As many of you will know from our fundraising efforts last year, my friend Saffron and I spent three months volunteering as teaching assistants at Open Arms Primary School which is in an isolated rural community in Zambia. We lived on site; south of Lusaka, off a stony, sandy track that led up and over an extremely steep hill where the noise of the main road was lost behind a thick carpet of lush greenery. The beautiful grounds encompass the school, the family home (where twelve orphans live) and some other accommodation buildings for teachers, labourers and volunteers.
Our accommodation was very basic by English standards, but luxurious compared to the average Zambian home. We shared a large bedroom but had a fitted kitchen to ourselves, though we had to supply the pots. pans and crockery. We had to contend with a few domestic issues, particularly at the beginning of our stay: hordes of insects flooded in through every window on our first night (worse than any Hitchcock film), warranting the use of two cans of insect killer, but we managed to nail some wire mesh over the worst affected windows. Rats were constant companions throughout the time – we had several triumphs with rat poison (I even caught one with a washing basket!) but it was impossible to get rid of them so we just had to get used to sharing the living areas. Power/water cuts were frequent occurrences, and the rats appeared to have chewed through something important underneath the washing machine, so that it flooded the kitchen with several inches of water every time we attempted to use it!
We got out and about quite often. One of our early investments was a pair of bright yellow ‘Zambikes’ (sturdy and affordable off-road bikes designed for the harsh environment) which allowed us to take our bags of washing to some good friends who lived near to the school. They also occasionally leant us their truck to do our shopping with; it was a 40-minute cycle ride from the school to the nearest supermarket so the truck was much appreciated. Driving a large beeping vehicle over eight foot wide potholes, some of which are two foot deep, and braving the absurdly dangerous driving on the main roads was quite an experience.
So what about the teaching? On the first day we were put at the front of the Grade 1 & 2 classes and told to “teach them something”, with absolutely no classroom aids or curriculum! It emerged that we would have to manage a class each by ourselves as the Ministry of Education still hadn’t sent them the two new teachers they were expecting. We were not given any teaching materials at all except chalk for the first few days, but after some nagging the Head Teacher finally got us a few books out of storage which gave us some ideas. We spent considerable amounts of time pouring over books and online resources (when we had use of the Internet at our friends’ house), noting ideas, topics, songs and making lesson plans. We’d brought a few resources with us too. Teaching went a lot better in the second week as we were more prepared and therefore able to make some progress (finding a bag of counting cubes made my week…), but it was fairly challenging and exhausting. There was a gaping language barrier between us and the younger classes; usually when they don’t understand something with their limited English the teacher will explain it in Nyanja, the local language, which we had nowhere near mastered! We persevered and I taught rewarding lessons involving basic addition, animals, food, weather etc. Play-doh went down especially well (and none of them ate it, which is often the case… Or was that just me?), and they did some lovely colourings which I put on the walls.
After a couple of weeks, we moved up to the Grade 5 and 6 classes which was much easier going: the kids could understand us, and also they were much more disciplined than the little ones. Understanding when they needed to stay quiet, raising their hands to answer questions (rather than jumping up and down and shouting!) helped to create a much less stressful atmosphere. Respect for elders and people in positions of authority is a significant aspect of Zambian culture; the children curtsied at the knee whenever I gave them something or vice versa and crouched at my feet to ask to leave the room. It was a little difficult to get used to, but I couldn’t tell them not to do it as it will be an important aspect of social interaction for the rest of their lives.
My mum sent a big box of the worksheets out to us and it was very exciting when they arrived, along with children’s scissors, flashcards, dice and other teaching materials. These were funded with generous donations from villagers and my mum’s colleagues at the university where we ran a coffee morning before we departed.
Extra-curricular activities with the children gave us the opportunity to share aspects of our culture. We organised duck, duck, goose, a football match and other games, all of which were hugely popular! On Wednesday afternoons Saffron and I ran a reading group where the children read one page each before passing the book round a circle, and I took them outside individually to have some one-on-one reading time. They were just lacking in practice – many originated from backgrounds where their parents couldn’t read or afford to buy books.
All too soon, our stay at Open Arms came to an end: the children had sat their tests and got their results. We had a lovely last day together with painting, photos and games, but over half the class cried when it was time to go home which made me a little upset too! Their test results indicated that they’ve learnt quite a lot from me, but I’ve also learnt from them too: how to have fun playing with no equipment, to forget to be self-conscious and dance in the middle of a circle like no one’s watching and to share however little you have.
One key issue we encountered at the school was the use of corporal punishment to discipline the children. Not only do we feel such violence is morally wrong, it is also illegal in Zambia. Consequently, we are in the process of attempting to introduce a non-violence policy at the school – this has only been possible due to the extremely generous donations recently, from the village apple pressing and car park, which have been put towards some professional development work. Abel, a Zambian primary teacher who has been working with my mum’s research project for about 3 years now is running some sessions in interactive teaching sessions for the whole staff at Open Arms. They are thrilled to have this input as many of the teachers have had limited training and use very traditional methods (“chalk-and-talk”) that are known to have limited success. Consequently, for example, 70% of Zambian children do not achieve basic numeracy after six years of primary schooling. Together, Abel helps the teachers devise new ways of disciplining and, perhaps more importantly, motivating the children.
Abel is being paid for his time and to cover his petrol costs; it is a 178 km round trip for him each time so quite costly. The funds are now unfortunately diminished; we hope to raise more so the teachers can have some further sessions of this kind – they are extremely keen to learn and to improve their practice.