Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Lesson learned

As I write, it is almost a year since I flew back from Malawi after my first visit there with the Book Bus. Many changes in my life lead me to take that trip but, upon reflection, I recognise untold ways in which my life has, in return, been changed by Malawi.

How did I come to visit Malawi? 
Book Bus volunteer, Andy Wright

When the twin spectre of divorce and redundancy hit me in the summer of 2013 I thought of taking the time, and using some of my redundancy money, to do something a bit different, rather than rush to find work asap. I needed some serious re-grouping. Gap years were neither fashionable nor encouraged when I was younger and I didn't particularly want to wait until retirement to find that I didn't have the energy or income to do this...whatever it might be.

I'll travel, I thought. There were so many places I'd wanted to visit- mostly cold places like Iceland, Nepal- that hadn't fitted in with my plans before, so I started to explore the possibilities. I had a crisis of confidence, though. At the age of 47 I worried that I couldn't afford to have a gap on my CV. I didn't want to spend a long period travelling if I had nothing to show for it when it came to impressing employers.

I'll volunteer, I thought.  And so I spent a few afternoons browsing the web in search of ideas. Many of the projects that I found were looking for longer term volunteers- six months, two years. Many of these, like UN volunteering opportunities, were for people with specific specialist skills or in war zones- this wasn't really what I had in mind. At the other end of the spectrum were the many companies offering gap-year type experiences to school and university leavers, maybe with a holiday or safari tacked onto the end. Again, this wasn't really what I was looking for.

In my working life to date I had been a primary school teacher and head teacher, followed by eight years in the charitable sector, supporting small, local community charities with their resourcing needs and issues of trusteeship. I hoped to find something that might make use of these experiences. As I searched, one charity kept appearing over and over again. This was The Book Bus. Instantly I could see how this would fit in with what I was looking for.  Then I looked at where the Book Bus operated, and my mouth fell open.

Volunteering in Africa
Sharing books & stories
Malawi-the warm Heart of Africa. As a child me and my brothers had all worn T shirts with that slogan on the front. They were brought back from Malawi by my father who spent some time there in the early 1980s on behalf of another charity. I grew up knowing much about the country- the names of some of the cities, the lake, the currency and language and the Life President, Hastings Banda. Mostly, however, dad brought back stories of the people- friends he had made, meals he had shared, welcomes he had received and children, children everywhere! His visit to Malawi had a profound impact upon his life and upon ours as a family.
A generation later and here I was, faced with the chance to follow in his footsteps. Bringing my knowledge up to date, I learned that Malawi was now a democracy, had been affected badly by AIDS, famine and corruption but was now rebuilding and recovering. The Book Bus, I learned, had been working in the country for several years, bringing books, games, fun and the joy of reading to all those children and offering support to the teachers and schools in the villages of the Shire Valley.

Books and storytelling
Within a few weeks I was on board a flight out to Malawi, a journey that has become a watershed in my life. And, after landing, within a few hundred feet of the airport, there were the children, excited by almost anything. Everywhere I went during the next month it was true, there were children everywhere. Playing by the road, selling grilled mice on sticks on the outskirts of town, in their hundreds in schools and dancing for money on the shores of Lake Malawi. On the surface, I was able to bring much to these children while visiting their schools. I brought books and storytelling, games and I even brought a little guitar with me to sing songs with them. (I needn't have bothered; they were more than capable of singing loudly and confidently without me. In fact, in many ways the guitar held them back!)

"However, what I was to discover was that during my stay I would easily learn more from them than they would from me".
However, what I was to discover was that during my stay I would easily learn more from them than they would from me. My first lesson was this- that it was possible to be very happy, almost all of the time, with almost nothing- few possessions, a tiny house, not much to eat, virtually no money and almost none of the things that we consider essential. I wouldn't say that this experience has turned me into a Ghandi, but I certainly have a very different view now on possessions and need. In the whole of my stay I only ever saw one child cry, never saw any bullying and only ever saw happy, content children.

