Volunteers’ Stories: Chris

Chris’s Story

“My favourite activity was teaching them to make the pinwheels in a “silent” lesson. They roared with laughter and delight in their eyes as they blew on the pinwheels and watched them spin, shouting the uniquely Malawian sounds of “Ooohhhh” and “Eeeeeeeee!””

I teach mathematics and design technology in Vermont, USA. I also tutor William Kamkwamba at Dartmouth College, where he will be a senior next year. I visited him last summer to help install solar panels at a secondary school in the Kasungu area, and came to Mwaya Beach for a brief visit. I was so impressed, I decided to return this summer to teach a session of “summer school” for the Standards 7 and 8 learners at Mwaya Primary. While this is Malawian winter, the beautiful sunny weather seems like summer to someone from North Eastern America. I am on my summer break, and unfortunately had only a few weeks to spend with the learners. Mwaya Beach has been very busy with volunteers coming and going, and visitors from Australia, the UN, Philadelphia, Germany and the Institute of Physics. After convincing the Germans that the Americans did really land on the moon and that we do not scan everyone’s emails, we have enjoyed many laughs and fine meals. If you haven’t yet experienced Geoff’s hospitality, you can’t possibly imagine how well we eat and drink at Mwaya. The staff at Mwaya are fantastic, and the location could not be more idyllic. I have enjoyed many morning swims under the orange sun rise, afternoon walks on the beach, and dinners on the deck. The red moon last week was particularly beautiful.

Holiday school at Mwaya Primary school was a big hit with the Malawian learners. Not knowing what to expect, I arrived the first morning after the Bank Holiday to find 30 learners waiting for us at Mwaya Primary. Thank you so much to Maurice for setting this up. With help from volunteers Ross and Ellie, we studied math and English, got some much-needed exercise, and enjoyed hands on projects in arts and crafts. We struggled a little bit with the language barrier, but Cassava Mike and Winnie Msiska were tremendously helpful in communicating with the learners. Each day began with a math lesson at 8:00. We focussed on multiplication tables, decimals, fractions, and other basic computational skills in two groups based on ability level. The learners made some progress and showed genuine enthusiasm for learning math. They seemed to appreciate the individual attentions and extra practice at a slower pace than their standard curriculum. I am leaving 25 copies of a Standard 8 math workbook with Mr Longwe in the library for learners to continue using, and for other RIPPLE volunteers to use in the future.

  • Chris teaching at holiday schoolChris teaching at holiday school
  • Making peanut butterMaking peanut butter
  • Ellie, Chris and Ross with Winnie and MikeEllie, Chris and Ross with Winnie and Mike

Math lessons were followed each day by enthusiastic soccer and netball. Last Thursday, we challenged the nearby village to a friendly in each sport, with a 1-1 tie in soccer and a last minute one-point victory in netball. We had challenged them to a rematch the next week, but they failed to show up at the appointed time. I guess they were scared.

After sport each day, we covered some vocabulary and then read excerpts from my friend William Kamkwamba’s book, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind. I brought 23 copies of the book with me, and they will remain in the library for others to read. If you have not yet read this inspirational story, I highly recommend it. Reading William’s book has provided relevant material for discussions with the learners. We had hoped to inspire their imagination, creativity and ingenuity. First, however, we had to explain to them what a windmill is. By making some origami pinwheels, we were able to demonstrate the mechanism of a windmill. A hand-cranked torch demonstrated small-scale electrical generation from a spinning dynamo. With the help of Kristin and Ingot from the Institute of Physics, we were able to demonstrate magnetic forces of attraction and repulsion and depict lines of force with some black sand (containing iron) from the beach. They also had a model windmill, which the learners were able to blow on and watch a needle on the voltmeter swing to show the generation of electricity. These supplies should remain in the physics lab at Kapanda and be available in the future. We had hoped to have William Kamkwamba, himself, speak to the children on the last day, but unfortunately his schedule did not allow it. He did however speak to the students and staff at Kapanda at the start of my visit. With only minimal planning ahead of time, the lessons evolved into a cohesive interdisciplinary unit that engaged the students in a meaningful way. They displayed great energy and zeal in response to the readings and projects. We can only hope that some of them will be inspired to take initiative in solving some of the problems in their everyday world.

