Saturday, December 3, 2011

Since November.

It feels so strange to have a December that is pretty much indistinguishable from July in Texas. I celebrated Thanksgiving with some friends in Luviri, which is in a much hillier and colder part of Malawi. It was a great time, and I finally cooked chicken in Malawi. I'd never bought a live chicken before (nor killed one) but I did both and used a lemon/garlic/bourbon marinade, which turned out great! It was fantastic to see everyone and made me relax and realize how far we'd come since we all swore in together in August, and - even with the strangeness of it all - it put me in a holiday mood.

Our next big event starts at the end of this next week. We finish our exams and marking, and then head back down to Dedza for In-Service Training. I'm looking forward to finishing my first term and preparing for the rest of my service. Since we swore in, each of us has dealt with new issues and problems and difficulties that we've had to come to terms with in a variety of ways, and plan as you might, nothing ever happens the way you think it will. My checklist for the first term have actually been moderately achieved: I moved to a new house in my village (which was part of my making a home in Malawi), I got better at Chichewa, and I survived.

Over the term break, I'm looking forward to reorganizing my project goals (especially implementing Participatory Analysis for Community Action, or PACA, in everything I do), working with the teachers and headteacher at my school in order to improve my own teaching, and continuing to develop as a person and community member. I'll have more time to post later, but as it is I'm in a rush to get back to site.

I miss you guys more than anything, and I hope your Christmas season is nice and chilly. If you feel the need, call or write or let me know you're around. Merry Christmas!


Saturday, November 5, 2011

My Life in Several Hundred Words

I tend to get many of the same questions about life here in Malawi, what I do specifically, and my basic day-to-day activities, so I thought I'd walk you through a typical day in Malawi in a single post.

5:30 a.m.
This is when I typically wake up, though that can vary due to whether or not the guinea fowl decide to get up at 4 and croak on my porch until I shoo them off, which puts me in a bad mood that usually dissipates by the time I finish breakfast. Recently I've started to take quick baths in the morning in addition to the ones at night to wipe off the sweat that comes with living under a tin roof in Africa.

I cook my breakfast on a paraffin stove - a few fried eggs, some butter and honey sandwiches, and a cup of tea (or coffee! Thanks Aunt Jill!). After that I brush my teeth, sit on the back step of my house and smoke, and then head out to school.

7:00 a.m.
My school is only a five minute walk from my house, and I pass my neighbors, a few fields, and a Jehovah's Witnesses Church before I approach the school grounds. The school planted a ton of trees a few years back, so I when I see a miniature forest that hasn't (yet) been used for firewood, I know I'm getting close to school.

I typically have five or six classes a day, Monday through Thursday, teaching Forms 1 and 3 English (language and literature, they're considered separate here), Form 1 PE, and Form 3 Life Skills. During my off periods I try to stay in the teacher's office to work on lessons, marking papers, or reading, but sometimes I end up running to the trading center to run a few errands. We have a ten minute break around 10, but it's for the students and the teachers end up continuing to work or do whatever else. By lunchtime I'm pretty whipped - I've usually taught anywhere between three and five classes (I don't often have many classes after lunch) and I haven't eaten for almost five or six hours, so I head back ASAP to my house to start lunch.

11:40 a.m.
Lunch is a lot of things, lunch is difficult. Lunch is basically an hour and twenty minutes for me to rush and get home, take off my shirt so I don't sweat through it, eat leftovers from the previous night's dinner if they haven't gone bad, have a cigarette, read, and rush back to school. It's pretty hectic, and I can't make a good meal in that amount of time that tides me over until dinner or is healthy enough to fill me up. I think I'm going to ask a neighbor if I can provide some food for them and then we can eat lunch together, but for now, it's either leftover rice or peanut butter sandwiches and a quick turnaround out the door.

1:00 p.m.
By this point I'm back at school, or on my way there. By the afternoon it's hot and students are tired and probably still pretty hungry (and so am I). Most of the teachers vacate the office at this point and sit under a few of the trees large enough to provide shade to more than a couple people and hang out until they have classes to teach. I usually knock off whenever I'm done, which on Tuesdays and Wednesdays is around 2. On Tuesdays I go home and read or nap, and on Wednesdays I go to a meeting with a local youth group I'm working with - the Mkaika Youth Organization, or MKAYO. We're starting a few new projects and continuing some older ones. Hopefully very soon we'll start operating and running a small library at the primary school (very close to the secondary school) and doing vocational training and HIV/AIDS awareness activities, but right now we're still planning. As I'm learning in Malawi, everything takes time, patience, and more than a little bit of luck.

