Picture It

The Namazizi School, Monkey Bay, Malawi

Posted in Malawi by stefaniegiglio on 13 June 2010

On Thursday of last week, I visited the Namazizi School (also called the Namadzidzi School).  I had visited a few days earlier to get permission to spend a day photographing the classes.

Students gather for the morning assembly at the Namazizi School in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

I arrived at 7am, guided by the sound of a beating drum that is used to call the students to school.  As they waited for everyone to arrive, a teacher led them in some stretching and exercises.  A few minutes later, the morning assembly began.  They started by singing the national anthem before they all sat down to listen to the announcements given by the teachers.  Stanley (who met me on my way to the school) and I were ushered into the headmaster’s office, but we could still hear the assembly going on.  Stanley gave me translated summaries of what was said.

The day before, there had been an important meeting at the school that all parents were required to attend.  They were supposed to discuss topics including the future of the school, the progress of the students, and the upkeep of the programs.  Among other things, it was decided that the parents would pay MK100 (around US$0.65) for the students to have nsima (like finer, stickier polenta, or a corn-based porridge/paste that is the base of Malawian cuisine) at school.  The problem was that not all parents were at the meeting, despite the mandatory attendance.  The teachers told the students that if their parents had not attended, they were to leave school and force their parents to come.  They would not be allowed back in class until their parents came to the school to learn all that was discussed at the meeting.  The students nervously laughed and balked at the thought of forcing their parents to do anything, but sure enough, when the morning assembly was over, students filed both into the classrooms and out of the courtyard, towards the villages.

Award won by the Namazizi School in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

Because of excitement of the morning’s news (and the arrival of a mzungu girl with a backpack full of camera gear), it took a while for the courtyard to empty and the classes to begin.  Since so many of the students had left to fetch their parents, the headmaster decided that I should wait to begin photographing the classes.  She didn’t want the classes to appear empty, but I suspect that the absent students and teachers also didn’t want to miss the chance to be photographed.

The headmaster told me that the only class that was full was one of the lower grades, but she did not want me to sit in on that class because it would be taught in Chichewa only.  Despite my reassurance that the language didn’t matter, and my joke that the languages didn’t show up in the photos, I was still told to wait until the classes were ready for me.

So I sat in the headmaster’s office and photographed the posters on the wall and the occasional student who came to peak at me.  Hanging on the wall was a plaque that said that the school had won an award for the best kept school a few years back.  On the board to the left were all the school schedules listing who taught when and what each class would study every day.  According to those schedules, the classes studied by the older students, which I would be photographing, are English, Chichewa, mathematics, social and environmental sciences, science and technology, expressive arts, agriculture, and life skills.  The board to the right talked about the PTA (Parent-Teacher Association) and other school organizations.

The teacher helping students at the Namazizi School in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

The teacher of Standard 6 at the Namazizi School in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

I continued to sit in the office well after classes started.  I could hear the younger students next door chanting the alphabet and the sounds of each letter.  When song broke out, Stanley told me that the students were embarrassing someone who had shown up late to class.  Every once in a while, I would hear lots of loud laughing and shouting.  Stanley told me that the students were chiding one of their classmates for failing something.

After a few hours, the heat and the chanting  started lulling me to sleep.  Finally, around 10am, I was told I could photograph standard/grade 6.  I was marched across the courtyard and into the classroom, where the students promptly stood up, chanted “Hello madam!  How are you!”, waited for my response, then sat back down in unison.  Quite a greeting.  The teacher walked in behind me, and she was greeted in the same way.

Girl Reciting Answers at the Namazizi School in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

A teacher discussing different types of irrigation at the Namazizi School in Monkey Bay, Malawi.



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.The first lesson I photographed was agriculture.  The students were learning about different types of irrigation, which plants grew best with which type, and why it is important to irrigate crops.  They broke into groups to discuss each part, then gave a summary of what they talked about.  In between listening and writing, the students tried to slyly watch what I was doing.  When they thought I wasn’t looking, they would point at me and whisper furiously, breaking into laughter and hiding behind their hands when I caught them.

