Margaret McKay's Experience

Mganja School, Dedza, Malawi Link Community Development placed me in a community of nearly nine hundred pupils from age 6-17 who are powerfully motivated by the opportunity of free primary education. Set between Dedza and the Lake with the nearest trading centre a good one and a half's hour walk on a pitted dirt road and overlooked by the Kirk Mountain range and a huge electricity pylon, Mganja School is a eye-catching campus.

It is here that the children experience warmth, respect and stability from their eight teachers in dilapidated classrooms spread around a central courtyard of grass and low hedges. Every morning at 7.30am three days a week and 7am for assemblies twice a week children gather quietly dusting ,playing and preparing for the school day, having done their household chores before arriving. Their motivation and sense of mutual cooperation are exceptionally high. Singing and making music are a large part of school life. I was deeply moved each day when the whole school sang the Malawian anthem. Football and netball matches bring the school to life on Saturdays when a match is keenly anticipated and a football found.

The working day begins well before 6am for the Head and around 6.30am for others and might end at 3 or 4 pm, even 5pm on some occasions. This on 5000-8000 kwachas a month ( £20-30) and housed in what a Malawian colleague described to me as “miserable conditions”. The ability of a Head and seven staff to lead and inspire so many children earned my complete respect and commitment. The largest class, Standard 1, contains two hundred and twenty six pupils, the smallest, Standard 8, thirty eight. In Standard 8 are the lucky boys and girls who have made it through adversity and are sitting the Primary School Leaving Certificate as I write. There are fourteen stools and desks in the whole school. The United Nations World Food Programme sustains the children each day with meals of soya and maize porridge (phala). There is no running water or electrical power.

Having listened to the Headteacher's priorities, we worked on recording a realistic action plan incorporating the core needs of Mganja School over the next three years – permanent toilets to avoid a cholera outbreak, a library to establish a love of reading and a safe playground area where games could be developed. The whole staff discussed the way forward, giving me many opportunities to develop a rapport with each of them. I was very lucky to make so many good friends. Asking for volunteers to attend in-service sessions on additional support needs and the care and use of books for reading for pleasure was easy, so keen are my Malawian colleagues to learn, improve, make a difference. I was pushed hard to deliver answers to their concerns which only helped me to improve my communication skills! All welcomed feedback on their teaching.

I found myself welcomed as a member of my host family into the heart of one of the villages surrounding the school where the expectations of me were high. Not only to learn Chichewa well but as a critical friend –to praise good practice, to understand the needs of the school, to respond to their challenges, to report on the experience on my return. I met with the Headmen/woman of the village communities and with all the various school committees who grilled me eagerly on my lifestyle in the North while thanking me for my involvement with their school. On every occasion the atmosphere was friendly, welcoming and professional.

The Dedza Highlands is a truly wondrous part of Malawi. I was privileged to find a placement which fulfilled me. My days were filled with music and harmony. I heard no raised voices AT ALL in the school or its grounds. Yes, I've left my heart with the people of Malawi.

Margaret McKay

Lochegelly High School