This article first appeared on the 'My Turn' page of The Nation, on Friday, 31st December, 2010
Last night at the New State House the Malawi nation recognized ordinary citizens who have accomplished extraordinary feats of selflessness, making life better for others. These are Malawians who deserve our congratulations, admiration and emulation. They are the ones who make it worthwhile identifying onself as a proud Malawian. As we round up a remarkable 2010, my thoughts are with a group of Malawians that toil away in remote recesses of the nation’s consciousness, with very little recognition and reward. Teachers in our primary and secondary schools. You are familiar with the truism “If you can read this, thank a teacher.” How often do we strive to go beyond the rhetoric and show our gratitude, at a national function, to teachers, in deed and in action?
Two weeks ago I found myself in the company of seven primary school teachers from a very remote part of Nkhata Bay district. They had come to a Teacher Development Centre (TDC) for a training workshop aimed at establishing continuous professional development programmes in their respective schools. I was amazed to hear about how far some of them had walked, on foot, to attend the workshop. One teacher had woken up at 3am, and set out at 4am. He didn’t arrive at the TDC until 9am. This teacher had walked five hours. The workshop ended at 5.30pm, and the teacher was facing another five-hour walk, in the dark, back home. He was going to sleep for less than four hours before he would get up again and walk for another five hours for the second and last day of the workshop. I did not hear any complaint in his tone.
I was interested in learning more about what was going on in their schools, and in their lives. Nkhata Bay district spent much of December developing School Improvement Plans (SIPs). What were these schools looking to improve as articulated in their SIPs? New classroom blocks, a borehole, roofing material for an existing block, headteacher’s office, a staffroom. They all sounded infrastructural. Were there other projects besides infrastructure? Textbooks and notebooks. One school didn’t have enough of these.
“How about library books? How many of you have libraries in your schools?” There were about 4 schools represented in the group. Only one had a library. I asked whether libraries and library books had been included in SIPs. One teacher responded and said supplementary books were not important. Pupils did not learn much from novels and trade books. They needed textbooks, not novels. I was taken aback. Did I just hear a teacher say books were not important? Was there something in that statement that I did not understand?
The issue of Malawi’s reading culture has attracted a noticeable amount of interest lately, with several commentaries and news articles describing what is being done to encourage reading habits amongst Malawians. My hope has been that primary and secondary school teachers would not only tune in to the discussion, but also actively participate. The school zone I am discussing in this article is very remote, an hour’s drive from the nearest tarmac road into the Kaning’ina Hills.
I learned that there was a Malawian who now lived and worked in Britain, who did his primary school education at this school. Some years ago this Malawian collected library books from where he lives and works in Britain, and shipped them to his former primary school in Nkhata Bay. He also sent money for the building of a library at the school. More recently, some three years ago, he sent another load of books, but the school was unable to raise the money needed to clear the consignment in custom fees. They have no idea what happened to the books; they were either returned to sender, or simply confiscated.
Although the teachers’ sounded as if they were saying books were not important in the lives of their pupils, the situation is more nuanced than this. If Malawian schools are struggling to provide required textbooks to their pupils, supplementary reading material such as novels and trade books are going to be considered a luxury. This is an unfortunate situation that the current debate on Malawi’s reading culture has failed to address.
We are deluding ourselves if we believe we can foster a reading culture without discussing the underlying problems in our schools, and the hardships our teachers face. We are beguiling ourselves as a nation if we believe Malawi can develop without seriously worrying about the conditions in which teachers live and work. Recent legislative efforts have remarkably kickstarted the conversation, but much more needs to be done, by the wider Malawian population. Each one of has a role to play in helping improve the conditions and lives of teachers, the very foundation of our development efforts. If you can read this, thank a teacher yes, but don’t stop there. You can join us, in 2011, in a discussion on how Malawi can establish an annual programme to award outstanding teachers.