3:00 p.m.
School is officially over at this point for me, but the rest of the teachers continue to teach "open school" which helps them to generate income and educate students who are basically what we would call "non-traditional students" - those who haven't yet completed secondary school and are considered to be too old to continue at "day school," which is for school aged students.

I head home and slowly unwind. Some days a student named Gift comes by and brings me water, sweeps and mops, and does a few of my dishes that need washing, and we'll chat or just listen to the radio. It seems weird to have someone doing something for me that I could physically do for myself, but between my workload, my projects, and the general difficulty and stress of settling in to a new community and a new country, I very honestly don't have the energy to do a lot of that. In exchange for Gift's help I pay his school fees, which amounts to about k2500 a term, and though that's less than $20 in the US, here it's a large sum of money - especially for him, but still for me. He usually finishes around dusk and then heads home, and I finally have enough energy to prepare dinner.

5:30 p.m.
Dinner on a wood fire is something else - I have to go out and get kindling, break down the pieces of wood that go next, and sit and stoke the fire until it gets nice and hot. This takes anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. I used to be able to just turn a knob! Then I prepare the food. Often I make a bag of soya pieces, which you're supposed to boil with tomatoes and onions, but that tastes horrible. I prefer to soak them, squeeze out the water, repeat if I have time, and then fry them in salt and pepper. Then I make the rice or spaghetti, and then the sauce - tomato, onion, and garlic. It's always the same, but I vary the spices to give the appearance of being flavorful and something else. Other times I make rice with beans and cabbage or some other form of rice and protein, but it's pretty simple. I know others cook MUCH better than I do, have baking apparatus and other stuff ("ujeni" in Chichewa - great word), but I don't and I'm still learning how to make the simple stuff. As time goes on I'm sure I'll be able to cook better and better, but right now I make a hell of a good spaghetti, a pretty mean rice and beans, some wonderful fried eggs, and a few other variations.

8:00 p.m.
Eating takes no more than 20 minutes. I try to savor it, but time slows down when you're hungry, so it feels like I'm having an intimate dinner for one and a great time all in the 20 minutes it takes to eat. While I eat I put a pot of water on to boil and have tea after I eat. I listen to the radio at 8, when Zodiac broadcasts the English news, which can sometimes be a full and enlightening half-hour, but is often a terse summary of governmental action that day followed by an opinion piece that seems a little more gung-ho than I would like.

9:00 p.m.
Bath time! I heat up a bucket of water, pour it in to a larger bucket of water, and then bathe under the stars. My bafa is basically some bricks, some mud, and a thatched wall. It's nice and warm to bathe, and I can see the Milky Way really clearly from out here.

9:30 p.m.
At this point, I'm whipped and I have to be up in about 8 hours, so I go to bed. By go to bed, I mean lay down and pass out. For how little there is to take up your time out here compared to America, I sure am busy.

I'm actually tired just writing all that. I hope you enjoyed it!

Things I'm Reading Right Now:

Two articles sent to me by Kimmy on current job situations for recent grads:

The Kids Are Actually Sort of Alright

Generation Limbo: Waiting It Out

Some amazing articles from one of my favorite magazines to read, 7Stops Magazine, published by my friend Dustin:

A great article about West Texas, change and myth-making

A nature walk through New York City

Working in a liquor store in Pennsylvania

Thoughts, reactions, and basic information on the National Council for Teacher Quality (NCTQ) and US News & World Reports putting together a ranking for teacher preparation programs on what seems to be limited and input-oriented information (it's like asking if a cake tastes good based on how much flour you're using - it could matter, but there's much more to it than that):

NCTQ's goals and mission for the new rankings (which they call a review)

A rebuttal to the proposed study by a website called "The Quick and the Ed"

An alternative approach proposed by Education Sector

A letter from the Texas Association of Colleges for Teacher Education informing NCTQ that they will not be participating in the study (though they will participate in a TEA study funded by the Gates Foundation with better methodology)

Just some things going through my mind - peruse at your pleasure!

