Volunteers’ Stories: Rhiannon

Rhiannon’s Story

“All in all, my time there was fantastic and the experience does leave an indelible, beautiful mark on your heart. I think about the place and the people often, and look forward to going back one day.”

Teaching in Africa was always something I had wanted to do and, after finishing my degree, I did a lot of research on different projects. I chose RIPPLE Africa because I really liked the way they combine environmental, health and education projects, and they offer you the chance to get involved in everything, but you can also focus on your passion.

After getting an arm full of jabs in the lead up to my trip, and a bag full of just-in-case medicine and school supplies, I jetted off from Perth, and many hours later arrived in Lilongwe. Now, don’t be surprised if the transport is a little ‘different’ from where you live. The first taxi I caught from the airport had a smashed windscreen and was driven by a guy who was texting constantly. Our tyre fell off about two minutes into the drive, so we stopped and changed it over. Fuel is in short supply, and sure enough we ran out of it about 10 minutes later and waited, surrounded by people, for a water bottle of fuel to be brought to our driver, and we were on our way again! I had to laugh at the time or I would have cried (very sleep-deprived) — and, boy, was I happy to arrive at Mabuya Camp in Lilongwe!! There is a beautiful pool there, friendly people, and I got a little wooden chalet to myself. It is comfortable, QUIET and cool — ahhh, sleep! (Take ear putty — it’s great to block out city noise, and the noisy fishermen that bang their drums sometimes at 4am!)

I rested up nicely and was set for the short taxi ride to the bus stop the next day. I managed to push and shove my way onto a bus teeming with people. Now, peeing was a concern for me — I had heard that this was a long journey, without toilet stops! But, fear not, and drink plenty, because it’s so hot and there are toilet stops along the way. One really nice loo (you pay about 20 cents to use it) and the other not quite as nice, but sufficient (a dry-grass area where the women go to and just drop their pants/hoick up their skirts, or stand up and pee). All of these things — and the beaten up cars/taxis/very crowded minibuses — you adjust to very quickly. It’s just the way it works in Malawi, and it’s all good! There are so many great things, great people, great projects going on that the little discomforts are far outweighed by the beauty and rewards of being there and being involved.

When I arrived at the RIPPLE Africa base at Mwaya Beach, I was met by the most beautiful view you can imagine — white sands and bright pink sun setting behind the hills and reflected over a gorgeous silver lake. It is not a sight I would EVER have imagined seeing in Africa, and I don’t think there is anywhere more beautiful to stay. Lake Malawi is stunning, and it’s lovely to see the little bare-bummed boys fishing in the evenings, giggling and splashing in the water. It’s an amazing place to watch the world go by, watch the sun rise and set, feel the beat and the spirit of the people and the land!

We were given a thorough induction, but I chose not to spend too much time at different projects because I wanted to get stuck into teaching. If you have a limited time, and you know what you want to be doing, I would advise getting straight into it. If you’re open to different things and you want more of a feel for other projects, then people are very welcoming and supportive of this.

  • Rhiannon with some of her students
    Rhiannon with some of her students
  • Standard 6 class at Mazembe Primary School
    Standard 6 class at Mazembe Primary School
  • Jo, Rhiannon, and Louise
    Jo, Rhiannon, and Louise

The closest school to Mwaya Beach is Mwaya Primary School. However, I chose to spend most of my time at Mazembe Primary School, because it was a bit further away, and at the time it had no other volunteers there.

Staffing was in short supply, and after a few days there I was offered full control of a very large Standard 6 class (usually between 50-60 kids per day). RIPPLE Africa strongly advise that you work in a support role alongside a Malawian teacher — because as a volunteer you need time to adjust and it is a real handful to have a class on your own. I found it difficult for a few weeks working by myself, but I got used to it, and really enjoyed it. There were always other staff members to talk to, and I could have pushed to have a teacher with me — it depends on you and what you’re comfortable with.

