The Bare Essentials in rural Malawi

The Bare Essentials in rural Malawi


Malawi in South East Africa is a country with few tarmac roads. Around 80% of the population are subsistence farmers living in rural areas, down long dirt roads that lead nowhere. Nanthomba Primary School lies 18km down such a road, and it was here that I began my contract with H.E.L.P. Malawi in August of 2015.

Nanthomba Primary School was started up 10 years ago, thanks to the vision and hard work of one American lady, Jillian Wolstein, who believed every child should have Hope, Education, Love and Protection (H.E.L.P. )

My official title is International Volunteer Coordinator, and I am always on the lookout for enthusiastic, creative TEFL or primary teachers to help out in our after school English Activity Class. Here we compliment the Malawian curriculum, by following the content of their morning classroom English classes, but by employing TEFL techniques, games and activities to bring those English lessons to life.

Having just finished a year teaching TEFL in Ibiza, Spain in June 2015, where there were cupboards full of excellent books, flashcards, board games, posters, role play props and even proper whiteboards, with plenty of useable marker pens and ample supplies of paper and exercise books, I couldn’t have been more under-prepared for the reality of working in a rural African classroom.

The classrooms themselves are basic brick and concrete buildings, with metal roofs (which make such a racket in the rainy season you can’t even hear yourself over the din), and one large, over-used blackboard. These are re-painted once a year to keep them relatively fresh. Chalk is the old-school pen here. All of the children have desks, which is unusual for most rural schools, but chickens, ducks and goats regularly wander through while we’re practising our pronouns!

The education system in Malawi is as follows. Children attend from Standard 1 through to 8, from age 6 upwards to 16 or 17. Locally, the language spoken is Yao, and the text books and teaching is done in Chichewa (the more widely spoken language), so by the time they come to English, it is their third language. Standards 1 – 4 have between 1.5 and 2 hours of English classes per week, but when they reach Standard 5, ALL text books and teaching switches to English only – which is pretty harsh for young learners who, in my opinion, are still beginners.

Therefore, H.E.L.P. Malawi provides extra-curricula TEFL style classes for Standard 4, 5 and 6 as they make this transition, to provide a safe place to practise speaking, the opportunity to converse, listen and learn from native speakers, and to experience a more immersive and interactive approach to learning.

The delivery of these lessons was quite challenging from day one. As we are asking the children to come after school and stay until 4pm, often without having eaten anything all day, another part of my job is to run the feeding program. We make sure every child gets a bowl of basic, nutritious porridge before class. Our after school program is optional, so we would see between 50 and 80 children three afternoons a week, divided between however many TEFL teachers I have at the time. In September term 2015, I had only one other teacher, plus a very good Malawian teacher who is keen to learn new methods, so our class sizes can be between 20 -28 on average, if we’re lucky.

In the classroom, my assumptions about resources came rushing up to bite me. “Take out your books” provided a sea of blank faces, and not one child had a pencil. I did distribute pencils the first term, but kids being kids, after a few weeks they’d lost them, so now I just dole them out, and count them back in again; the same with the exercise books. To be fair, these kids don’t even have shoes or clothes without holes, or breakfast or lunch – pencils are a definite luxury item.

But the great thing is, these are students who really want to learn, and who are so, so grateful for any common tool such as a sharpener, or a rubber – most unlike Ibizian kids! And we as teachers have created some quite interesting hands-on lessons, with simple card, paper, pens, magazine cut outs and blu tack, which the kids enjoy so much because it is such a different way of teaching to the “point and repeat” style of their Malawian lessons. We also like to get up, run around, throw a ball, run races and sing songs – all with an English grammar element of course!  I’ll explain more in my next blog.

Comments (1)

  • Erzsebet Bekes says:

    What a delightful and to the point account of the Malawi experience (not unlike mine in the Amazonian jungle). Also appealing to different learning styles. I think being prepared is one thing (and often we are not), but being able to go with the flow and using our creative skills is quite another. Looking forward to reading the rest!

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