Friday, November 4, 2011

A Quote from Senator Hubert Humphrey

So Senator Hubert Humphrey was from Minnesota and was probably one of the most instrumental people to propose the Peace Corps. While Kennedy is responsible for the executive action that pushed it along (with the University of Michigan speech to making it part of his election platform to the eventual creation of Peace Corps) Sen. Humphrey wrote legislation in the late 1950s outlining what would eventually become the actual Peace Corps (which Sargent Shriver later put together in the most badass way, but that'll be another post) and was a strong proponent of the Peace Corps for his entire career. Anyway, I found an amazing quote by him from his autobiography (on Wikipedia... but it's still good) that encapsulates how I feel about a lot of my service, especially the last bit. It's also a nice way to recognize and celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Peace Corps - we had a HUGE party at the Ambassador's residence yesterday (I've met her three times now) with good food, cold Carlsberg, and our last night with our Country Director before he left today. It was a fun and sad time, and very nice for me as an incoming PCV still trying to figure out just what the hell I'm doing. It's good to be reminded of the larger ideals behind your specific actions sometimes, and this quote struck me as particularly meaningful. I hope you enjoy it!

"There were three bills of particular emotional importance to me: the Peace Corps, a disarmament agency, and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. The President, knowing how I felt, asked me to introduce legislation for all three. I introduced the first Peace Corps bill in 1957. It did not meet with much enthusiasm. Some traditional diplomats quaked at the thought of thousands of young Americans scattered across their world. Many senators, including liberal ones, thought it silly and an unworkable idea. Now, with a young president urging its passage, it became possible and we pushed it rapidly through the Senate. It is fashionable now to suggest that Peace Corps Volunteers gained as much or more, from their experience as the countries they worked. That may be true, but it ought not demean their work. They touched many lives and made them better."

Saturday, October 22, 2011


Oh! I forgot - I have a new address. I can still get mail at the old one, but this one is closer to me! Also, don't forget to put my current name on the package/letter! I love you and appreciate anything you send, but if my name isn't on the package, Peace Corps doesn't know who it is for and may not notify me that I have anything, and that would be a shame! I have loved everything I've gotten so far, and I'm sorry if I haven't written back or you haven't gotten my message, but I can really only afford to send a few letters at a time because each one is a pretty sizeable chunk of my income. But I will write back!

Anyway, new address is:

Shawn Reagan
Mkaika CDSS
PO Box 36
Chia, Nkhotakota

Love you guys! I'll post again soon!

Settling In

I'm definitely getting used to my village, all things considered. I wish I had something like an epiphany or sudden realization, but I don't think I do, or at least, it's not my style. For the most part, I teach, cook, bathe, and read. I read A LOT. I'm currently working my way through that big John Adams biography, which is great, and I'm enjoying the "free time" I seem to have plenty of. While it is "free time" it's also not as relaxing as it used to be - children, the village, the heat (which is - knock on wood - not as bad as I thought it would be), and the difficulties of doing every day things. While I didn't much like to cook in America, I think I will LOVE IT when I get back: there's nothing like struggling to make rice and beans over a fire (approx. cooking time: 4 hours!) to make you miss the precious joy of ... the stovetop. I'm trying to learn to bake here, but it's surprisingly difficult for someone who specialized in macaroni and cheese and Shake n Bake for years.

My house is nice though I'm having a bit of an issue with peace and quiet, and so I may be moving soon (staying in the same area, but finding a new house). That'll also be nice to try and find a place and make it my own from scratch, which I've always enjoyed. The school is fun, though it's definitely been a steep learning curve. I thought the students would be further along than they are, better versed in English, and several other issues, but that wasn't the case. This upcoming weeks are midterms, when I'll assess how well I've been doing and try to make a comprehensive game plan for the rest of the term.

I'm looking forward to November because there's
1) the 50th anniversary of Peace Corps party,
2) Thanksgiving dinner at the Ambassador's house, and
3) the EducationUSA College Fair, where I'll be representing Texas State University to the Malawian students who are looking to attend college in the United States!

So that's a lot. I also had lunch with the new Ambassador a while back, and it was fantastic! She loves Peace Corps and met with many volunteers, and the week after she took us out to lunch she came back to attend a PCV's project opening (she had funded and built a youth center in her village, about a 15 minute bike ride from me). It's great to feel supported, especially by the highest ranking American in the country. Plus she and her husband are really nice! I've never met an Ambassador before so it was a big trip for me.

