Tuesday, 25 February 2014

First day as a teacher

Monday morning, my first day as the lone white teacher at St Mary's Girls' Secondary School. I followed at the end of the line of teachers as we passed in the back door of the hall and towards the stage at the front. The students filled the hall, standing in tight rows and leaving an aisle down the centre, through which we teachers walked. The girls, in light green blouses and long, dark green skirts, were singing. And how they sang. Their heads were thrown back, unrestrained and full of vitality, as we teachers solemnly paraded by. The hall boomed and expanded with each note. The five hundred voices were each hurled into the air above our heads, where they instantly combined, binding and harmonising, creating a new and more flavoursome whole. The sound rained down, filling the bare hall with warmth, and resonating within me. That such feeling, so natural and vibrant, could be created only by the simple vibrating of vocal chords made me want to fall down in wonder. The words weren’t English, but the sound spoke clearly to me, so full and earnest. I looked around for someone to share the moment with, but the other teachers just looked bored.

As I passed along the rows of students, I could briefly make out distinct voices, one then another, as each girl had a moment in the spotlight before the chance passed on. It was like unravelling the twine of the song, to see the individual threads of which the fabric was composed. In a moment we had reached the stage and stood looking down on the carpet of black heads and green shirts, as the girls completed the song. A hush fell.

At the end of the regular announcements I stood grinning awkwardly as the headmistress, Sister Kapenda, said “Now girls, this is Mr Geerdo from Australia. He is here at St Mary’s to teach biology and he will be with us for two years. Please make him feel so welcome.”

Immediately the bare concrete hall burst to colourful life with a kaleidoscopic display of cheering, jumping, waving of arms and clapping of hands. I looked for any hint of sarcasm or irony in this, but seeing only joyous sincerity, I felt that some sort of response was called for. I raised my hand in a feeble wave, like the Queen in a passing motorcade, and this was met with a roar of happy laughter and whooping, plus more cheering, waving of arms and clapping of hands. Welcome indeed. 

Friday, 7 February 2014

Helping Is Easy, Part II

Day 2: Reality

I expected to see a happy rabble of kids playing soccer on the dirt field when I walked by in the morning; I was hoping to join them for a kick. But the field was deserted. A couple of kids were disconsolately kicking their old plastic-bag-ball between the houses. They looked up at me then turned their backs and walked off, leaving the ball where it lay in the dust.

Frankie, the organiser from yesterday, was coming towards me.
'Stevie... problems', he said. 'Some boys they took the ball and they came into town and they did sell it for moneys.'
'Oh no' I said.
'And also the girls, they are very mad. They are saying it's not fair the boys get given a football, and yet still they have no netball.'
'Oh no' I said.

My view of myself as the generous visitor suddenly crumbled and transformed instead into an interfering foreigner. The elation from yesterday was replaced with a sick, hollow feeling.

'What have I done? What should I do now, please tell me what you think is best'.
'Stevie, maybe if you can manage you can give a new football and also a netball, and I can keep them with me and make sure they do not get sold for moneys again.'
'Ok if you think that's the best.'

I got the balls and Frankie called a meeting of all the boys and girls to talk about how it would work. He was speaking Chichewa so I could only follow his body language and that of the group. This time there were few smiles, the mood was almost somber. He spoke in harsh tones, like an angry school principal and the kids looked at me from time to time with expressions I could not interpret - what was he saying, and what were they thinking of?

After it was over and the group quietly dispersed I said 'thank you so much Frankie, you helped me a lot.'
'It's ok Stevie. But you know I have no job and little moneys. I have my three kids and wife to look after.'
'That must be tough, maybe there is some way I can assist you. I'm volunteering here though, so I don't have much money either.'
'That's ok Stevie, anything you can do is some help.'

I stayed in the lodge another day or two before leaving for my school in Zomba, sixty kilometres away, and I was afraid to go out and walk past the field, afraid to see those kids giving me that look I could not understand. Two days in the country and I had already been the cause of disturbance in a community and had given a vague promise of help to a family I was in no position to assist. An early lesson (that I was to learn many times over) that sometimes helping isn't easy.