Post Script to “Primary School in Malawi”…

My last post seems to have instigated some discussion – thanks for the messages!  After posting, I watched a wonderful documentary that I many of you may enjoy, so I wanted to share the details.

“On the Way to School” chronicles a few of the physical struggles that some families around the world have to overcome in order to allow their children to attend school.  Reviews  from New York to LA are positive yet hesitant – raising the issue of the depth of the stories in the face of beautiful landscapes and a somewhat glorified depiction of these rural families.  Despite these potential criticisms, I think this movie is a great reminder to those of us who think that a good education is an expectation, rather than a privilege.  Based on my travels, the stories are very real and the children will make you smile. 🙂

I watched “On the Way to School” for free through my local library, but you can also get a copy via iTunes, NetFlix, and other online services.

Enjoy!

Primary School in Malawi

During my volunteer trip with Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village Program in Malawi last month, our team had an opportunity to visit a primary school. Since the first day of school in the US is upon us, it seems fitting to share some thoughts on this experience. I’m so glad we made the visit…but I still wonder just how I should feel about what we saw.

IMG_5780In Malawi, children are eligible to begin “Standard 1” at the age of 5 or 6. Since the mid-1990’s, primary school has been free (but not mandatory) in Malawi – an effort by the government to encourage literacy and opportunity. However, practical challenges remain and there are many reasons why children may not attend school, including distance from the nearest school, health issues, family obligations, etc. Girls are especially at risk of dropping out, since it is often impossible to attend school during menstruation (lack of supplies and social stigma) and early marriage/pregnancy is common. A polarizing article from 2012 describes some of the  struggles.

When I was in Malawi, school was not in session. Luckily, the principal of a local primary school was more than willing to meet with us and share some information about his school. He, along with one of his teachers, spent about 2 hours of their time talking with us about the details of the school day. It was obvious that despite the hardships that teachers endure (low pay, poor facilities, large number of students who drop out or attend only intermittently, and an overwhelming work load to name just a few), they were dedicated to their work and take pride in what they do.

IMG_5784The school day here runs from 7:30-1:30. Students walk to the school, from as far as 5-10km away. Only classes take place – students eat before coming to school and, if they are lucky, will carry water with them for the day. They will not receive any other nutrition or free time until they get back home. Here’s the “bell” that calls the children to class!

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The primary school that we visited is fairly typical of schools in the area. There are 1,565 students in 8 grades. There are 49 teachers.

I’m going to let that sink in for a minute. The ratio at this school is better than most in Malawi – 32 students per teacher.

9 subjects are included in the curriculum. These include: Math, Science, English, Chichewa (the local language), Life Skills (including agriculture, HIV/AIDS training, and everything in between), Expressive Arts (art, music, PE, sports) and Bible Knowledge (I’m missing two!). Unfortunately, the chances of continuing on to higher education are so minimal that schools primarily focus on teaching life skills and practical subjects. The Wikipedia headline highlights the reality: Education in Malawi no longer stresses academic preparation leading to access to secondary school and universities, rather the stress is now on agriculture and practical training since few students go on to high school or university and most begin work immediately after primary school.”

We were able to visit a classroom and I hope it gives you a sense for the positive spirit that exists in this place. This is a Standard 8 room and accommodates about 70 students (3 per desk).IMG_5775 IMG_5776

IMG_5758The walls are covered with various lessons.

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We even brought a few supplies – insufficient to make a difference but appreciated nonetheless.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURESOf the two families that I worked with in Malawi, only one has school age children. Luckily, all three attend – but their “status” may surprise you. Brenda (age 10) is currently in Standard 2. Yakobo (age 13) is in Standard 3 and Mercy (age 18) attends Standard 4. Good for them for sticking with it. 🙂 Here’s a photo of the kids with their caretaker, Emily:IMG_5571It’s unfortunate that we couldn’t visit on a day when students were attending, but our short trip gave us a glimpse into the education system that we needed to see.

Meet my friend “Wisdom”

I met Wisdom while volunteering with Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village Program in Zambia. Wisdom worked tirelessly with my group volunteers over the course of a few days as we built a home for a Emilia, an elderly caretaker who is benefitting from Habitat’s Orphans and Vulnerable Children Project (much more on Emilia soon!).