The Local Administration may see you as a way of getting out of work! But they also may have other things to do — so only do what you’re happy to do and set your own boundaries. Never get pushed into doing anything — you’re not obligated to do anything you don’t want to do. Talk to staff at Mwaya if you’re feeling stressed or feel like too much is expected of you. Be realistic with your expectations of the kids (I used heaps of incentives — which can be as simple as a biscuit at recess if they get their work done, and considering they can almost never afford a packet of biscuits, little lollies and treats like this can go a long way). Be aware, though, of the rest of the children in the school who don’t have a volunteer for a teacher — kids can get really jealous and resentful, understandably so, if they see another class getting treats all the time. I tried to take in small treats for each class once a fortnight (hand it out yourself if you can, to make sure it gets to the kids and doesn’t disappear). I also organised fabric from the local village to make uniforms for the most needy kids from each class. It’s really sad that some schools don’t allow students to come to school unless they have a uniform, and some families just don’t have any spare money for this. You will find you get requests for all sorts of things because, understandably, there are plenty of people who want/need things and see you as a source of help/money. Heaps of kids know the phrase, ‘Give me money!’ it comes across as rude, and you get sick of hearing it, but don’t take it personally. Do what you can, when you can, and don’t feel bad about refusing requests when you can’t help.

I was always greeted at school by a VERY enthusiastic ‘GOOD MORNING, MADAM!!’ The children were genuinely excited to see me (every single day, would you believe! If only my students in Australia were that happy to see me!). I found some of the teenage boys a handful, and, as any teacher or parent would know, all kids will test you to see what you will take and what your boundaries are. They need to know how long you will be there for, and what your goals are for them. Get help with a translator to make this clear from the start.

I came to realise that, even though I was delivering the lessons in English, with a lot of gestures and repetition, the children can understand some of what you’re saying. Illustrations on the board are key, and any books you can fit in your bag will be well received. Also, encourage any of the kids from the local area to go to the Community Library by Mwaya (you’ll love it, too!). It’s a great resource — and they can go and read papers, magazines, for example the National Geographic, children’s books and novels. It’s a really valuable to help them become familiar with the English language and just to open their minds to life outside of their immediate environment. Most of the children haven’t been further than bus ride away from their local village.

If you’d like to know more about the nitty-gritty side of teaching, feel free to e-mail me and I will do all I can to help. The main thing I was wondering about before I left was what to take, how it would be teaching ESL students, what to expect from a school day, and would I get sick??

Luckily, I was diligent with the malaria tablets and lathered on the insect repellent every night, so I was fine. I tried to be punctual and rode my bike to school every day, then gave a range of lessons (English, Mathematics, Life Skills, Science, Agriculture, …) sometimes using the school texts, sometimes creating my own lessons. The children are taught in their local language up to about Standard 5. It is VERY hard for the poor kids to be thrown into English in Standard 5 and just be expected to speak, write and function fully in the language, and especially when you have huge classes and virtually no time, ever, from what I could see, to have one-on-one teaching.

As with any school, you will see some things you agree with, and some you don’t, some staff that are really dedicated, and some that aren’t. I feel teachers need to be tailoring their lessons to focus on key understandings and concepts that students will be quizzed on in exams, rather than trying to wade through pages and pages of archaic textbooks. Sadly, if students don’t pass exams one year, they don’t have the opportunity for tutoring to help them, and they keep staying down a year until they pass. So, in a Standard 6 class, I had students ranging in age from 10 to 17 years old. If you have the time and opportunity, and can share some of your skills with local teachers, then they may enjoy that. It’s always important to refrain from thinking you know best though — present it is as one option that may be of benefit to them. Encourage your students as much as they can to learn from older, more-educated siblings or friends, give a few books or pens where you can to diligent students or organise a tutor class after school. Sometimes when I found a student wasn’t working in class, it was because they didn’t have a pen or a book. They were still trying to sit in class and memorise what I was talking about.

