All the planning and preparation in the world could not have prepared us for our experience at Mpamba School.
We decked ourselves out in our official Progressio ICS t-shirts or our bright green YONECO chitenjes. We looked and felt the part. Ready to go with our notes, posters and leaflets we felt excited and raring to impart some knowledge on our, seemingly simple, topic "Life Goals".
Squeezed into our mini bus, we drove for about 20 minutes out of town along a rickety dirt road with rural scenes and little villages stretched out on either side. As we crept to a halt at the gates of an enormous school, our reservations began to grow. Through the large metal gates our mini bus entered into a huge dusty drive way. The school was vastly spread out but there were no children in sight.
We all stumbled out of the bus, adjusting our chitenjes, squinting in the sun to try and spot the children that were watching us from a distance in the shade.
A teacher emerged out of nowhere and directed us to a huge building that was larger than any school gymnasium I've ever seen. As soon as we walked through the door hundreds of faces between the ages of 13 to 20 were all staring up at us and smirking. We scrambled up onto the stage smiling awkwardly. The Head Master greeted us formally in front of the children; sternly stating that we were expected an hour ago and we had to be quick as it was lunchtime. We had no idea we were late.
My role for the session was Monitoring and Evaluating, in which meant I had to interview three students before and after the session in order to record the progress of their learning. In a rush before we began the session I randomly selected a young boy called Nepier to interview. Unfortunately, he had no clue what I was saying when I asked him "what is a life goal?". Not off to a good start. Trying to take my job seriously was proving difficult with children surrounding us, laughing and shouting inches from my face. Eventually, after finally getting a few coherent answers the presentation could start!
As an introductory lesson, we set out a range of issues such as STIs (sexually transmitted infections), peer pressure, substance abuse and teenage pregnancy. To keep it interesting we performed a play that left Lewis with and STI and Kate pregnant. The kids were in hysterics. By standing up and using drama and humour we finally managed to catch their attention and respect. Thus when we commenced our leaning section, the youth really did try to listen and understand.
Due to the size of the school my other job of counting the students proved impossible. I managed up to 200 and then when they started to push and shove to the front it became impossible... I decided to let it be and take this session as a learning curve and be more prepared next time! (Later we found out there were over 450 in the room.)
After the session finished, I found Nepier to ask the same three questions. Without his boisterous friends present he squeezed his eyes shut in concentration, clearly wanting to answer correctly. Luckily, I managed to get other volunteers to help take the other interviews and the national volunteers were incredible translating and making the students understand.
Overall, although the school session shocked us at first, it has prepared us for all the school sessions to come. We now feel ready for anything.
Throughout the rest of the week, each school showed a range of knowledge, but they all shared an enthusiasm and excitement at being taught something new. In sessions with students, when asking "how can you achieve your life goal?", they usually all stated work hard at school. The students in Malawi seem to respect education tremendously. Whilst in the UK education is free up to 18 years, in Malawi only primary school is free. As a result, perhaps it gives the older youth in Malawi a sense of pride and gratefulness for being in school. With now nearly more girls than boys in school in Malawi, there is a feeling of hope and optimism that the next generation really will try and change life in Malawi with gender equality, life goals, health and human rights. Although only here for three months and so may only skim the surface, with YONECO I hope we can help facilitate that change.
Written by ICS volunteer Olivia Sumrie