Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Goodbye Malawi, and thank you

I haven't visited Malawi since August 2017. Usually, I'm out there every few weeks and sometimes more frequently than that. However, in recent months the events described in my last post (Thank you Scotland's NHS) have taken over and it has been up to a good friend and colleague of mine to engage in the activities I might otherwise have been doing.

Not just my visits to Malawi have stopped: my writing has too. I only have energy for so much, and getting through the treatments has often been challenging enough. So the posts on this blog, and on my Edinburgh one have petered out.

So what now?

I am now pretty certain that I will not be returning to Malawi in the foreseeable future, or perhaps ever again. While I had until recently promised myself that I would be back for a last fling in September this year, indeed had discussed it with specialist medical staff and the organisation for which I work, I now know in my heart of hearts that this is not going to happen. Compromised immune systems don't respond well to air conditioning in planes, let alone the interesting range of bacteria and viruses on the ground once one gets to one's destination.  It helps no one to travel to a country with a far less developed health service than our own and not only risk one's own health but potentially take time, attention and resources away from other people, and disrupt their work. So much, so disappointing.

That does not mean, however, that I have completely severed my connection with Malawi. Work continues, but carried out in Edinburgh rather than in the field. Naturally, such working methods are not sustainable. The longer I stay away, the less relevant and useful my work will be to the people with whom and for whom I work. So, some intensive desk work over spring and summer will morph gently into a wind down and conclusion.

So, it's goodbye to Malawi.

I am not going to attempt to reflect on the effectiveness or otherwise of my work. That is for others to do. Indeed, one of my more recent posts, Taking stock, described what exactly it is that I have been doing.

No, this post is not about what I have done for Malawi. It is about what Malawi has done for me.

One of the more exasperating aspects of working in a developing country is the difficulty in being allowed to do so. The usual mantra is that you are not allowed to work in Africa unless one has already had experience of working in Africa. Catch 22. I was fortunate to be taken on in my earlier posting in Uganda because I had had experience at the hard end of travelling around and staying in Cameroon, though only as a visitor to a project in which my son was engaged. At the end of two and a bit years living and working in Uganda, I was irritated to be told by a senior staff member in the organisation to which I was attached that I had 'now' become useful and could be deployed elsewhere.

There is an element of truth in such dismissive comments, however. Those of us who have achieved senior positions in our own countries, may feel that we 'know it all', that we are the 'experts'. How different it is, however, applying our knowledge and deploying our skills in a completely different setting.

Foreign 'experts' can be a liability in developing countries. We expect change to happen too quickly, or we see what needs to be done and, particularly in education, find it difficult to accept that our work is unlikely to improve the experiences of children in the shorter term. We get frustrated. We have unrealistic expectations based on our own countries with their efficient transport systems, well-established working arrangements, generous funding of public services and completely different childrearing practices. Scottish public servants - teachers, medical staff - may consider themselves to be underpaid and overworked, but at least they receive their salaries regularly and on time and are not struggling to feed and educate their own children.

When we foreign consultants come along with our expectations of what constitutes effective professional practice, based on international educational research and our own personal and professional experience, our advice may be totally unrealistic and ignore deeply entrenched cultural views on, for example, how teaching should be carried out or children disciplined. Fortunately, the long standing and respected work of organisations such as UNICEF provides a frame of reference and a basis on which the rest of us can build.

In my own case, I have benefited enormously from the generosity with which my Malawian professional colleagues have shared their own experiences and understanding. During long journeys up and down the country, I learned of their own educational journeys, not all of which had been straightforward, of life in rural villages and the obstacles which so many children face, of the hugely significant impact of religious belief, both Christian and traditional, on community life. More mundanely, I learned about the Malawian education system and the impressive achievements of those who survive it against all odds. Thank you Fritz, Michael, Steve and Harrison, professional staff working for Link Community Development, who took responsibility for my education as we bounced down rough dirt tracks in search of primary schools out in the bush. Thank you also to the inspectors and advisers in the Education Ministry's Directorate of Inspection and Advisory Services, and to the principals and staff in Malawi's teacher training colleges. Never once did any of you express surprise at my naivety and ignorance. Your support and input during all aspects of my work has been invaluable.

When I worked in Scotland, I often felt that I did so under pressure. However, I had no idea how fortunate my Scottish colleagues and I were in terms of the time available for the activities we were expected to undertake, the relative ease with which we could travel from one side of the country to another or the availability of technology to enable us to work efficiently.

