Teaching in Malawai

Teaching in Malawi- Mawingamara

 Start where you are. Use what  you have, Do what you can.

– Arthur Ash

My brother has lived in Malawi, Africa since about 1985. He used to be named Byron, but these days he is known as Mawingamara and he is the tribal headman of the tiny village which he calls home.

His farm perches almost a mile high on the edge of a steep escarpment that offers a stunning view of Lake Malawi and Tanzania on the opposite bank.

In this isolated place he has carved out a home among people who were once strangers. He has chosen a life for himself and he has thrived. He is making a significant difference in the lives of the people he lives among. He is doing what Arthur Ashe declared in the quote above.

My brother believes that education makes a difference, so every day he coaches, motivates, challenges and engages the young people in the village. And each day they inch forward. They dream of leaving this harsh countryside in order to attend secondary school or university in the city – a privilege usually only afforded to the rich. My brother makes that future possible for these young men and women and he does it without the support of an organization. He does his life’s work free from the constraints of the bureaucracies that challenge most of us. He lives his values in ways most of us never have the courage to attempt.

I recently took a position as an adjunct professor of reading at a local community college in a working class community in sunny South Carolina. My students drive to class and arrive with backpacks filled with beautiful, expensive textbooks and gear. They take their seats at desks where each has a modern computer at his or her fingertips. The classroom is bright and filled with resources.

As I stand in front of my classes, I find my mind travelling back to a visit to the school in the village my brother built in that remote place in Malawi. What a contrast. There students have no desks or chairs, nor do they have textbooks. In fact the school of which they are so proud has dirt floors, no coverings on the windows nor is there a real door. The roof is made of thatch and there are privies outside. The classroom itself is dim because there are no lights.

Despite these limitations, there is an air of urgency among those students. They arrive ready to engage. Many of them walk several miles in order to attend classes and most of them have accomplished farm chores before they arrived. When the teacher walks in, the students perch on bricks on the floor and are respectfully quiet. The lessons begin.

With no books or even pencils and paper, the students in my brother’s village must cultivate their skills – they memorize the materials.  I listened in awe when one of the older students began quoting sections from The Diary of Anne Frank. Initially I suspected he was simply a very motivated student, but soon it became clear that all of the students, having no texts of their own, simply memorized the materials they needed to know.

It was a humbling experience to see such dedication and commitment to education.

Back in my classroom in South Carolina, class is about to begin and what do I see? I see many empty seats and some of the students are napping or texting on their phones, taking surreptitious sips from bottles of soda and covertly nibbling on chips (items that are forbidden in the classrooms). Some students appear to be industriously working on their lab assignments on their computers, but as I stroll to the back of the room I see they are looking at YouTube videos and updating their Facebook pages.  When class begins, it is soon clear that few of them have actually completed the homework assignments and few of them venture to participate in the discussion.

It is a sobering picture. I close my eyes and ask myself: will I be the one (can I be the one?) who makes a difference in these students’ lives?  With all the material blessings my students take for granted, I wonder if they are open to change and can be motivated to learn the quiet joys of accomplishing a task and learning a new lesson.

Then I pause and take a moment to say a small prayer of gratitude for my brother, Mawingomara and for the lessons he has taught me about life and for the standards he has set for me.

I open my lesson plan and begin again.  My students and I inch forward. I’m starting where I am, using what I’ve got and doing what I can. Just like my brother.

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 Note: For photos and information about Mawingomara’s life in Malawi, visit www.pulverpages.com and click on “My Malawi Journal” and/or “CALEB Library Project.”

 Virginia Pulver, MA (Organizational Management), BS (Psychology), AS (Instructor Technology, is retired from a diverse Air Force career and continues to have full rich life filled with experiences outside her comfort zone. Among the more recent highlights include a 40-day, solo walk on the 1000 kilometer Camino to Santiago de Compostela (2009); sharing life with her spouse in Ukraine (Peace Corps 2005-2007), and a stint serving in AmeriCorps*VISTA (2007-2010) working with adult literacy. She and her husband began a memorial library in Malawi for their son, Caleb (1976-2002). The couple has a daughter, Moriah, and two grandchildren residing in Phoenix. Virginia has a passion for writing, but also enjoys fiber arts, gardening, reading, Pinterest, and happily tending to her backyard chickens. She recently accepted a position as adjunct professor at a college in a small community inSouth Carolina.

Byron and Virginia represent the best in the teaching profession and are a constant inspiration to me. Would you consider going overseas to teach? Both Byron and Virginia have taught through the Peace Corps. If you have been in the Peace Corps, please write and tell me about your experiences.  clampos@sbcglobal.net.

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