One day Wisdom was feeling ill so he left us to visit the local clinic (the bags cement we used to build this home were being stored in his bedroom and caused him some respiratory distress). Despite our protests, he tried to jump back into work immediately upon his return. He was so proud to be helping us and wouldn’t let anything slow him down. Even when he could only “supervise” from a seated position, Wisdom told us that “a sleeping dog is better than a dead lion” – a reference to his inexhaustible desire to contribute, no matter how strong (or not) he was feeling.

IMG_6255Wisdom is 40 years old and lives with his wife, Maureen, and their three children (Justin (4), Susan (7), and an older boy whom I did not have a chance to meet) in two rooms of the house where Emilia currently lives.  The house is unsafe, and has already partially collapsed.  Wisdom’s rooms are at the back right of the photo above.  Here are some photos of the inside of the house where he and his family currently live:

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Clockwise from top left:  1) families clothes hanging in bedroom where cement bags are stored 2) leaking roof which allows water in during the rainy season 3) living room storage with family supplies 4) living room seating

Wisdom rents these rooms for 100 Zambian Kwacha per month, the equivalent of about 13USD. The conditions of his home are substandard, but Wisdom constantly insisted that he was grateful to have a roof over his head. He is, himself, an orphan and was excited that we were there to help Emilia and her family – even though he will not directly benefit from the new home.

Maureen works each day as a house maid and their eldest child is able to attend school. Justin and Susan were home, gushing over their dad and full of smiles. Even in poverty they find happiness:

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Wisdom told me that when his parents died and he had nowhere to live, he had to teach himself a skill so that he  could provide for his family. He now spends his days repairing shoes in the shade of the tree in the yard. His advertising is a small cardboard sign tacked to the tree on the street:

IMG_6344Neighbors know Wisdom and his quality work. There are regular customers but the work is still sporadic, with money for “unnecessary items” often scarce.  At most there may be 3 repairs per day. There are also plenty of days without work. It takes Wisdom about 15 minutes to perform a simple repair by hand and the charge is approximately 1 Kwacha ($0.15).

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I’m proud to call Wisdom my friend.  By all standards, he lives a very difficult life. But in him I see a spirit that we would all be lucky to possess. He is determined, caring, resourceful, and giving.  He is open, friendly and welcoming, takes pride in providing for his family, and does not allow life to defeat him.  When I next worry about where to go for dinner or whether to buy that next pair of shoes, I will certainly think twice about Wisdom and his family.

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Testing 1, 2, 3…

My first blog post! It’s kind of intimidating. I mean, really – there’s pressure to make “the right” post as my “big” introduction. Or maybe there isn’t…

When I was contemplating starting this blog, so many things went through my mind – not the least of which was “is anyone really interested in reading this??”. Luckily, a wise friend reminded me that the number one reason to write a blog is for your own self. “If others enjoy it, then that’s a bonus!” I like that take not just on the blog, but on life – so that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. 🙂

I have lots of ideas about things that I want to share in these pages. Many years ago I was bitten by the travel bug and have seen some truly amazing things around the world. I can’t wait to share the stories of those places in a way that brings with it my own unique perspective, perhaps even sometimes one that you hadn’t considered. Often it’s the small things that touch you and frequently those memories are lost in the recounting of an itinerary or the pretty pictures of famous sites. I want to share stories of people and places, things of beauty, and just plain interesting facts. I’m naturally curious and ask a lot of questions, so maybe we’ll even learn something along the way.

“Tricia’s Travels” resonates in my heart because “traveling” means more to me than just the physical places I have visited. We all travel through life on unique paths. Sometimes the road is easy to follow, and sometimes there are challenges. The choices we make are a reflection of our past experiences and define our future. I hope that my stories give you a little sense of who I am and make you smile. Let’s enjoy the journey together. 🙂

Enough seriousness. Thanks for sharing my adventures. Check back often for new stories, or sign up to receive updates by email. I’d love to hear from you too – so if there’s something you’re interested in hearing about or just want to provide feedback, please be in touch!

Exploring and learning while enjoying life and doing my part. Here, there and everywhere…