one of the villagers who taught us the basics of cooking on the fire doesn’t agree with particular methods we have used to cook some of our food.

It’s very difficult to know what is acceptable and what is not when it comes to elements which at home would seem so menial and insignificant.

Before too long the villagers found out every belonging we own (not through our own doing) and the requests have come in their numbers.

Despite the uncomfortable refusal that has to be made, it is lovely to see so much curiosity among the people here, particularly within the children, who are so curious, imaginative and innovative they are able to create hours of fun with less than the basics.

Where at home children can find themselves swamped in the latest toys, here throughout the village wherever you look children are creating wheelbarrow like games with old tyres and bamboo sticks, moulding the wet clay from the ground into works of art, or learning to somersault into a pile of dry grass.

It’s refreshing to see how so little can be transformed into so much with just a little imagination.

As more weeks pass, it is hard to miss the fact that the level of poverty within Malawi is a continuously difficult problem; particularly throughout the rain season during the months of January to March, the majority of people you meet are finding it difficult to live even with just the basics, due to the decrease in crops growth.

At one of the many local primary schools, I am teaching a class which contains an age range of about 11 to 14, and I have found it incredibly heart breaking to see a number of children sent home from school mid-lesson, because they haven’t been able to pay the MK200 (the equivalent of 32p in the UK) in school fees.

As we walk to the market every day, children line the roads to wave and greet us, others flock to follow us to our destination, the curiosity even among the general public to meet the ‘Azungas’ continues, and so we meet some very interesting people on a daily basis.

It’s fantastic to interact with such a variety and find out about their lives; many are unable to work but live entirely self-sufficiently growing their own rice and maize, which coming from the West where almost all required food items are found at the local supermarket, is a very fascinating concept to me.

The plan for teaching was to first observe then to start with a particular class, but come the first day of observation, two teachers hadn’t been able to make it to school, and so after being asked if I could cover, I took the opportunity to just throw myself into the deep end.

With a class of almost fifty pairs of eyes staring up at me, attempting to interpret my accent, it’s safe to say I was a little nervous.

But the key I have found is to speak slowly, repeat several times and ensure class participation.

Although it is very simple to see that a lot of the children in Malawi have a genuine interest to learn, at the end of the day, they are still just children, and many of them act exactly like the ones back home.

In every class, there is always that group of misbehavers who refuse to participate and derive every excuse in the book to prevent doing any work at all; the key – an abundance of spare pens, paper and the threat of after school classes.

The school is very basic, with a significant lack of funding; only one or two of the classrooms have tables, and many remain mere pot-holed concrete rooms, with only a chalk board at the front of the class.

With metal roofing, classes are often brought to a halt as the torrential rain pours down in a roar of impenetrable sound, with water almost always finding its way through a rusted hole and into the classroom.

A typical day here for us starts at 5am (for most it begins at 4am), at which point we bath with a bucket of water, light the fire to cook breakfast, and head to school for 6:30am.

School then finishes at 1:30pm, where the afternoon is spent preparing for the next day’s lessons, washing clothes, exploring the market for any undiscovered food items that might shake up our diet of rice, tomato and onion, playing with the local children, cleaning the house and again lighting the fire to cook our dinner – which we are getting better at so cooking time is slowly decreasing from the four hours we first spent to cook potatoes.

The school and the village need so much, we want to try and help as much as we can during the six months we are here.

Our first project is to find a donation of football kit to be sent out to the secondary school team, the only one in the district without kit to compete in, and to have a set of basic netball bibs made for the girls who have nothing to distinguish their positions as they play.

We often have visitors to the house, as a result much of the evening can be spent socialising on the veranda, as the sun sets and the luminous green fireflies awaken to glitter the surroundings.

It’s an incredibly beautiful sight here in the evenings, without the pollution of street lighting, the night is utter darkness, but the moon is so bright and the sky so clear I am able to see more stars than ever before; that accompanied by the sound of music playing in the distance from the near-by market, couldn’t be more peaceful – it is pure bliss and tranquillity.

The Girl with the Green Bergen.