  • William Kamkwamba's windmillWilliam Kamkwamba’s windmill
  • Origami windmillsOrigami windmills
  • Ingot from the Institute of PhysicsIngot from the Institute of Physics

In writing class, students began by writing directions for making peanut butter and nsima. They then wrote directions to each of their houses. Last weekend, Ross, Marije, Ellie and I, with guidance from Mike, visited many of the children’s homes to meet their families and learn more about their lives. I hope to have a compilation video on YouTube early next month. The final assignment was to write pen pal letters to my student back home in America. I had brought with me 15 letters from students at Thetford Academy in Vermont, which helped to depict life in America. I am particularly pleased with the time and effort the Malawian learners put in to writing their responses. Despite the language barrier, their replies give a detailed description of life in Malawi from the eyes of a young child. They even included various maps, pictures and the Malawian flag. I hope to have a new batch of letters delivered to RIPPLE sometime in the fall.

We ended each day with arts and crafts. These sessions were perhaps the most rewarding part of holiday school. The learners got so excited in doing hands on projects as simple as drawing and colouring. Ross and Ellie taught some origami, including a paper “pig foot” toy, paper cup, and paper aeroplanes. I had brought some beading supplies and bright coloured cord for necklaces and friendship bracelets. I must admit it was difficult at times to manage the enthusiasm of 35 Malawian children when handing out supplies. However, the moments of absolute chaos eventually evolved into productive sessions of creativity and craftsmanship as they mastered each new challenge. The learners wore their necklaces and bracelets proudly all month. My favourite activity was teaching them to make the pinwheels in a “silent” lesson. They roared with laughter and delight in their eyes as they blew on the pinwheels and watched them spin, shouting the uniquely Malawian sounds of “Ooohhhh” and “ Eeeeeeeee!” Our cook Martha’s grandson Enock wrote me a very nice letter at the end of the session saying how much he enjoyed holiday school. These are the little moments that make volunteering so worthwhile.

In the middle of my stay, a tragic event took the life of Jimmy, the RIPPLE Africa preschool coordinator. I had spent the morning with him moving bricks for the construction of the new pre-school. I then watched as he helped the Aldenham students build rafts at Lowani Beach. I left just minutes before he drowned while helping to rescue some students in distress. I will always wish I had stayed as one more strong swimmer who might have been able to keep this tragedy from taking place. Later that evening, I held a lantern on the beach with the crowd that had formed to look for the body. When it washed ashore just a few meters from where I stood, inconsolable wailing spread throughout the crowd. I am afraid I cannot even begin to describe the rest of that evening… We attended Jimmy’s funeral two days later with an estimated 3,000 people present. I only knew him for a short while, but his energy and enthusiasm for children will always be an inspiration to me.

In the wake of this tragedy, we did our best to carry on. I can’t imagine Jimmy would want us to wallow in sadness. Despite our sorrow, we have had some fun adventures during my stay. Several of the volunteers joined the Aldenham kids and their teachers on a hike up Mt. Kuwirwi. The hike was challenging, but the view was amazing. We all felt the climb in our legs for several days afterwards. We also travelled to Makuzi Beach for some fun in the sun and a very nice lunch of beef burgers and chicken wraps. We said farewell to the Aldenham chaps in fine fashion with good food, moderate drink (at least most were moderate), and fine food. I even left the last of the Cauliflower and Cheese for Charlie. On my last weekend, I travelled to Mayoka Village in Nkhata Bay for a fantastic barbecue and a day of snorkelling. I even tried the traditional canoes the fisherman use. I am now writing on the deck looking out over a calm deep blue Lake Malawi. I cannot believe my time here at RIPPLE is coming to an end. I sincerely hope the holiday school session will become an annual event, and I will highly recommend teaching in Malawi to any teachers back home who want a new perspective on their career and on life in general.


Chris (Volunteer Teacher, July 2013)


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