Education: Into Africa: a volunteer on a class safari

A gap year can be both an adventure and good for your CV. Ben Dimson started a term's teaching at a Malawi boys school

''It is 8am on Monday morning and I have already been up for two hours. It's a shame that we have assemblies on Monday and Friday. My first lesson today is at 2pm, yet I have to wake at 6am. Maybe next week I won't wake up so early - only about half the teachers have turned up!

"I last had access to a telephone when I was in Blantyre, after an epic 16 hours on the road from Harare [in Zimbabwe] through the Tete corridor in Mozambique. The next day we drove to our destination, Lilongwe, capital of Malawi, stopping en route at a pottery/coffee shop where we could buy all kinds of inexpensive plates, bowls and mugs. We each ordered two main courses and had dessert and fresh lemonade. Apparently this was the most expensive eatery in the area - lunch came to pounds 1.80 a head including the tip!

"On Thursday we were dropped at St John's School. Both Graeme, my gap- year partner, and I were shown to our room. Our first reaction was to ask ourselves, 'What are we doing? Why did we volunteer for this?'

"We have our own toilet and shower, but we have to go outside to get to them, and there is no hot water. Our bedroom is about 10ft by 8ft and the kitchen is similar. There is one plug in the whole place and two indoor lights, though we are apparently lucky since one of these used to be broken.

"The warnings we received about insects were right. Lilongwe has the world's biggest wasps, and spiders like you've never seen, as well as ants, lizards, frogs and the odd snake. Some of the baby snakes are smaller than worms and kill humans in under five minutes. And I can't forget the cockroaches: they're everywhere!

"Still it's all part of the African experience. We've been taught two really good phrases: 'This is Africa' and 'That's Africa, babe', which are proving kind of catchy.

"Last Friday, not long after having arrived, we came into the staff room for a teachers' meeting, and found out that the school is either three or five teachers down. The First Form (aged about 13 to 18) only has teachers for Bible knowledge, English, Chichewa (the local language) and possibly history.

"I was introduced to one of the teachers as, 'This is Mr Dimson'. He replied 'You, Jew', and that marked the end of the conversation. I don't think it was meant to be offensive, but I was so taken aback I did not really know what to say.

"Assembly was cool. The singing was beautiful (but I have no idea what it was about). This went on for some time and was followed by a speech by the headmistress suggesting that the boys should wash more often and smile more. Mrs Safuli, the headmistress, is a very inspiring speaker.

"We soon learned what subjects we are to be teaching. Graeme is to be responsible for science, and I am taking maths. There are only two or three First Form maths books. Unfortunately, I don't have a copy with answers, so I have to be on my toes.

"I was expecting to sit in on lessons on Friday, but when I found the First Form idle, I wrote a quick algebra test for them. There are just over 40 in the class, but the gap in standards is impossible. Some couldn't grasp that when 3y = 27, y = 9, while others had no problem with 2y + y - 7 = 20. Overall, the standard is low.

"I will have to think carefully about how to keep the more able pupils busy and interested, without losing the less bright ones. The main problem is there is no point teaching this term's material if they cannot do the basic algebra from last term. I have yet to write them out tests for geometry and arithmetic. A challenge indeed lies ahead!

"Catering is not too much of a problem. I've appointed myself cook and Graeme washer-upper, which seems to work okay. Cooking on two hobs is trying, especially when the power goes. We eat veggie food, which suits me, though Graeme is missing his meat.

"We also get together with some of the other volunteers, who seem to be having a good time, but are not working so hard! This involves using the local bus. How many people can possibly fit into such a small space? It is a small wonder I survived the five-minute journey (which cost all of 8p!).

"Time for lesson plans now I think. Sky is blue, sun is shining. It's going to be a good day! I have just been asked to take over teaching geography as well. So I've just lost my Thursday morning off.

"Well, never mind. 'That's Africa, babe!'"

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