Volunteer Blog: Caroline
Caroline Clarke is our Volunteer Advisory Teacher for the Deaf based in Blantyre, Malawi for six months from March 2018. She will be delivering the training of itinerant special needs teachers in hearing loss awareness as part of our educational component of our comprehensive audiology services in Southern Malawi, to ensure children with hearing loss are identified and supported in a mainstream classroom. To find out more about the Sound Seekers team click here.
Caroline at Heathrow Airport on her way to Malawi
Malawi here I come
“Here I am!! On my way to a far away place where the temperature is much hotter than it is in the UK, YEAH!! I am filled with mixed emotions, mostly excitement with the odd moments of trepidation thrown in. It’s almost incredible to think I am going off to Malawi and will be there for six months. I’ve had amazing send-offs at various times with colleagues, Gym buddies, friends and family. They all treated me to lovely gifts, cards, well wishes and a singing rendition of ‘Let There Be Love’. I felt chuffed even chocked at times to be leaving all this ‘love’ behind.
My first hurdle at Heathrow was hitting my 2x 23kg baggage allowance. The first suitcase on the scale weighed 27kg and the other 31kg. It’s six months!!! I need stuff and I need plenty of it. So getting rid of stuff was not going to be an easy task. Anyone who knows me well will tell you that packing for me is an operation of strategy and aesthetics. The process starts with a carefully headed list and finishes with packing cubes neatly tessellated in the case. Nothing is ever just ‘thrown’ in my case. Then there is the issue of opening up your suitcase in the concourse of a busy airport. NEVER A GOOD LOOK!! Luckily for me my pride took the earlier flight to Malawi so I was able to do what was necessary and told myself never to speak of it again. That was my first valuable lesson of ‘change’ and ‘living with less’. You’ll be pleased to know I jumped that hurdle after the third attempt.
The next hurdle was to say bye, hmmm. I had a brief moment of what I’ve come to refer to as a ‘wobble’. I felt tightness in my chest, butterflies, dragonflies, fireflies and ‘whatever else’ flies, all fluttering in my stomach. I took one look outside at the blanket of snow on the ground, heavy dark grey clouds, the beginnings of a blizzard-like snowstorm, the sub zero degree temperature and quickly jumped my second hurdle. I was off on my Malawian adventure. I feel very fortunate and excited to be heading off to what I think will be an amazing experience. I know there will be many challenges ahead but the end goal to train over 90 teachers in some of the issues in deaf education and hearing loss awareness makes this a worthy cause”.
Two weeks on…
Here I am again!! Two weeks into my adventure and already greeting folks in Chichewa. What a journey it took getting here. After 14 hours flying I touched down in Johannesburg International Airport. I was in Africa for sure! The airport shops were filled with colourful vibrant fabrics of cultural prints made into cushion covers, bedspreads, wall hangings, table runners etc. There were woodcarvings of masks, tribal warriors, elephants, giraffes, gazelles and the rest you can imagine. I was in craft heaven. My head was spinning with excitement. I could have easily gotten carried away shopping and missed my connecting flight. Not forgetting the music being played in every shop; it was a traditional South African urban type pop music. The kind that makes you just want to dance.
Things have gotten off to a really flying start since my arrival in Malawi. I was able to meet the team at the clinic for the first time and do my best to remember everyone’s name and role. I spent the first week travelling the length and breath of the southern region, for various meetings to present and introduce both the Charity and the project. Here in Malawi not much gets done without first having a meeting. I’m constantly learning the appropriate protocols and quickly adapting to the formal style approach to meetings. The meetings are sometimes brief after having driven the best part of an hour to get there.
What I’m beginning to appreciate is the great need for our Education project. This is reflected in the enthusiasm and excitement from our stakeholders and other professional partners.
The real bonus of travelling around the southern districts for meetings is the opportunity I get to appreciate the breathtaking views of Malawi. The terrain is mountainous, vast and lush. It’s nearing the end of the rainy season so every inch of land and foliage has been drenched and quenched. Shades of greens I never knew existed. There are moments when I find myself standing speechless in awe of such overwhelming beauty. It is absolutely stunning!!!
That is enough about work; let me share a snippet of my day-to-day life in Blantyre.
My first week ended with a bit of high drama. We were literally shaken up with a 5.6 magnitude earthquake. We were sat in the clinic beavering away when the ground started rumbling and shaking. At first I thought it was a freight train going by, despite knowing they were no neighbouring train lines. This went on for what felt like a very long five seconds and then the aftershock thirty minutes later. Although my years of living in Japan had prepared me well for such dramas, in my mind, this really wasn’t suppose to happen in Malawi.
I spent my first weekend flat hunting, sleeping off my jet lag and trying to improve my Chichewa. Looking Malawian and not being able to speak Chichewa is proving to be a little challenging.
By the start of the second week I was beginning to feel like I could quite easily be here for much longer than six months. Then the power goes out and I tell myself it’s only for six months. Then the power and water goes out on the same day (which has only happened once since arriving) and I tell myself it’s definitely only for six months. Hours later when things are back up and running, all is forgiven and I fall in love with Malawi all over again well, at least until the next water & power cut or earthquake.
