Pensulo village is a rural community8 km west of Blantyre that skirts along either side of a rocky dirt road with a picturesque view of Mt. Michiru in the background. With no electricity or indoor plumbing, rural life is the standard and locals rely on public water pumps to provide water for cooking and turn to firewood for heat. Every morning, women with babies strapped to their backs gather in front of the Joshua volunteer house to fill their buckets in preparation for a full day of work. As mothers cue for the water pump, their children caravan off to school everyday at 7:30 AM, climbing the steep and rugged hill that leads to the local primary and secondary schools. The sounds of energetic youth return to the village in the afternoon after school is dismissed and cries of laughter set with the sun as children play futbol in the streets. These are the scenes of daily life in a rural Malawian village, where people rely not on set schedules to dictate their day, but instead blindly follow habitual routines.
My work in Pensulo consisted of teaching algebra and English literature at Joshua's secondary school (high school) in the morning and painting at Joshua's feeding center in the afternoon. For the first two mornings, I was assigned the task of teaching one hundred 11th graders how to graph quadratic equations. It should come as no surprise that standing at the front of a class of fifty rural African students, many of whom may have been older than myself, made me second guess my presupposed self-confidence. However, from my first class to my last, I found my students to be incredibly respectful of me as a teacher and engaged in learning new material. This schedule also turned out to be quite advantageous for my students since their regular math teacher proved too preoccupied to show up for work during these two days. I quickly learned that absent teachers are not a rare occurrence in rural Malawian communities.
After my shift in the math department, I was asked to step in for English literature on Wednesday to teach Romeo and Juliet. After taking time to review the plot myself (thankfully Sparknotes works in Malawi), I presented a thematic summary and analysis to my students, which, judging by the smiles on their faces, they thoroughly enjoyed. By the end of the week, I had begun to adjust to my role as “teacher” and realized how powerful a teacher can be in the life of a child. Watching these 11th graders grasp and apply new concepts allowed me to witness their burgeoning intelligence and true potential. No longer did I view these students as strangers in a foreign land, but rather viewed them as students just like myself, both excited by knowledge and eager to learn.
Outside of the classroom, my time was mostly spent with John, an 18 year old boy from Pensulo who also serves as a Joshua field officer and reports to Joshua on the status of local communities. John lived in the volunteer house with me for the week, made sure I didn't burn the place down, and acted as my translator on many occasions. In the afternoons, we would go with John's friend Sam to paint at the feeding center and in the evenings I taught them American card games like UNO and rummy. Occasionally, John and I would venture outside of the Pensulo boundaries so that I could have the opportunity to see neighboring areas. These adventures brought with them many unexpected occurrences, such as watching a man hunt for field mice (a standard in Malawian cuisine) and a lesson in how to hide from a mass of swarming bees (both of which were slightly unsettling at the time). However, it was these spur of the moment experiences that I came to appreciate the most because through these impromptu happenings, I was able to gain an appreciation for how rural Malawians live their lives.
My week in Pensulo was capped off with an ambitious trip to Mt. Michiru with John and Sam; we were determined to reach the peak. Thankfully, our efforts paid off and we were rewarded with a dazzling view of the surrounding countryside. This was my first chance to see the geography of Malawi from such a height and to take in all the areas surrounding Blantyre. As I stood in this spot, I hoped I would have the opportunity to explore some of these surroundings and to escape the cluttered boundaries of the city in the coming weeks. Looking back on this now, I can say that wish has come true and my weekend journeys have provided me with some of my most memorable experiences. Be sure to read on to hear about my harrowing minibus adventures...