Thursday, 1 May 2014

It's 5,000 metres from Bunda to Glasgow

Many of you will, I hope, have heard of Glasgow, Scotland's great 'second' city. From its port, ships -many of them built on the River Clyde - sailed across the world. Majestic buildings line the streets of the Merchant City, marking the role foreign trade, in people as well as goods, has played in city life over the centuries.

Glasgow's splendidly diverse population also comes from all over  the world. It has more Gaelic speakers than anywhere else in Scotland, many of them descendants of Highlanders cleared from their crofts. Poor Irish families settled down in Glasgow. Many of its most talented lawyers, doctors, politicians and businessmen have family roots in the Indian sub-continent. The city is also proud to offer new homes to refugees and asylum seekers from across the world, including Iraq, DR Congo and Sri Lanka. And, most wonderful of all, this July Glasgow will welcome athletes from across the continents to the Commonwealth Games: Glasgow 2014.

Not many of you, I guess, will have heard of Bunda, however, not far from Malawi's capital city, Lilongwe. Neither had I, until a chance conversation in the hotel with another mzungu working in Malawi led to an unplanned informal visit to the village primary school.

I have just written that Bunda is 'not far' from the capital. Sloppy writing. It is ten miles or so south of the city, to be exact, - well, exact-ish. For all sorts of reasons, it felt like fifty miles. It is even further from Glasgow, of course, but we'll come to that.

Why so tedious a journey? Well, for a start, the taxi was rubbish. Rule number 1: when travelling around an African country, always check the quality of the vehicle before you get in it. Well, we did that, sort of... We were slightly perturbed by the loose and rusting rear wing, but we were reassured by the driver that the problem was just cosmetic. I don't think so. Ten yards down the road and the horrible grinding noise suggested something far more sinister. Another look - missing wheel nuts. Off to the 'garage', an indolent bunch of young men under a tree who hawked wheels, tyres and, indeed, wheel nuts to an unsuspecting public. A few more yards down the road and it was clear that the problem had not gone away. The bottom of the car seemed to rise and fall of its own free will. Was it attached to the chassis? Who knows. My brave companion made a fuss and, eventually, the taxi firm came up with another vehicle.

So off we went again. Oh by the way, did I mention the weather? No, I did not. It was ghastly. You know those west coast of Scotland damp dreich days when the rain comes down steadily and interminably and you feel miserable and cold from the minute you get up until the second you retire to your bed? Yes? Well, it was one of those days, but, bizarrely, in Malawi rather than Glasgow. This may sound like an insignificant detail, except that as we got nearer to our destination, the roads we were driving on were, for the most part, made of sticky red mud.

The rain came down and the car crept forward in second gear, reaching I guess, a top speed of twenty miles an hour. We slid gently this way and that, mercifully missing any oncoming traffic: other rusting cars, for instance, overloaded bikes and stoical housewives trudging along with babies on their backs and baskets on their heads. The driver gripped the wheel, perhaps regretting his lack of any formal driving lessons. We certainly did. He staunchly ignored every instruction about the route, passing the turn offs and doing three-point turns (five-point? ten-point?) across the carriageway. Our driver didn't seem to notice the drainage ditches on either side. I squeezed my eyes shut.

It might have felt like an expedition to the centre of the primeval forest, but, Bunda, in fact, is a 'university town'. It has an agricultural college, now part of Lilongwe University and twinned with London's Greenwich University, south of the River Thames. Here my companion got out to do her official business. I, however, continued, bumping my way across the ruts and splashing through the floods.

And there, at last, was Bunda Mountain, a great granite mound 1,410 metres high (thanks, Bradt!) towering above the red-brick school and its fields of maize. Here on its heights traditional believers perform rain ceremonies a couple of times a year. In my jaundiced view, the ceremonies did not seem entirely necessary. Or perhaps, they were just very very effective.