I’ve now moved into a bedsit as a temporary measure until the end of April. The bedsit is actually a garage conversion attached to a main house on acres of land. There are also 2 two-bedroomed cottages on the same grounds so one of the cottages will be my new home at the end of April. The grounds are beautifully manicured and maintained daily. There’re a few benches dotted around for moments to pause and contemplate life. There is a grand water feature strategically positioned just off the entrance and large Flamboyant trees that provide ample shade. I could go on and on but I’m supposed to be blogging not bragging.
Tata for now or I should really say Tonana!”
One month on…
“So this week I celebrated my one-month anniversary since arriving in Malawi. It doesn’t feel like I’ve been here for that length of time but it really does fly when you’re having fun. I’m not sure how long it feels like as I’ve lost all of my significant time markers for now. I need to work on creating new ones but I’m not missing the monotony of routine.
One month on and you’ll be pleased to hear I’m still in love with Malawi despite the frequent power cuts. During the past week it seemed as though they were happening on a nightly basis. This was causing me some anxiety. I came prepared for the blackouts with numerous strings of fairy lights, wind-up lamps, torches etc. but I wasn’t prepared for the overwhelming sense of frustration and helplessness. However, I had a very humbling moment at work that I must share with you.
One day I sat at work trying to download a document with very little success. The Wi-Fi constantly goes on and off and some days less on and more off. I couldn’t connect to whatsapp, send emails nor access the Internet. Then as if that wasn’t bad enough the power went out. I was so frustrated I started huffing and puffing. I turned to the Project Manager who is Malawian; and told him that this is the part of Malawi that frustrates the hell out of me. He looked at me and said in a really calm voice, “We are a poor country my dear, just think that every time the power goes out, there are patients at this very hospital just across from where we are sitting, who will die because their ventilator and life support machine will stop working” .He went on to explain that the hospital has a generator but unfortunately, if and when it switches over will no doubt be too late for some.
I felt shock to learn this actually happens, ashamed that I had allowed my frustration to get the better of me to the point where I openly voiced it.
More importantly I was truly humbled.
That night I returned home from work and the power was out. I switched on my fairy lights, lit a few scented candles, tuned in to the smooth, mellow jazz selection on my playlist and was able to soak up the ambience minus the anxiety and frustration.
Speaking of work, did I tell you that here in Malawi everyone is up and out to work at some ungodly hour? A month later and I still don’t get it! Waking up early and leaving home early to catch a train or plane for a holiday – YES!! To spend the day at a Spa…YES!!! To queue up for centre court tickets at Wimbledon – YES!!! To get to work by 7:30am – NO!!! Why would anyone want to be at work that time is more that I can process. For the first couple of weeks I was struggling to stay awake pass 2pm. Anyway, the up side is you get to “knock-off’” as the Malawians say, by 4:30pm.
The project is steadily picking up pace and beginning to take shape. I’ve experienced a few challenging meetings here and there but all in all it’s progressing in the right direction.
I’m currently putting together the training programme and writing the methodology for training the Special Needs Teachers on how to deliver training to mainstream class teachers. The next stage will be to share the materials with officials from the Ministry of Education before sending it off to the printers. The aim is to start the training by the second week of May. We’re also working on fine-tuning the list of teachers to be trained and sourcing suitable venues for the training.
So what else has been happening? A few days ago I woke up feeling extremely brave and toyed with the idea of riding on the local bus. By the time I showered and got dressed I had talked myself out of it. Here in Malawi, a 12-seater mini-bus means it has the capacity to seat up to 30 people, chickens and other livestock. Putting petrol in the minibus is expensive business so the driver may have to wait until everyone is paid and seated on the bus before sending the “Conductor”, running down the road with a Gerry Can. There is also the possibility that the petrol may not be enough for the complete journey or to get you to your stop – so often you see minibuses parked in the middle of the road out of petrol, waiting for the “Conductor” to return with a full can. Then there are the unexpected diversions; not due to road works but because the driver thinks there may be better opportunities to collect more passengers on a busier road.
However I did market day last Saturday. That was a memorable experience for sure. From the time you enter into the car park, the market owners are touting for business. The next challenge is navigating your way around the busy market. It really is an overwhelming assault on your senses but all in all a very fun experience.
The next time you hear from me I would have moved into my garden cottage so I’ll have some pictures to share with you then.
Typical class size of 120+ pupils
Stopped off to use a mobile Petrol Station
On the road to Neno
Classes held outside due to lack of space
Two months on…
“The past few weeks have been extremely busy with meetings and school visits. I feel as though I know the entire southern region like a true Malawian. I visited some remote districts, rural areas and drove on roads less travelled. I love driving through the townships and villages, taking in all the sights and smells of the local produce. Each district is known for its own special produce and often driving through the markets is the only way to arrive at my destination.
