Monthly Archives: October 2012

Yeah, bit happier now. Here’s the post I was going to make. Parp, Parp!

The bipolar nature of this blog will, by now, not be a surprise to you. I go up and down like a yo-yo, or some less obvious simile. These pages are now back firmly in their up cycle, which is a relief, I’m sure. Basically, I’ve just had half term, and that always makes me happy. However much you enjoy your job, and I do, in the main, you’d always rather not be doing it. This half term has come with a couple of really excellent additions, too, so all told, I’m in a good mood at the moment.

One of these major additions is that we have, finally, bought a car. This was a real necessity, but one fraught with worries and dangers. I suppose I couldn’t, realistically, have expected the job advert to have described the school as “on the shitty side of Blantyre*, next to a township, with only the shop attached to a petrol station within walking distance” but some sort of warning would have been nice. The walking distance thing is particularly galling, as we walked everywhere in Britain, but here Sarah tried to walk to the shops precisely once, and then had to ring another teacher to come and get her. There are absolutely no pavements in Blanytyre, and even with the ludicrous off-road pram thing that we bought, it was a horrible experience. Throw in the heat, and the fact that Malawian drivers treat pedestrians like cockroaches, to be killed as soon as seen, and, well, we’ve been living off the Malawian equivalent of Ginster’s pasties** for while. So we needed a car. But cars here are incredibly expensive, and, like everything in Malawi, purchasing one is complicated. There are email lists on which ex-pats who are leaving advertise their cars, but you can’t tell what’s been stolen or is a heap of shit, and if you discover afterwards that you’ve bought a lemon, well, good luck getting recompense from someone who’s now in Beijing. So, most people pay a mechanic to find them a car, and to check it out before they purchase it. Everything runs through a network of contacts, which is a problem if you are a new arrival, as you haven’t got any. So you ask colleagues to recommend people and some people recommend one mechanic while someone else tells you that they shouldn’t be touched with a barge pole. So you keep on eating mayonnaise sandwiches and occasionally cadging lifts off other people. Anyway, I think I mentioned last time that my colleague Joanne (kind of works for me, kind of my boss – schools are weird) lived in Malawi as a kid, in fact she was a student at the school we both now work at, and she still knows some people here. She bought a car from a man called Alan, who also sold cars to two other new arrivals. So far so good, we thought, we’ll use Alan. Then the two cars he sold to the other new arrivals broke down. OK, we thought, we won’t use Alan. But then he fixed them without cost, seemed really sorry and was delightful with the baby, and we were getting really sick of mayonnaise, so finally, yeah, we’ll use Alan to find us a car.
So then, what sort of car should Alan find us? Actual Malawians drive cars. Just cars. The most common vehicles piloted by Malawian teachers seem to be Toyota Corollas. Ex-pat teachers, who better understand the requirements of African driving, drive massive four-by-fours and pick-ups; the ruggeder the better. The school car park looks like an Afghan warlords’ convention. Needless to say, I wanted one of those. My original desire was for a Toyota Land Cruiser so large that it had its own gravitational pull. I wanted bull bars. I wanted floodlights. I wanted a snorkel. Hell, I wanted a bearded man with a RPG launcher in the back. That’s not what we bought.
Sarah was very patient with me on this. We looked at adverts for massive vehicles, and ones that had been converted for battlefield use (though, seriously, which battlefield? The Malawian army has literally never been used in anger. Their headquarters still say King’s African Rifles outside it, because no-one’s got round to changing it. In fifty years.) She waited slowly for me to realise the stupidity of my intentions. As I came to realise, I might, just might, if I went looking for it, get to ford a river once; she’s going to drive to Shoprite*** three times a week, so her needs are a little more pressing than my fevered daydreams. In the end, we did get a four-by-four, but a Chelsea tractor style one, not a farming implement. **** Anyway, we bought a six year old Suzuki Grand Vitara from a bloke returning to the UK. We paid him in sterling, in the UK, which meant that we didn’t need to have any more money in Kwacha, which was a relief as there’s a whiff of Zimbabwe/Weimar around the currency at the moment. I have to admit I love the car. It’s got working air conditioning and a six CD changer. It seats five adults, not fourteen, which is actually an advantage. It’s comfy. Sarah’s over the moon with it and we can go shopping whenever we like. Oh, the bewildering variety of things I can have on my sandwiches. I kind of miss mayonnaise.
One thing we can do now we have a car is explore Malawi a bit, on our own terms, and that’s what we did last week. We went to two game parks, one of which, Mvuu Wilderness camp in Liwonde, was just awesome with a capital Aw, and will get its own post later. The first, Nyala Park near Chikwawa was also wonderful, but I’ll talk about it now. A Nyala is, as practically all animals are, an antelopey thing. A big one, and there are plenty of them in Nyala park, and they are very beautiful, but that isn’t why you go. You go because of giraffes. Giraffes aren’t native to Malawi, but there is a large-ish colony of them in the small, man-made game park on the Illovo sugar plantation. Getting there was cool, as we had to sign into the plantation with a weird, European-style health and safety thing. Sarah signed us in, claiming to be representing “self, and family” and promising to wear a hard hat at all times. There were five of us: me, Sarah, noun and also John, new head of history and his son, Aled. John’s been more affected by the devaluation/inflation that I have. He has a son just starting at Cambridge, and he needs to be able to send money home. The fact that he is, in sterling terms, now being paid half what he agreed to, is, to say the least, concerning. It isn’t a walk in the park for us, either, but at least we hadn’t intended to remit our wages. We would, to be frank, be screwed if we had. Most teachers don’t really do anything with the October half term as we’ve only just gone back to work – we tend to spend it working, though no-one believes that. This time, though, at least among the new entrants, most people tried to get away. I think people wanted to experience Malawi, and to try and ground themselves in their new country. We were no exception, but I think John simply couldn’t afford it at the time. I also know that he was worried about Aled being bored and resentful***** about spending the holiday in school. So when we decide that, yes, we would go away for a couple of days, but that before we went we’d take a day trip to Nyala park, well, inviting John and Aled was a no brainer. I don’t want to make this sound like charity, though, as it really wasn’t. They are both exceptionally  good company, and John has a camera that hasn’t fallen off as cliff.

