Volunteers’ Stories: Paul and Amy

Paul’s and Amy’s Story

“All in all, we both had a wonderful time at Mwaya. The accommodation is top notch, and we were completely looked after by Harry and Nephia, the cooks, and Martha, the cleaner. We were very lucky to be part of a very diverse and interesting group of volunteers, who we missed almost as soon as we left.”

We applied to work as voluntary teachers for RIPPLE Africa in order to take a break from academia following the completion of my PhD and Paul’s first post doc. We had been planning for a long time to go travelling, but we decided to combine it with something more rewarding where we could really become a part of the community and have a fuller experience of life in Africa. We have both enjoyed teaching undergraduate students during our PhD’s as well as tutoring GCSE and A level students, so we looked for teaching opportunities in Africa. Being specialised in maths and science (Paul PhD Applied Maths, Amy PhD Biochemistry), we were keen to find a project where we could use these skills rather than just teaching English — RIPPLE Africa fitted the bill. We applied and were accepted to teach for Term 3 from August to November 2005 at Mwaya Primary School.

We headed out to Africa as soon as possible after the completion of my PhD, which gave us a few weeks for travelling before the start of term. On our second day in Malawi, we headed to the bus station to catch a bus to Zambia and had a chance meeting with another new RIPPLE Africa volunteer. It was Donncha, a librarian from Trinity College, Dublin, who was heading straight up to Mwaya to catalogue books for the new library. Our buses were both characteristically late, so we had quite a while to chat which was great as it meant that we knew we would already have a friend as soon as we arrived at Mwaya.

We travelled round Zambia for three weeks and then headed up through Malawi to Mwaya, arriving two weeks before Term 3 was due to start, thinking that we would have time to relax and settle in before starting any teaching. However, as soon as we arrived, Standard 8 students began asking us for maths tuition. Standard 8 students take their final exams, which allow them to graduate from primary school and qualify for secondary school, at the beginning of September. They continue with extra lessons all through the school holidays in August, so we ran an afternoon maths revision class for Standard 8 students during the first two weeks. This was a nice introduction to teaching, as only a limited number of motivated students attended, allowing us to get to know them well and move through the work at a good pace.

During our second week, the rest of the new volunteers arrived: Elmar and Jorien from the Netherlands who were volunteering at the health centre, and Pete and Anne from England, and Crt from Slovenia who were also volunteer teachers.

The week that school started, we were thrown in at the deep end as the Standard 8 exams were going on at the same time. This meant that several teachers from Mwaya had to act as invigilators at another school, and we were asked to take over their classes for the week. Paul and I taught maths to Standards 6 and 7, Pete and Anne taught English, and Crt joined Standard 5 for all their lessons. When the teachers returned the following week, Harvey, the Standard 7 teacher, was keen for us to continue taking all of the maths lessons as this is one of his weaker subjects. Although one of us always took the lesson, Harvey was around most of the time, which was useful as he could re-explain some of the material in Chitonga for those students who could not understand English sufficiently. He also said that he learnt some things in our lessons which he had had difficulty with before. We followed the material in the Malawi textbooks covering topics such as fractions, long multiplication and division, shapes, angles, and time.

  • Amy gave students individual tutoring
    Amy gave students individual tutoring
  • Jethro and Yalerd with Paul
    Jethro and Yalerd with Paul

In addition to our work during school hours, we decided to run afternoon maths revision sessions for the pupils in Standards 6 and 7. Standard 7 has approximately 60 students and Standard 6 has over 80, all with a wide range of abilities. This makes it extremely difficult to give a lesson which engages all the students. Our revision classes, however, were not compulsory, so only those students who were keen to learn attended. This made them extremely successful as the small class sizes meant that the students received plenty of attention and progressed much quicker than in class. It also allowed us to build up a closer relationship with some of the pupils. Our brightest student from Standard 8, Rael, was a keen thinker and enjoyed playing chess. Therefore, he often visited us to give Paul a match and learn some new tactics.

