When I accepted my invitation to join the Peace Corps, I scoured the internet for any and all PCV blogs. I wanted to find out exactly what the daily life of a volunteer was like and what their projects entailed. Today, in order to pay it forward and to address that later part for future volunteers, I’ve written a detailed account of one of my most recent projects. Sorry for non-future PCV readers, as all of the particulars are probably a bore! Here goes:
Phase 1: Brainstorming & Grant Writing
As an avid malaria (prevention) enthusiast and the Central Regional Coordinator of PC Malawi’s Malaria Team, I wanted to do something big for World Malaria Month in April. I also had been wanting to work with the secondary students for a long time and thought that the they would be the perfect channel for educating the wider community. I contemplated the idea of teaching malaria lessons at the school and then having the students create performances to showcase their newly acquired malarial knowledge to the community on World Malaria Day, April 25th. I figured that the project would allow them to practice their English listening skills, learn more about malaria in depth, and gain experience using performance arts as an educational skill. I presented my idea to the headteacher (principal), who was very receptive of the possible project. Together, we laid out the details of the program and tweaked some of my ideas. We decided that I would work with one biology and one English teacher to create and teach lessons on both malarial science and performance arts. Then, the students would assemble in small groups to create songs, poems and dramas. They would then perform their acts within the school, and the best teams would be selected to perform at a community-wide malaria rally to take place on April 25th.
Together, the headteacher and I wrote the grant. (This is the first grant I have written, as my other projects have not required funding). We were required to consider the sustainability of the project, the involvement from the community, its target population, various estimations of the number of beneficiaries per indicator, methods of monitoring and evaluation, etc. We also created a budget and made sure that 25% of the project would be funded by the community, as Peace Corps requires. The bulk of our budget was to hire a DJ who would bring music and speakers to the rally- a must for all Malawian events. In February, we submitted the grant for review to the Peace Corps office.
Phase 2: Planning makes… perfect?
After the office approved the grant, the teachers and I began planning our lessons. We first created a schedule outlining when each class would take place. Since many of the students travel up to 10km to school, we thought it would be best to have the lessons during the school hours instead of having students return home after the last bell to eat lunch and then bike all the way back. (Students do not eat at the school, but instead go home at 2:00). After creating a timetable, we administered a pre-test to gauge initial malarial knowledge and to later compare it to post-test scores as a method of evaluation. The biology teacher and I then used the results of the pre-test to create lessons plans. We met a few times to practice and create flipcharts with diagrams and drawings. The English teacher and I also met to create performance arts lessons, which we hoped would inspire creativity in the students- something that is severely lacking in Malawi. I also contacted a DJ (via my counterpart so I wouldn’t get charged an azungu price) and made sure he was available the 25th. During this time, it was really nice to work with the biology teacher, who I had only just met recently. It’s always refreshing to find a Malawian man who is respectful, caring and passionate about his work!
Phase 3: Lessons and rehearsals
The first week of April, we finally began! Of course, the way the project unfolded barely resembled our original plan. Implementation was incredibly frustrating and more than once, I assumed the entire project would be cancelled. The first day I went to give a lesson, it was pushed back an hour and a half. Not a big deal, I thought, this is Malawi. The second day, as I was in the middle of cooking at my house, I received a call from the headteacher telling me to come immediately to deliver the lesson earlier than expected. Again, not a huge deal but certainly annoying since I had confirmed yesterday that the lesson would be at 1:30 and not 12:00. I quickly left my half-cooked food and biked the 15 minutes to school.
The kids seemed to enjoy the lessons, but my English was clearly giving them trouble. For example, when I asked them to name the organism that transmits malaria, one student shouted out, “SLASHING GRASSES!” (A common misconception about how to prevent malaria). I’ve learned that Malawian classrooms have serious problems with students who simply memorize English buzzwords instead of understanding content. The biology teacher would translate a bit when he saw confused faces though, which was helpful.
Each day for the rest of the week, the time of the lesson was different from what we had meticulously planned. Every day I would arrive and be informed of the change, wondering why no one had called me earlier to inform me. Then, when I arrived on Friday, I discovered that all of the students had left.