It took a while to get there, as I got lost heading out of Blantyre (there are four roads in Malawi. It takes a special kind of retard to get lost here) but soon we were heading down the escarpment road. It was every bit as astonishing as before, with sheer rocks in purple, blue and white; and the sight of the Shire****** River winding massively but sluggishly below us. We soon got to Nyala park, and after stopping for a while to feed Noun some boob and us some sandwiches, we drove in. Almost immediately we were stopped by a group of three Zebras. They were utterly un-spooked by us, and stared at the car till they were ready to wander off, all stripy and splendid. We saw Nyala, which are enormous and wild, with wonderful twisted horns. Again, we were remarkably close. This closeness was a theme, because, after about an hour and a half of driving about, we came across the giraffes. And when I say we came across them, we pulled off the road, and were within ten feet of a group of about twelve giraffes. They were astonishingly beautiful; all ballerina legs and strutting en pointe. We watched them for about an hour, (and answered my brother-in-law’s question “Do giraffes sleep standing up?” – No, Gareth, they don’t. They sleep curled up on the floor;) before pulling away and heading home. It was a lovely day, and John took some wonderful photos which I will upload once I have them.

Malawi felt pretty good that day. Fighting elephants and a five-star tented safari to follow. The elephants brushed past our tent!
*Every side is the shitty side.
** Mayonnaise sandwiches, to be precise.
***Local supermarket. Known as Shopshite. Utterly baffling. The aisles, for example, go tinned fruit, tinned veg, children’s shoes and charcoal. Looking for tuna? Other side of the store.
**** Not that the brand would be very impressive in Chelsea, as it’s a Suzuki. I don’t know my London boroughs. I need a resolutely middle class one. A Peckham Tractor? Hackney? Tooting Bec? Are these even places?
***** I teach Aled and can say, safe in the knowledge that no-one reads this and he is not likely to stumble across it, that he is an exceptional young man. He wrote me the best AS level essay I have ever read. It would have got a B, I’d say, at A2, but I gave him a D at AS and told him to write in more detail. I’m a shit like that. He’ll thank me later, from Cambridge. Actually, he won’t, but that’s OK too. He’s polite, charming, funny – he’s spent his whole life in international schools following his folks around the world. I hope noun turns out like him.
****** Pronounced She – ray. People here will tell you that Tolkien named The Shire in Hobbiton after the river, but these people are wrong. Englishmen don’t need to come the Africa to use the word “shire” to mean “area”.


Bitch, bitch,bitch

I’ve got a hugely positive, joyful even, post half written. It’s about how we’ve bought a car and seen giraffes and socialised and had a good half term. How noun’s got teeth and Sarah’s got friends and how those friends have taught her how to make cheesecake out of the bags of fermented milk they sell in the supermarket.

But sod that. I had parents’ evening last night and got back to discover the house in darkness. The power had cut before Sarah had had a chance to feed noun and now he was hungry, and the whole house was pitch black. We can’t light candles because the cats will knock them over and kill us all. So we fed noun a yogurt by torchlight and put him to bed un-bathed where he cried for a while; of course, we couldn’t really hear him because the baby monitor wasn’t working because of the power cut. He went to sleep finally, and then we went to bed without dinner, feeling like the worst parents in the world. This morning the power was back on, but the water wasn’t working, so we couldn’t bathe him then either, and we couldn’t use the loo. We did have a coffee, but we might regret that later if we run out of bottled water. Then Sarah told me that we need petrol, and that she’s worried there’ll be shortages this weekend, and that she can’t get it because we don’t have any money and the cashpoints are difficult to use with a baby (which they are, they have security guards ouitside them, for one thing) and why hadn’t I sorted the water bill (which she did remind me about yesterday) and we had a stupid argument and then I had to come to work before we could resolve it. I’m hungry and worried about my family and wish I was in any other country. This was a terrible idea. Giraffes later.