Everyone can sing
Everyone can sing
One of the many highlights of each school visit was the assembly that began each day. I was proud soon to be able to join in with their singing of the Malawian National Anthem- "Oh God bless our land of Malawi, keep it a land of peace..." and smiled and stamped my feet as they marched out and on to their lessons- "We are marching oh! One by one, two by two..." I was fascinated when suddenly, and without an obvious signal, one of the children, usually a girl, would change to another song and the others all followed, switching seamlessly to another tune: "Are you ready? We are coming! We are coming to Chimwabve school..."

When I was a headteacher, I considered it a genuine privilege to take assembly each day, leading prayers and singing. However, sometimes it could be a real effort getting children (and staff!) to sing out loud without inhibition. So many of us have, at some time in our lives, been told that we couldn't sing and we learn this, just as we learn that we're no good at spelling, at running or that we aren't pretty. But to these children in Malawi, it was as if they sang liked they breathed or as they walked; that no-one considered singing to be a thing that you couldn't do. No-one here really seemed to think of singing as a performance but as something in which you took part. This was my second lesson- to worry less about what others might think of you and just to lose myself in whatever it is that I'm enjoying.

The currency of books
Books were powerful tools and symbols of education and such a scarce resource that, in many schools, they were kept stored away in boxes or cupboards or, at best, on shelves in the Headteacher's office.
Books seemed like currency in Malawi; while travelling back from Lilongwe, the capital, we were stopped for allegedly speeding. It's usual for the police to stop drivers for any number of spurious reasons but we had learned that the best way to deal with these situations was to be polite, cooperative and to try and speak a little Chichewa, the local language. On this occasion we were minded not to hand over any money especially as we hadn't been speeding. The conversation with the police officer was wide and rambling and we talked about Lilongwe, his family, the Book Bus and where we came from. His ears pricked up at the mention of books and he told us all about his daughter who, although bright, would not do well at her school as it was so poorly resourced and had almost no books. We had just collected some new titles from a bookshop in Lilongwe, books in both English and Chichewa. After a long conversation we agreed to give him one of the new books for his daughter and, in return, he would let us continue our journey. Although we felt aggrieved at having handed over one of our new books, we were also glad to have, hopefully, given a book for his daughter to read. Girls are particularly disadvantaged in the Malawian education system with a large number dropping out of school at puberty to take on traditional domestic roles at home or to be married off. Books were powerful tools and symbols of education and such a scarce resource that, in many schools, they were kept stored away in boxes or cupboards or, at best, on shelves in the Headteacher's office. I remember clearly one particular school where the Head proudly showed us the school ‘library’, a shelf of about 30 books in his office, still in pristine condition and unread.

Book Bus volunteers unlock potential
Sharing skills to improve literacy
The Book Bus unlocks this resource and frees it up to be a powerful currency, one that can buy options, opportunities and possibilities. All Book Bus volunteers can make this happen, not just those who come from a teaching background. We are all schooled in the use, the pleasure and the power of books. Teachers and learners in Malawi watch us handle and use them in Book Bus sessions and marvel at our experience. And so this was my final lesson- that books were of high value and not to be taken for granted. At home I had boxes and boxes, shelves and shelves of books. Some were favourites that I hoped to read again someday. Some were gifts and brought special memories. Many were just lying around waiting for me to have the time or inclination to read them. Oh what luxury! Here, unlike in the school that I'd visited, were unused books, not because of their value and scarcity, but because they were cheap and easy to obtain. I had taken books for granted but never again!
A library of 30 books for 600 pupils 

Books: a rare and valuable commodity
A year later, many of the memories of my visits to Malawi are still strong, thanks to pictures, recordings, Facebook groups, blogs and, very importantly, the continued contact with my new friends, Marian, Sarah and Jenny. No doubt some of these memories will fade in time just as my dad's recollection of his time there as a younger man have become muddled and faded. But the lessons that I learned from the children of Malawi I know will stay with me forever: that you don't need much to be happy, that everyone can sing, and that books are a rare and valuable commodity that make us all rich.

Andy Wright 
December 2014.