Whilst teaching in the Standard 7 classes, we realised that one of the main topics that students have problems with is measuring. The majority of students did not understand how to use a ruler correctly. This was surprising given that many of the students are competent with relatively complex arithmetic that students in the UK would struggle with. Similarly, students had even greater problems with measuring angles as there were no protractors available in school and only a handful of students owned one of their own. This lack of basic (and essential) measuring skills is probably due to the limited mathematical equipment in the school. Help was at hand from fellow volunteer Crt, who kindly gave us some of the money which he had raised for RIPPLE Africa to buy classroom measuring equipment. This included a metre stick for every class, a blackboard sized protractor, set squares and compass, together with 30 mathematical sets, each with set squares, a protractor, a ruler and a compass.

One of the key problems holding back the children’s progress in maths is the fact that many of the teachers are themselves not completely confident in all areas of maths. So Paul ran a weekly class for the primary school teachers, focusing on parts of the maths syllabus which they had difficulties with.

In addition to helping at the primary school, we were keen to help secondary school children. Although we originally only intended to give personal tuition to some of the local students, we discovered early on that one of the local secondary schools (Chifira) did not have maths or biology teachers. Therefore, Paul, Crt and I visited the school to offer our services teaching the Form 4 students who were approaching their final exams. The teachers were extremely keen for us help and completely rearranged the timetable to suit us. Paul taught the maths syllabus, and Crt and I shared the biology teaching. The standard of Form 4 work is somewhere in between GCSE and A level, which made it very interesting to teach. The students were also all enthusiastic, although never punctual. Just before they took their final exams, the students had a graduation ceremony which we were all invited to. It was a lovely afternoon in which the students gave plays, songs and speeches. The headmistress in her speech said that her prayers had been answered when we arrived. We hope that the link with Chifira will be continued by future RIPPLE Africa volunteers as the local secondary schools are desperately short of good qualified teachers. The work is highly rewarding, and you can develop a better relationship with the students as their English being far better than that of the children at primary school.

As our stay in Malawi was relatively short, we considered that the best way we could make a contribution to the educational system would be to improve the standard of the native teachers. Most teachers who teach at secondary schools in Malawi have only received education to secondary school level themselves. As the standard of their own teachers was likely to be poor, they themselves are often not completely familiar or competent with all of the work that they have to teach. Therefore, we organised and ran a two-week intensive maths and science course for secondary school teachers. As this was only a pilot scheme, we limited places to just four teachers. Paul taught many aspects of the maths syllabus, I taught some of the biology topics and some chemistry topics, and Crt taught some aspects of physics. Malawi is particularly lacking in teachers able to teach chemistry and physics, which are compulsory subjects for any students wishing to go into medicine or nursing. The course consisted of full days with a mixture of lectures and problems classes. Harry and Martha were wonderful and prepared lunch for the teachers every day, and Harry made his delicious banana cake to celebrate on the last day. All the teachers thoroughly enjoyed the course, and Rhoda, the headmistress from Chifira, said that although she had not taught maths before she now felt confident enough to teach it in future. All the teachers on this course were very grateful for the opportunity and hoped that similar courses could be run again in the future by RIPPLE Africa volunteers. If you are educated to degree level or above in a mathematical or scientific subject, then this is a very valuable and efficient way to make an important and lasting educational contribution.

All in all, we both had a wonderful time at Mwaya. The accommodation is top notch, and we were completely looked after by Harry and Nephia, the cooks, and Martha, the cleaner. We were very lucky to be part of a very diverse and interesting group of volunteers, who we missed almost as soon as we left. Paul had a great time scuba diving at Kande Beach, exploring the surrounding mountains on his mountain bike, getting lost and meeting many local people in an attempt to find his way home, and we both completely fell in love with all of the kittens.

More details and pictures from our time at Mwaya can be found on our own website, www.cyclewax.co.uk.

Paul and Amy (Volunteer Teaching Assistants, August-November 2005)

Postscripts:

To raise funds for RIPPLE Africa, Paul did a sponsored bicycle ride (and leg wax!) from Sheffield to Land’s End (a total of 408 miles) at the end of May 2005. It took him only four days, and he raised £2,000. To read about his fantastic fundraising effort, please go to www.cyclewax.co.uk.

Paul and Amy wrote three reports on the teaching they did during their volunteer placements, and these have been amalgamated into one PDF document called Teaching Experiences at Mwaya.

If you would like to find out more about Paul’s and Amy’s experiences at Mwaya, they are contactable by e-mail.

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