The project is shaping up very smartly. I’ve just completed developing the training materials and about to present it the Ministry of Education for validation.The school visits have been extremely interesting and useful to see the daily challenges facing Special Needs teachers and pupils with a hearing loss.
One of my earlier visits took me to a rural district called Mulanje. I observed a small group activity in a Resource Base Unit with six pupils with hearing loss. The teacher used basic, voiceless gestures as the main form of communication accompanied by vigorous pointing. There was a small faded poster of American fingerspelling in the far corner on the wall however; the teacher was not familiar with the spelling system. I asked the pupils if they had ever used the spelling system but only a few were able to demonstrate this skill, as a result of being taught it in a ‘Sunday-School’ class at church. I later came to appreciate this was more or less the general practice in all of the other Resource Bases I visited.
US Missionaries had introduced the American fingerspelling system to Malawi some years back so there is little or no knowledge of the British Sign Language/ fingerspelling system. This meant that my own fingerspelling and signing skills are redundant here in Malawi.
In addition to the communication challenges, many pupils had not yet had confirmed diagnosis of their hearing loss and were without hearing aids and a. The teachers based their interactions with these pupils on suspicions, assumptions, observations and vague information from parents. This highlighted the importance of raising awareness about the audiology services available at QECH as many teachers and parents are unaware of these services but can now refer children with suspected hearing loss for a full hearing assessment and the appropriate treatment. The physical environment was not always conducive to working with pupils with a hearing loss and some of the class sizes exceeded 120 pupils cramped side by side. Some classes were held outside under a big tree and as exciting, adventurous and ‘new-age’ as this looks and sounds, there is a sad and disheartening side to it all. There is a growing trend at home in the UK for outdoor/‘Forest’ schools. I’ve visited such schools and seen the children running around happily in their high-end brand waterproofs and Hunter Wellies. It’s a choice. This is very different. Having a hearing loss in a mainstream school is a challenge in itself but when you’re in a school where your classes are always outdoors can be incredibly difficult. How do I even begin to talk to the teachers about the acoustic environment and making it deaf-friendly?
I did attempt to sit and observe one of these classes under a tree. I spent my entire time squashing ants, swatting mutant bees and mosquitoes, looking up and listening out for any hissing noises from the tree while trying to stay and look cool. Yeah right!!
Anyway, the pending implementation of the training programme will help provide the necessary knowledge and awareness which is much needed to support the pupils with a hearing loss in schools.
I spent the May Bank holiday moving into more permanent accommodation. The move went very smoothly considering I didn’t have far to go. I went from the bedsit to the garden cottage in the same compound. The view from my sitting room is amazing. It overlooks the city of Blantyre with a few mountains in the background thrown in for my added pleasure. I’m so looking forward to seeing the beautiful African sunsets from my living room. Sunsets here are colourful and dramatic. I had to stop a few times on my way home from work just to appreciate the vibrant hues of pinks, purples, oranges and reds.
I’ve secured myself a second hand RAV4 so now I’m more mobile when away from work. I really can’t believe I’ve come all the way to Malawi and ended up driving around in one of my favourite motors. It’s so reminiscent of times gone by when I drove RAVs and nothing but RAVs.
Next stop is a trip to the capital Lilongwe, for the validation exercise of my training materials with MoEST – fingers crossed. Tionana!!”
Participants involved in a group activity – Mulanje
Participants from showing off their certificates -Blantyre
Training off to a good start in Liwonde
View from the training venue in Mulanje
Four months on…
“Hello again, where has the time gone? I really can’t believe it was two months ago since my last update. What a hectic and packed two months it has been.
So when we last connected, I was going to the capital Lilongwe for a validation exercise of my training materials with the Ministry of Education. That exercise was a huge success and the Ministry happily offered their seal of approval and go-ahead for the project. That was such a relief and a weight off my shoulders. So after the validation exercise, we shifted into top gear with preparations for the actual workshops.
The training workshops got off to a good start in Mulanje with over 30 participants. As this was the first set of workshops, I used it as a template for the following sessions. The venue for the training in Mulanje was beautiful with breathtaking views of Mont Mulanje. We were so close to the mountain it felt as though we could just reach out and touch it. The training lasted for five days with full participation and enthusiasm from all.
The following week we moved on to Liwonde and did it all over again with a similar number of participants. Then the third week we were in Blantyre with the largest group of over fifty participants. All in all, the workshops were enjoyable, inspiring and at times entertaining.
During the month of May, I got to observe my first cochlear implant surgery. A team from MED-EL visits Malawi twice a year to perform two cochlear implants. Fortunately for me, one of their visits coincided with my time here in Malawi.
I was a little apprehensive at first but once I had my scrubs on and stepped into the Theatre, I became extremely excited. It was truly an amazing experience.
Now that the training workshops are completed the next step is to distribute the training manual I developed to the participants.
This coming Friday is Malawi’s Independence Day so yet another holiday and a lovely long weekend. I’ll be heading to Lake Malawi on Friday for my very first visit. Malawians have a saying that you haven’t really been to Malawi if you haven’t been to the lake!