His intently inquisitive eyes are focused on my phone and the image of himself that he sees in its display.
Israel is 9 years old, the third of five children, and one of 696 pupils attending a rural primary school in the Kasungu district of central Malawi.
This is our first encounter. I have noticed him (he makes himself noticed) in the sunshine outside. Darting barefoot across the sandy ground and whipping through his classroom door, he takes a seat next to me, smiling smart in his bright blue shirt. His classmates fill the chairs or sit on the floor, cramming close, and look up to their teacher.
Standard 1 is the first of the eight classes of primary school. Ages range from 6 to 9 (repeating years is common), and the register contains 110 names (although attendance rates across Malawi are about 85%). There is one teacher, and no teaching assistant – it’s difficult to attract teachers to a rural district like this.
Israel reaches for my green-rimmed sunglasses that are resting on the desk. My hand is too slow – a joyful eruption of laughter rings out from his friends as he models my glasses with his hands on his hips and a jaunty tilt of his head.
I gasp in mock horror, but am aware that I am encouraging a distraction from learning, so I look away. I feel my sunglasses slot into place on top of my head, and glance sideways at Israel. A flash of a smile, before he turns his quickly serious eyes to the front of the class.
Today’s lesson is maths. Instruction is given in a mix of English (Malawi’s official language) and Chichewa (her national language), although the mother tongue of some of the children might be Tumbuka, or any of the 12 indigenous languages that course through Malawi’s dry land.
The number 9 whitens the blackboard as the teacher demonstrates how to curve its circle then dash down. Bitesize pieces of chalk are passed between the eager children as they take turns to carefully write “nineeeee“. Circle then line. “Zungulili kwaaa!” Success wins a cry of “Clap once” – all hands together: Clap. Rhythm in maths.
There are few strokes on paper – resources are scarce. But the children and teachers have generous sand in which to scribe, so outdoors they troop, chanting: “Follow, follow, follow, follow the leader!”
Arms swirl widely to mark out spaces, then the children drop to the ground to continue their work. Zungulili kwaaa!
Lengthening shadows wander across the ground later that day as No. 1 and I amble to the borehole to wash our hands, and Israel’s dancing shadow follows us. With a gently gleeful swipe, he reclaims my sunglasses, and his shadow sparks ahead.
This quick-witted boy could go far. Possibly – if given the chance.
Israel doesn’t just make himself known to me. One of my travelling companions is surprised that he doesn’t find Israel’s shining face spring out of his suitcase when he arrives home, and our party’s joint collection of photos make Israel a bit of a star.
But for every Israel, there is a shy child no less bright, or an unnoticed, quiet child needing more attention than a teacher managing a class of over 100 students can give. They all deserve a chance.
We visitors admire the unwavering resolve of the teachers and their students to learn, despite the walls of challenges they face. We find warmth and determination, pure love of life and grit. Our hosts’ colourful musicality, and intense yet friendly curiosity about our strangeness has got us all hooked.
Now back to Israel, and how he came by my sunglasses AND my son’s phone … it seems I have a great deal to learn.