Coming up in December is the end of Term 1, my education group's In-Service Training (IST) and a much needed break for about a month or so. I'm figuring things out as I go and my current goal is just to make it to IST. That's it. Sometimes merely surviving is enough to keep your spirits up, and these past weeks have definitely been a bit harder for me in the scheme of things. It's typically the highest early termination (ET) period for Peace Corps, and I've certainly had my fair share of thoughts about going back. But I do feel like I'm going to stick it out and make it. Peace Corps is supposed to be tough, so I should learn to take a lot of these things in stride. I can't even tell how much I'm learning and changing and growing, but I can make out a little bit and I really do enjoy it.

I hate that this is so general, but that's just the mood I'm in right now! I'll try and update more soon, sorry for the delay on this one. Love you all!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Teaching in Malawi: Education, part 2

So, as I've begun to discover, teaching in Malawi was something I really couldn't have prepared for before hand. Though I did my research and even made it the focus of one of my graduate classes, I could only imagine what I might be facing in terms of supplies, support, and my specific situation. I wasn't exactly off from what I had predicted before, but Peace Corps is all about building expectations when you have little information to draw from... and then beating them to death.

My school is Mkaika Community Day Secondary School, and its motto is "Wise People Invest in Education." We have around 250 students, give or take, though not all are in yet so we haven't been able to conduct a proper headcount. Most, however, are boys. We're set in a thicket of trees and we have an mjigo (a pump for water set up by an aid organization), but sometimes the water tables drop and it's tough to get any water at all. We have one latrine, which is a huge area of concern for me, and though we have a girls' hostel for girls to stay overnight during the school year, their kitchen is very small and we have no electricity to provide them with security lights. We usually run with a staff of eight, and with a PCV that makes nine, but two staff members have recently left (one permanently as a transfer, and one for the next few months for teacher training), so we're down some much needed science and math classes. I have a lot of areas to choose from for development and improvement, and I'm working with my school to find out what those are.

We teach Forms 1 through 4, pretty much equivalent to American high school grades. At the end of Form 2 students take the JCE (Junior Certificate Examination) in order to pass on to Form 3, and at the end of Form 4 students take the MSCE (Malawi School Certificate of Education). This is the high school diploma, the big one, and is the basis of a lot of jobs, tertiary education, and pride. The tests are in English only (with the exception of Chichewa, the other "official" language of Malawi, regardless of whether or not you are a Chewa or are in an area that actually speaks Chichewa) so my job is of extreme importance how well a student understands and uses English typically determines their performance on these tests - from their own answers, to the complexity and thoughtfulness of their responses, to their understanding of the concepts, to knowing the words that ask the questions.

Other than the textbooks (which aren't to my liking, but do help) Students are taught a book of short stories from Africa, a book of English literature (shorter works and excerpts), a novel by a Malawian writer, and Romeo and Juliet. These are all tested on the exams, and the students are expected to have them memorized. The syllabus recommends that students read the books several times to really know them, but it's kind of hard when you don't have enough copies and when the schedule's so packed as it is. Grammatical concepts like question tags and letter format are routinely on the test, and while I have my personal reservations about the validity and reliability of the testing scheme, format, content, etc., I am not only obligated to fulfill my duties as a teacher to the Ministry of Education, I also need to ensure that each of my students has the best shot at doing well on the English tests and the others.

One thing they preach in Malawi is TALULAR: Teaching And Learning Using Locally Available Resources. It's pretty fun, encourages creativity and resourcefulness, but my favorite part is that it highlights making material relevant to the student by drawing from local surroundings and the student's everyday life. It was developed in Malawi and Zambia (I think), so it's a pretty cool concept that I'm not sure would have been as touted anywhere else. I've also received some materials from Elisabeth, the girl I replaced at my site, who was in TFA (in HOUSTON!) beforehand, and has been an amazing help during my adjustment here.

While school officially opened on September 5th, it starts for me on Monday, when my forms (1 and 3) show up after having waited for the results of their tests. Standard 8 (~8th grade in America) takes a test to advance on to the secondary level of education, and to find out at which school they have been placed - this was covered a bit in the previous post on education. Overall, I'm very excited to draw on my own background and knowledge, TALULAR ideas, and other PCVs and resources to try and make this year a successful one. Teaching is tough no matter where you do it, certainly, but a teacher can always improve.