The teacher of standard 6 at the Namazizi School in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

Next was mathematics.  The teacher began by having all the students stand up and asking them multiplication questions.  When a student answered a question correctly, he or she was allowed to sit down.  The rest of the class would clap for each right answer, always the same beat and always in unison: clap-clap-clap!  clap-clap-clap!  clap!  clap!  clap!  clap!  It’s pretty impressive (and slightly daunting) to watch and hear nearly 50 teens react in unison.  It reminded me of the military.

I thought I would be spending the whole day with the same class, but since it was such a special occasion to have a photographer at the school, all the classes wanted their time in front of the lens.  But the headmaster had only ok’d one other class.  After taking a portrait of the teacher of standard 6, I was whisked away to the next group.

A class at the Namazizi School in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

Again, upon my entrance into the classroom, the whole class stood up, chanted their greetings and welcomes, then sat back down in unison.  They didn’t tell me which year the class was and I didn’t want to interrupt to ask, but they were mostly between two and seven years younger than the students in the other class.

They were just about to begin their English lesson when I arrived.  The teacher held up hand-written cards with vocabulary words on them and asked the students to read them.  When she exhausted the pile, she instructed the students  to open their reading books and read to themselves a short story.  When they had finished, she helped them critically analyze the story and answer comprehension questions.

A class at the Namazizi School in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

The story was about two students, one male and one female, who were in school preparing for the examinations that would decide whether they were eligible to attend university.  The boy wanted to become a pilot (one of the vocab words) and the girl wanted to become a doctor.  The girl’s parents told her that she didn’t need to take the exams because girls weren’t allowed to become doctors.  The teacher discussed gender equality with the class and explained that any of them could become anything they wanted, no matter whether they were male or female.

I had gotten the impression throughout the morning that the topics of the lessons had been chosen for my benefit and to show the school the way they thought I, as a westerner, a mzungu, would expect a proper school to operate.  That story may or may not have been chosen for that lesson that reason, but I was still very happy that the story was included in their thin reading book.  I wouldn’t mind seeing more first-world schools encourage their girls more as well.

A boy reading to his class at the Namazizi School in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

To finish up the English lesson, the class studied conjunctions.  The students answered the questions very quickly and would have put most native English speakers (who, from my experience, can rarely even define “conjunctions”) to shame.  This lesson was tied into the same story they had just finished reading, so many of the sentences in the exercise were about attending school frequently, studying hard, and choosing ambitious careers.

Throughout the lesson, giggles trickled through the windows.  Students from other classes were sneaking from their rooms to sit under the window sill of the room I was in, sneaking glances when they thought I wasn’t looking.  Inside, the students also watched me intently.  They dutifully returned to their work when I pointed my camera at them, looking very studious for the photos, but they returned to gawking when I photographed someone else  When I pointed my camera in the direction of the kids outside, the windows quickly became full of faces pressed against the slats, hoping to get in my photos.  I only snapped off a few shots because they starting making a lot of noise.  I knew my presence was disruptive enough, so I didn’t want the kids outside to create further distractions.

Kids peeking into a classroom at the Namazizi School in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

A student completing in-class assignments at the Namazizi School in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

When the English lesson was over, I decided it was time to leave.  I had already finished the liter of water I had brought with me and my stomach was voicing its emptiness.  The classroom was stifling hot because very little breeze made it through the slatted windows.  Between the heat, my hunger and dehydration, and the weight of my gear (I definitely over packed), I was already feeling slightly weak and very tired.  I thanked the headmaster and all the teachers before setting off with Stanley on the half-hour walk under the midday sun back to where I am staying.  My remaining energy only barely got me to the bar, where I immediately downed a liter of cold water.  (If the winter heat takes such a toll on me, I’m pretty sure I’m going to die come October when the real heat starts.)

A teacher at the Namazizi School in Monkey Bay, Malawi.

Overall, I think the shoot was successful.  I got some absolutely gorgeous photos of the students, but there isn’t enough room in this post to show more than those that tell the story.  At times it did feel like I was photographing a well-choreographed play instead of a normal school day, but I’m sure that’s just because having a photographer at the school was such a novelty and they wanted to look their best and be on their best behavior.

I’m hoping that the next time I go to Lilongwe or Blantyre, I can print some of the photos I took at the school.  I want to bring the photos back to the teachers and students so they can see what I have done and so they will feel more comfortable granting me more access to the classes in the future.

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