What do I know of Africa? A short week-long visit to a primary school in the Kasungu district of Malawi is all that I can claim. But it was full of newness, strangeness and warmth, and left a colourful mish-mash of impressions that crowded my head when I arrived home (just in time for the awkward excesses of Christmas). That was four years ago.
The bright memories have faded a little, but a flick through a few photos is enough to stoke up some of the vivid sights, sounds and smells, and energy, of the Warm Heart of Africa.
I’m going back soon, and this time No. 1 son will accompany me. At 14 years old, he’s itching to see the real Africa for himself. I suspect his young eyes will flash open at the unfamiliar sights he will see, and we will all savour the seductive simplicity of rural living.
Our hosts will be some of the same teachers and students who made our group feel so welcome in 2012.
Music like no other will greet us when we arrive. A rousing sound of Africa, rising and surrounding us with its rhythmic song. No film clip can capture the feeling of being embraced by music, but here is a small taste.
Shaking hands the Malawian way (traditional handshake, then interlocking of thumbs before returning to handshake), we will be welcomed into the community.
Leaving behind the frenetic pace of home, we will gather to meet members of the school and wider community, sitting together to talk about what we can learn from each other. The meetings will be formal, taking as long as they take.
The classrooms will be packed with students who are keen to learn and able to attend school. Many others must stay at home to help farm their families’ fields. Some children will succeed in passing the exams needed to reach secondary school, but not all will be able to take up their school places. Whilst primary school education has been free since 1994, school fees still need to be found for secondary schooling. Ranging upwards from £20 per year, fees are unaffordable for many. Education is never taken for granted in Malawi.
Practicalities: some Chichewa to help us settle in
While English is the official language of Malawi, Chichewa is one of its national languages, (although in the Kasungu district, where we will be, Chitumbuka is also spoken). Chichewa is one of the Bantu languages and is also spoken in parts of Zambia, Mozambique, Tanzania and Botswana.
Muli bwanji (How are you?)
Ndili bwino, kaya inu? (I’m fine, and you?)
Sindili bwino (I’m not fine)
Zikomo (Thank you)
Zikomo, ndapita (Goodbye)
For a really lovely video on how to say (a respectful) Hello click here.
We will be treated to this land’s rich orange and red hues, and dramatic skies, and we will see how amazingly resourceful people can be.
So How Hard is Life?
According to UNICEF’s most recent figures (2013) only 49% of Malawian children complete their primary school education. About 30% enrol in secondary school, but only 10% attend.
Malawi is one of the poorest nations in the world. For many it is a daily struggle to secure adequate and nutritious food and water, and access to a good education and healthcare is difficult. One girl’s personal story is told here.
Life in Malawi grows harder. Food shortages are currently affecting many Southern African nations due to drought. In addition, there has been an escalation in the number of refugees arriving from Mozambique in recent months. Combined, these factors are creating a desperate situation.
Skimming the surface of this vast, intoxicatingly complex continent, I remember flying homeward through the night across great swathes of pitch blackness. Then finally a single pinprick of light indicated life in its modern guise. My eyes followed it as we passed by, then it grew dimmer and more distant, before being replaced by another seemingly eternal stretch of mysterious, still darkness.
I am very grateful for the opportunity to return to Africa, and happy that No. 1 can see for himself what I have been able to relate only in words, pictures and short videos. Again it will be a brief visit, but my hope is that it won’t be our last trip to the Warm Heart of Africa.
For how will we be able to say goodbye to these friendly faces?
Special thanks to Jon Elbra and Ulrika Veroude for kind permission to use some of their images.