“Yes, they leave early on Fridays,” the headteacher told me nonchalantly. Oh really, I thought, that may have been nice to know before I biked here and scheduled my whole day around the lesson. Especially since I confirmed the lesson with you yesterday!
“I must have forgotten,” he explained. Before exploding in frustration, I kindly rescheduled the meeting for Monday and quickly left. We had only a week and a half left until the rally (which the DJ, members of the health center, and various chiefs were planning on attending). Therefore, I hoped that the cancellation would not set the students back too much.
On Monday, as I was on my way to school, I got a call saying that the students couldn’t meet because they had their mock exams. The headteacher explained to me that all Form 2s and Form 4s (sophomores and seniors) would be busy all week taking their pre SAT-like exams. I was in complete disbelief. Why on Earth hadn’t he told me about this when we planned our schedule months ago!? Surely he knew that each and every year, the students prepare for their “SATs” during the month of April. Even if he didn’t know the exact date during our planning sessions, he could have at least warned me when he found out. The headteacher casually communicated that Forms 2 & 4 would just have to be excused from the program. While I was certainly very unhappy, I accepted these terms and decided it would be fine to work with just Form 1&3. Compounding my frustration was the additional fact that my boyfriend had come to help out with the project and both of the days he was planning to help with had been cancelled.
So with just Forms 1 & 3 we forged forward. On Tuesday, we had the last malaria lesson but only 26 students attended, instead of the 100 that should have been there. The lesson had been shifted to after school hours, so many students left to eat lunch. (I don’t blame them – it was 2:00 and some don’t eat breakfast!) I was angry that the lesson had been changed once again; it had been purposely planned around the students’ schedule. For those that did stay (bless their hearts), they were a bit distracted from the hunger. It was vital that they knew the information I was teaching that day because it was material for their performances, but I could tell they were starving. Again, I was disappointed in the scheduling but we continued.
The performance arts lessons ensued soon after. We talked about the elements of a good song and played two popular Malawian tunes about social issues. We also discussed how to make dramas more entertaining. I personally hate singing and acting, but I had a lot of fun! It was nice to see the students so excited about creating their own projects and they loved the rap song that we played about HIV. Groups were then formed and topics were chosen. In our plans, we had set aside four days for practice and perfection of the songs, dramas and poems. However, because of the cancellations, the students had just three. As someone who would always practice public performances a million times when I was in high school, this made me nervous for them. However, on the first day, the students were already pumping out great work! It was great to watch them practice their dramas, create choirs and scribble down poems. Although we had faced so many obstacles, my confidence was restored. I couldn’t wait for them to show the community! The next day, I arrived at practice and to my dismay, found only 15 students.
“Where is everyone?? Yesterday we had 13 separate groups!”
“Oh, the headteacher told all of the students who hadn’t paid their school fees to go home.”
I was about to explode once again. We were two days away from the rally and one day away from the school-wide rehearsal in which we would select the best groups for the rally. How could he do that, I fumed. He seriously couldn’t have waited 2 more days to do so!? One of the teachers I was working with encouraged me to speak with the headteacher.
“I am just a teacher, I cannot approach him on this issue. Maybe he will listen to you.”
I took a breath, entered his office and explained the great predicament that he had placed me in. He relented that students would be allowed to come the next day after school, special for the program. However, I was later told that the students who were turned away would probably be angry and feel like they were being used. Great. I also considered how difficult it would be getting the message to all the students who were turned away (about ¾ of the school). Without email or phones, it seemed impossible. Plus, those who rent rooms in the area probably returned home to ask their families for more money. It was a terrible situation with no glaring solution. I felt more stressed than ever. We decided to postpone the rally to two days later, in hopes to reclaim the students that had been chased off.