When you’re teaching in English, you need to be very specific and cut any excess words away! I found introducing a topic, explaining very slowly, illustrating what I meant, and then repeating and concept checking worked quite well.

Being educated in a different environment, you will find that there are things in the Malawian system that go against your instinct, and you may be upset by some of the things you see. I was upset by some of the punishments I saw (hard caning on the back of legs for the girls who were late because they were doing necessary farm work for their families, and once a student had to hold a brick on his head in the middle of the class). This public embarrassment can seem really unjust. I can’t say whether it’s our place to fight the system on this — with so very many students in each class, teachers have developed some strategies that don’t always fit with our values. As a volunteer, you try to understand and do what’s right for yourself, and hopefully being prepared to see some things you don’t agree with might make you better able to deal with them.

In general, I would say go with goals, drive, flexibility, and an open mind. Don’t stress if you see other teachers who can be lazy or appear to not have the children’s best interest at heart. They are there, but there are also some outstanding teachers who are very dedicated and who manage day in, day out to teach massive classes. It will certainly give you a different perspective, and I’ve found it’s been really valuable to share stories with my class now (a small class of Year 1-2s in the middle of Western Australia) about Malawi and about the modest and humble attitude of the children there. My students love seeing photos of other brown-skinned children laughing, playing with home-made toys, fishing in the lake, and hanging up huge farming tools in their shack-like classroom!

Now, if you have an outside classroom … be prepared for rain! If you’re lucky enough to have an inside classroom, enjoy it and take a huge water bottle, because you’ll be drinking litres of water every day. If you go in the rainy season, it will be lush and green, and you will have thousands of incredible mangoes to enjoy. My, how I loved the mangoes! Agnes, the cook, makes amazing fresh bread, and Martha makes great fresh peanut butter, so that was my tasty lunch most days (coupled with a few tomatoes and carrots).

  • Early morning swim time
    Early morning swim time

The food we had at Mwaya Beach was amazing, and we were all incredibly well fed. Some of my favourite times were spent at Mwaya Beach, talking with another lovely volunteer about their day as we watched the beautiful reflection of the sunset over the lake, and listened to the kids laughing and splashing in the water. I loved tutoring some of the secondary school kids on the sundeck, or we often went out on the rocks right on the lake — what an awesome classroom!! We enjoyed eating lovely food together on the beach, watching the pretty golden lanterns on the fishing boats. There is nothing like the view from the lakeshore at night — a huge expanse of inky water and a glorious starry sky. The lightning shows in the wet season are a real treat.

There are often different things happening in the community that you may get invited to. I’m sure most volunteers would say be safe and smart about it (talk to the staff at Mwaya Beach if you are unsure), but take up opportunities where you can to go and visit local families, churches or villages.

Some of my highlights in the community were visiting students’ homes to meet the parents (definitely try and learn some of the local language so you can meet, greet and ask basic questions — people are so grateful if you do), talking to local teachers and laughing at their stories, having an ‘English Club’ after school where we played music, did some reading and writing and games (nice to have small group of children who really want to be there), sharing lake walks with children and volunteers, learning from locals and listening to amazing singing at some of local churches.

All in all, my time there was fantastic and the experience does leave an indelible, beautiful mark on your heart. I think about the place and the people often, and look forward to going back one day. My brother and I continue to sponsor a teacher at Mazembe, and I would encourage anyone who can afford it to support a school on an ongoing basis because, as you will see, the class sizes are so big, the kids are beautiful, and they’re desperate to learn.

Feel free to e-mail me any time and I will be happy to answer any questions!

Rhiannon (Volunteer Teacher, October 2010 to December 2010)


Receive the latest news from RIPPLE Africa direct to your email address

Become part of the RIPPLE Africa community

Receive newsletters by email

We never send spam and we never share your information with anyone else.

Sign Up Now to Receive RIPPLE Africa's Newsletter