Interim Bitch session – technology

This is not the promised bitch fest. That will take a little more judicious editing before it’s ready for public consumption. In fact, it might have to wait until I’m employed and living somewhere else. Under a different name. We’ll see. Depends how reckless/drunk I’m feeling. In the meanwhile, allow me to regale you with the difficulties of trying to teach a twenty-first century curriculum with, frankly, nineteen seventies technology.

That isn’t fair. The school does its best, I think, but the level of tech here is shocking. This would be fine, but the school is, at the same time as lamenting the lack of tech available and complaining about how long things take to get shipped from SA or Mozambique (and you know you’re in the shit when Mozambique is held up as a beacon of reliable and modern technology) also running headlong into more technological solutions/cock ups. We have, on average, four power cuts a day, and each power cut takes out the system. In fact, each power cut takes out the system twice, because it goes off when the power goes off, then comes on again when the generator come on, but takes about twenty minutes to restore the system files and you will have lost whatever you were working on. Then it goes off again when the power comes back, and so we repeat. Over and over again. Every day. It is incredibly dispiriting.  The school, theoretically, has a quite decent network, but the power outages, mean that it never, not never, works properly. Ok, so we won’t rely on it, you’d think, but in fact all senior management communication is done through email – which cannot be relied upon to reach the accounts in question, which often cannot be checked anyway because there are not enough computers, or there’s no power to the ones we have. You might think, therefore, that moving all registering to a computer based system and getting rid of paper registers would be a, shall we say, courageous move, but it’s one we are in the process of taking. I can foresee no major problems with this.

Aside from the power cuts there are other, equally fundamental issues to contend with. There is one (1) printer in the school. Actually, there are four, but the head has one, the two deputies have one each, and the rest of us use the one in the staff room. The one without any paper. Or toner. The one which, inexplicably, printed every odd numbered page in landscape for the first three weeks of term. The other day I discovered that the text chosen by my predecessor for the Y12 lit coursework, the Rover by Aphra Behn, was missing from the store room. Turns out he chose it, but forgot to buy it. I could buy the copies we need, of course, but they’d be shipped from the UK and arrive with me in December or maybe January. Certainly before Easter, anyway. The email from the guy from Amazon didn’t actually contain the expression “LOL” but I could tell he was amused. So we needed to print one out and get it photocopied. I found a PDF online, because the internet was working at the time. I downloaded it, which took a mere fifteen minutes. I set the pagination to two pages per sheet, to save paper. I hit print. Two minutes later the lights went out. Power cut. When the power came back on I checked to see if it had printed and the printer queue was empty, with no record of my having sent it. So I sent it again. And the lights went out again. No-one believes me, but that was really all I did. I sent it twice. It printed seven times. All hundred and twenty pages of it. Some of it was in landscape and it was all out of order. It took me forty-five minutes to confirm that, yes, as I had suspected, despite using all of the English department’s printing budget for the term, and making a lifelong enemy of a PE teacher who was waiting to print one page, I did not, in fact, have a complete copy of The Rover, by Aphra Behn. I went for a drink.

The next day, refreshed by an evening spent in the company of Malawi gin (it comes in sachets, like on a Ryanair flight. There’s also a Vodka called AK-47. I don’t drink spirits named after weaponry.) I wandered into the school library to see if, by any chance we already had sixteen copies of a fairly obscure seventeenth century comic play. We didn’t, obviously, as the school library is, in essence, the bookshelf in a holiday cottage. Its stock is largely made up of stuff left behind by leaving teachers, so there wasn’t a copy of The Rover, by Aphra Behn, but there were plenty of copies of the Da Vinci Code. Remarkably,( and again, not my choice,) I’m teaching Captain Correlli’s Mandolin to y13 this year, so, should we not have copies of that either, I reckon the library might well suffice. I got talking to Anderson, the librarian, a charming and gregarious man, and he started telling me about the problems with his library system. I was sort of tuning him out, because I have a very limited budget and upgrading the library system isn’t on the top of my list. I’d rather buy books. But something he said about discs made me prick up my ears. I asked him to repeat, and it turns out that I hadn’t misheard him. His library system runs on floppy discs. In fact, to be exact, it runs on Windows 95. Microsoft stopped supporting this OS over ten years ago. His system should be in a museum, not being used on a daily basis. It also turns out that Anderson works for me. During the course of the conversation he said something about his performance management, so I asked him why he was talking to me about it.

“Because you are my line manager” he said.

“Surely not” I said. “That’s the sort of thing that I would have been told.”

“Maybe it was in an email” he replied.