In both Uganda and Malawi, school inspections have to be undertaken in roughly half a day, very different from the week available for similar activities in a Scottish school. Developing countries do not have the money to employ enough officers to undertake longer inspections or to pay for the travel and subsistence necessary. My Malawian colleagues have to be able to grasp the key features of practice in a particular school within two or three hours. Papers cannot be taken away to be studied at leisure, for one will not be returning to that school for a long time, and anyway, the following day one will be in another school. If inspections or supervision by advisers cannot be carried out within such a short timescale, then there is no point to them. Without external evaluation, the quality of education in individual schools and across districts continues unmonitored and children's experiences suffer. To be effective and relevant, consultants' work must be carried out in partnership with local professionals who can provide the contextual surround which makes their work practicable. Learning has to be two way. My own learning has been immeasurable.

Without this learning, my Scottish assumptions about how Malawian schools are administered would have been quite unrealistic. My understanding of the extent of preparation and support which Malawian teachers receive, or do not receive, would be severely lacking. It is only too easy in such circumstances for the pronouncements and reports of external consultants to be quite out of synch with the reality of the situation on the ground. We fly in, deliver our reports, and fly out again. My inspectorate and advisory colleagues, in contrast, have to be sensitive to  the nature of the demands made on minimally educated classroom teachers and school leaders, while at the same time making clear recommendations for improvements in practice, for the benefit of children.

This does not mean that international consultants have nothing to offer developing countries. They can help inspectorates extend the scope of evaluation so that it focuses more closely on issues which matter, in particular, the experiences and achievements of young people, rather than just on data collection and transmission. They can also help local officers develop the range and types of evidence on which evaluations are based so that they are well founded. However, such development and the training necessary cannot be carried out without awareness of the local context. That context is provided by the local colleagues with whom one works. I could not have done my work without them.

Thank you also to the ordinary people of Malawi, to the hotel staff, the street pedlars and the shop assistants whom I got to know quite well, and who greeted me on my way back and forth to work. I pity those foreign consultants who only ever stay in luxury hotels away from the buzz and bustle of the local markets and street traders, and who only ever travel by private car. I have heard of 'experts' who are so frightened of stepping outside the hotel compound that they never actually meet a real Malawian, and this in one of the safest and friendliest countries in the world. While admitting that my own experience has still been quite limited, I feel that I have seen a fair bit of the country and its people.

There are individuals I shall always remember: the educated young men carrying out their wood carving by the side of the road, struggling to make ends meet and support their younger brothers and sisters through school in a country where having a permanent full-time job is a rarity; disabled and albino beggars working their way down the queues of traffic; and young mothers and prematurely aged grandmothers with underfed children strapped to their backs, trying to collect sufficient small coins and stained low-denomination notes to buy a handful of maize for the evening's porridge. Many of the people one passes are the casualties of the education system: educated but jobless, child brides thrown out of the marital home, the disabled denied the educational support which would have enabled them to become independent. They are the permanent reminders as to why we do the work we do. Only education can help. And that education has to be better than it currently is, which is where consultants like me come in.

Well, as I have already written, I am unlikely to return to Malawi. However, during several of my recent visits to Edinburgh's Cancer Centre, medical staff have reminded me that the Western General Hospital has well established links with Malawi. One of the consultants and several of the Breast Care nurses are helping to train and support their Malawian colleagues at the newly established cancer centre in central Malawi.

And although I myself am unlikely to make the journey again, I have just arranged for my mother's 70-year-old Singer sewing machine, still going strong after all these years, to be refurbished and transported to Malawi, where it will be used for vocational training by a wonderful organisation called Tools for Self Reliance.

So, I may not be going back to Malawi but other people from a range of different backgrounds and with different kinds of expertise, will make that journey. And no doubt, they, like me will arrive thinking that they are there to teach other people skills with which they are unfamiliar. And they like me, will eventually realise quite how much they have learned themselves.

Goodbye Malawi, and thank you.


  1. Dear Mrs Ritchie
    I have just discovered your fascinating and insightful blog. I look forward to many hours of interesting and informative reading.
    I hope that your health has continued to improve and that you are now enjoying the rudest of good health.

    Best Wishes
    Ron Telfer

  2. Thank you very much for your appreciative comment, Ron. I am glad you have found the blog interesting. Perhaps I should go back and do some more writing on my Edinburgh blog!