Volunteers’ Stories: Jaclyn

Jaclyn’s Story

“The students, the teachers, the villagers, the RIPPLE Africa staff and all the fellow volunteers I met made my experience absolutely incredible. They have become my extended family, and I could not ask for better. I did make memories while on this adventure but, more than this, I created friendships and built experiences that I know will last and that I will share with others.”

There’s something about adventures that makes it a bit easier to say goodbye to your family and friends while you go off to experience something that you hope to be exciting, new and uplifting. Malawi is one of those hidden gems — a beautiful country with beautiful people, full of adventures, and just waiting for your memories. After being told about RIPPLE Africa by a friend, and having the perfect opportunity to make a trip after completing my undergrad, I was off to Mwaya Beach to make some memories.

I was lucky enough to sync my travels with another volunteer traveling from the US, which was both a blessing and a welcome opportunity to make a friend before I had even landed in the country. The journey to Matete from Lilongwe was a reminder that I had left Western comforts and obsession with time behind. A bus journey that was supposed to begin at 8am in the morning didn’t actually begin until 1.30pm that afternoon. Fortunately, I had Jon with me to pass the time. Our diet that day consisted of a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter, but no utensils. It was certainly a very long, but memorable day. Arriving to Matete late at night, in the dark, I began walking towards the lake and Mwaya Beach. It was so refreshing to reach ‘the final destination’ and to hear the waves crashing up against the shore. Although I couldn’t see it, the sound was soothing and created great anticipation for the next day.

As with anything new, the first few days were a bit overwhelming; new people, names, places, directions, and time differences! Yet I was determined to absorb as much as I could and to learn the local ChiTonga language. I couldn’t wait to begin learning all I could about how Mwaya Primary School functioned and where I could fit in. From the first day at the school, I was excited about the potential. Walking into classrooms that were greatly overfilled, minimal to no resources for the students and teachers, and yet big, bright smiling faces of children were always there to greet me. Naturally, at first, I was upset at how little these students actually had, but as I watched some of the RIPPLE Africa paid teachers and the dedication of some of the students, the spirit of the school gradually showed me that there is always something that can be done to make a difference for the willing. After sitting in on classes for Standards 5, 6, 7 and 8, I decided I would be the most help in Standard 8. With over 120 students, and two Standard 8 classes, I alternated my time between the two classes every week so that I could help the students prepare for their final examination in early September.

  • A Silly Hat party at Mwaya Beach
    A Silly Hat party at Mwaya Beach
  • Jaclyn with Nephia
    Jaclyn with Nephia

As with any experience, and most certainly at the primary school, you get out as much as you put in. It takes initiative, creativity and patience while volunteering at the school. If you don’t have a vision of what you want to accomplish, or whom you want to help, then the experience can most definitely be frustrating and seem futile. Over in Malawi, things do not move as efficiently and smoothly as we in the Western world are used to and, although this can sometimes be frustrating, it can also be an opportunity to slow down, enjoy what you are doing and remember that every little step forward counts for something.

The school day was from 7am to 12.35pm, but the students were lucky if classes started by 7.30am. As I said, efficiency is not the name of the game, and unfortunately in-class instruction time is minimised by this. During classes, I acted more as a teacher’s assistant by circulating around helping to explain maths problems, English exercises and marking the day’s assigned problems. I taught grammar and comprehension lessons, and covered periods for the teachers when needed. The Standard 8 students would have weekly tests on Fridays in order to prepare them for September, and I would both invigilate and mark these tests. The marking was definitely not an uplifting experience, as there were far more wrong answers than right. Out of 120 students, depending on what the subject was, maybe around 7-15 students would pass that exam. As I sat at the kitchen table at Mwaya Beach marking, the other volunteers and I would comment that the students would have better luck if they just randomly guessed for multiple choice rather than attempting to answer. Although marking did not give me those warm and fuzzy feelings, I did appreciate the opportunity, as I began to see where the students had trouble (which were in numerous areas), who the intelligent students were, and a deeper understanding of how important quality education is.

I started afternoon English classes for the Standard 8 students and focused on the material they would be examined on in September. The classes were successful for two main reasons; the dedicated, motivated and keen students would show up, and the smaller class size was much more manageable and allowed for interaction, questions and one-on-one time. I found all the marking I did helpful because I discovered where the problem areas were and for which students, allowing me to better focus and cater to their needs.

I asked a lot of questions while at the school out of curiosity and my need to understand the ‘Malawian’ system. From this, I created a document called “Mwaya Primary School: Information for Teaching Volunteers” (now updated and incorporated into the Information for Teaching Volunteers document) to use as a base before starting at the school. My intention in creating this was to level set all future volunteers about what typically happens at the school and what they can expect. As well, I was able to set up a one-week teacher training for the Primary and Nursery school teachers in the area during the three term breaks throughout the year. I helped organise the logistics for this after finding out from Liz and Geoff how important it was to get this up and running. In addition, through my observations at the school, I pitched an idea to the headmaster of the school and to the Primary Education Advisor in the District about streaming the students in Standard 8 based on their academic achievement. The idea was well received and hopefully will be implemented, as a trial run, during the new school year in January 2008.

The students, the teachers, the villagers, the RIPPLE Africa staff and all the fellow volunteers I met made my experience absolutely incredible. They have become my extended family, and I could not ask for better. I did make memories while on this adventure but, more than this, I created friendships and built experiences that I know will last and that I will share with others.

Jaclyn (Volunteer Teaching Assistant, May-August 2007)

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