Leaving the car parked in the middle of the compound, I plodded across the waterlogged ground. I wondered why on earth I had bothered coming, for by the time I eventually got there, the children had all gone home. In Malawi, schools operate from 7.30 or so in the morning until one o' clock. However, the headteacher, Mr Longwe, gave me a warm welcome which soon made up for my sodden state, and one of his long suffering teachers helped to show me around.

At first sight, there was nothing unusual about the school. Its long low rows of classrooms were like many such government school buildings in Malawi. They looked pretty solid, though the iron roofs were leaking and the floors were damp, a common-enough problem in Malawi. The rooms had more furniture than many, though whether the number of benches was sufficient for all the children crowding into them, I doubt. No doubt they sat three or four times the number of children the seats were designed for. During examinations, unfortunately there are not nearly enough classrooms and benches, so the children do their exams sitting on the grass.

Here and there a solitary student was beavering away, working hard for the all-important leaving examinations.

There was evidence of some help from outside. The European Union, for example, had helped to fund a classroom block and a group of students from Aberdeen had tried their hand at educational murals.

A second glance at the school, however, revealed something a bit unusual.

This rather grand entrance was constructed under the auspices of LEAP - the Lilongwe Education Assistance Programme - a local Malawian non-governmental organisation (NGO) which supports education in eight primary schools in and around the capital. Founded on the principles of self-help, LEAP encourages learners to generate funds for their schools through agricultural activities, such as poultry farming and growing crops in the school garden for feeding pupils and for sale to staff and the community.

The income generated from agriculture is used for sports activities, staff training and building projects, including classrooms and teachers' houses. In Bunda, the funds helped to build and staff a special needs classroom for fifteen pupils.

LEAP helped staff develop a library and even a science laboratory, although the latter is not yet fully functional. Support from Greenwich University staff working with Bunda Agricultural College has also contributed significantly to the various projects.

There is still a lot of work to be done, of course. New latrines are desperately needed. Ground has been dug but bricks and mortar require money. Here you can see the existing girls latrines, located in woodland for privacy.

However, what has made the LEAP project even more interesting is its evolution into a further level of self-help: REAP, the Rural Education Assistance Programme. There are many schools in rural Malawi with far poorer accommodation and resources than schools like Bunda. If they wait for the government to provide help, they will wait for a very long time, particularly in the current financial situation. Children's education and future livelihoods can't wait. REAP aims to take some of LEAP's positive developments in strengthening governance, professional development and health promotion out into other districts. The work on improving education for children with special educational needs should significantly increase provision for a much neglected group of young people. Malawian schools supporting Malawian schools.

I made one further discovery while I was at Bunda. A young man of twenty, Gervazio Mpani, has qualified for the Commonwealth Games and will be coming to Glasgow in July to compete in the 5,000 metres. Gervazio, a pupil of Bunda Primary School, has trained by running round its football pitch. He runs barefoot, for lack of running shoes, and has none of the kit that a young Scottish athlete would take for granted. His trainer is Mr Longwe, the headteacher. Gervazio is no novice at competition, however, having competed at the World Championships in Russia and in 2012 at the SCSA Zone VI Youth Games in Lusaka, Zambia. (SCSA - Supreme Council for Sport in Africa). Here is a picture of Gervazio taken later on in grounds of the hotel I was staying in. Look out for him in Glasgow!

It's not that far, after all, from Bunda to Glasgow. If you're good at running, that is.

Postscript: As for me, I eventually got home by way of a ditch. Not only was the taxi driver weak sighted and hard of hearing, our replacement vehicle turned out to have four odd tyres, one of which was a spare wheel for temporary use only. Badly miscalculating a reverse round a corner necessitated by yet another wrong turning, we ended up bonnet down in a four-foot drainage ditch. Fortunately, I was able to scramble up the bank while local villagers hauled the taxi out. You will not be surprised to hear that I took an alternative mode of transport back to the hotel. And no, I didn't tell the boss of Link, nor did I tell Stuart. Who knows if they'll ever find out!

(Oh, and by the way, it is actually 5,000 miles from Bunda to Glasgow.)

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