On the day of rehearsals, when I had initially imagined 25 groups performing, we had only four. But the show had to go on. During the performances, the teachers critiqued the students and gave them advice on how to improve. I felt like Paula Abdul on American Idol because every time I was given the floor, I simply congratulated the students without offering points to improve on. But I was so proud of them! During the rehearsals, a few Form 2 students came by and decided to participate. They ran off behind a building and quickly whipped up a drama. When they came back to perform, they had the whole audience laughing. How exactly they made it up in a mere 10 minutes, I had no idea. I did know that I was thankful to have more submissions! We ended up selecting everyone to perform the following day at the rally.
Phase 5: The rally!
During the course of the past few weeks, I had been inviting people to come to the rally and making sure the location and DJ were secured. I created posters that I hung in the market, in the health center and on various trees. In addition, I had plans to be a “night crier,” or someone who rides their bike through the village at night with a megaphone announcing a program. However, I could simply not find my counterpart. The past week, he had gone missing and his phone was broken. (I found out later that people had been stealing his corn so he had to harvest it fast. He had been working all day, from 5am- 7pm and then returning to the fields at night to stand guard against thieves). For these reasons, night crying didn’t happen. I also advertised at the primary school, telling the teachers to disseminate the information to their pupils and for the pupils to tell their families. I was expected a huge crowd, considering that Maganga has a population of 40,000!
By 2:00 the day of the rally, only a handful of dirty iwes had shown up, attracted to the DJ’s music. He had started playing around 1:00 which I was sure to gather people but it didn’t seem to be working. Even the secondary students were late! They were supposed to come directly after school at 2:00 but the first ones to show up weren’t there until 2:45. The headteacher told me that there was an all-school meeting with an NGO (which he had promised to postpone but clearly didn’t), so that’s why they were late. Thanks for the continued support, I thought. By 3:00, two hours after the advertised start time, we still hadn’t begun. I worried that the petrol fueling the speakers would be depleted before we even started. I also started to believe that it would be a complete flop.
Finally, even though the audience was quite skimpy, we decided to get the show on the road. The biology teacher was our MC, and he did a great job of engaging the audience and making it fun. We had a representative from the health center talk about the impact of malaria on the community. He shared, among other things, that in 2015 there were 16,000+ confirmed cases of malaria in Maganga! Staggering. The headteacher then spoke on the impact that malaria has on a child’s education, discussing school absenteeism and developmental issues from the disease. I also gave a speech in Chichewa on why I have chosen to focus on malaria and how pervasive it is in all aspects of life. The students absolutely loved it and gave me a huge applause for my silly Chichewa. After these speeches, the performances began. We managed to scrounge up seven or eight in total, which I was content with. While I couldn’t understand most of the fast-speech in the songs and dramas, I could tell that they were well received by the audience.
As the rally continued, my counterpart gave a bed net washing demonstration, the MC invited the village chiefs and I up to dance and the crowd grew. Every half hour or so, the headteacher would lean over and whisper something like
“See? People have come.” Or, “There are no adults here but they already know about malaria. It’s only the children we need to target.”
While his comments were a tiny bit reassuring, I could tell he was just trying to make everything seem okay after all of the obstacles he had thrown at me. Still, I was content. By the end of the rally, I estimated that 400-600 people were in attendance.
When all the performances were finished, we awarded prizes to 1st , 2nd, and 3rd places. Part of the first place prize was a glazed banana bread, cooked by yours truly. The winning group held it up above their heads and danced in celebration. It was pretty funny. Although the project was not what I envisioned, I was happy. All of the audience members we surveyed reported that they indeed had learned something- from how important it is to take malaria serious, to how to wash a bed net. I was appeased to also hear that the chief had approached the biology teacher a few days later and told him how much he appreciated the rally. He promised that he would make an effort to persuade people to use their bed nets properly. Furthermore, the teacher also told me that one of the students went up to him and told him that before the project, he didn’t really consider malaria to be a problem. Now, he said, he appreciates how truly harmful the disease is to society and considers it a huge risk. Hearing things like certainly made the project seem worth it, despite the stress it had brought. Tomorrow, I will be giving the post-test to the secondary students and am excited to see how well their scores compare to the pre-test!
Future PCV’s please comment if you have any questions! Hope you found this somewhat helpful.