Ellen Whitehouse reports on her teaching project in Zambia

As for so many of our “Footprinter” volunteers, Ellen Whitehouse had her gap year cut short by the Coronavirus pandemic. Here she writes about her experience. 

Introduction

If you had told me a week ago that I would be leaving my home in Zambia I would have laughed in your face, literally. But now I am writing this report with the sound of screaming children in my ears knowing that this is the last time I will ever hear them shouting and singing outside our house. To be totally honest, I guess I am slightly grateful for that.

Due to the coronavirus, I am being sent home to ensure my safety. This has meant that my supposed-to-be 12 months in Zambia has turned into 7 months. Even though, at times, it has been tough and the comforts of home (constant water and power) were greatly desired, I am devastated to be leaving. My time teaching and being part of such a welcoming community has changed me for the better.

Teaching

Most of my time in Zambia was spent teaching students from the ages of 14-23 in maths and the sciences. The syllabuses were, the majority of the time, in line with Scottish national-5 and higher work though every so often there would be a topic so bizarre that a lot of preparation had to be done before teaching the lesson, like teaching myself the topic. Sometimes the standard of what I would teaching would also rapidly increase. For example, teaching the students how to read a graph in physics to teaching them complicated gas law questions, basically going from 0 to 100 in a few weeks. This could be a pain, but I came to enjoy this struggle and liked to go to evening prep to provide additional support from the students who were really struggling.

science and maths in Zambia

Even though it took most students a full month to arrive after school had opened at the start of term, I always had my hands full. Whether that was helping out with organising extra-curricular clubs, preparing the scheme of work or supporting other teachers in any jobs they needed assistance in. One of my worries before I came was that I would not be excepted by the staff members because of my age or my culture or the fact that I did not have a teaching degree (only a week’s course provided by Project Trust). This seemed crazy to me that I was equipped with the skills to teach in a secondary school even though I had literally just finished being a student in one. Though, thankfully, all of these worries were disproven. I was welcomed with open arms and taken under the wings, which was great because if I ever had any problems, there were people that I could go and gain advice from.

As the weeks passed by my confidence in my teaching ability grew massively and, due to the fact that most of what I was teaching I had been taught at school, I was able to use the knowledge of how my teachers had taught me and then pass this onto my students. I got so much enjoyment out of seeing my students progress, especially the ones who were struggling. But it was not only the students who were gaining something from their education, I learnt a lot of valuable lessons about myself and the way I interact with others. I was able to understand the value of patience and stay calm in stressful or irritating situations, in order to try and connect with the students. However, sometimes discipline had to be used. Students did not turn up, students would sleep in class, students did not write down the notes… and the list could go on. Imagine trying to tell a 6+ ft 23-year-old man, when you are a short fresh-faced 17-year-old, that its rude to talk over the teacher.

Yes, it was a struggle especially as some students found my accent hard to understand and did not see the punishment I gave as just because I was not beating them. Though, as time went on, the respect for me in the classroom improved and as a result, these problems started to diminish. As a result of this respect, some pupils viewed me as a role model of sorts and to show them that with hard-work and dedication you can succeed. This meant a lot to me that I was seen as this figure, especially to the female students who were often told by their male counterparts and teachers that their education is important but nowhere near as important as the boys. This had led to them often being ordered to do cleaning jobs whilst the boys are studying. So for me to show them that their right to education is the same as the boys, and treat all my students the same, meant a lot. This is why at the awards assembly I was very emotional to find that one of my female Grade 11 students was top of her class. She was the only female in the whole school to be top of their class.

The only side of teaching that I found somewhat tedious, was that everything you did or planned to do had to be recorded because it may be checked once in a blue-moon, even though the students jotters were never checked to make sure that they were being taught properly. But this is just the Zambian system and an annoyance so minor compared to everything I loved about being a teacher.

Community

Myself and my project partner, Rosie, lived on the school compound, just outside the local town. Due to the fact that there had been previous white volunteers at the school, it was not a shock for our neighbours to see us (like it was for most Zambian people). Due to this, our neighbours had already decided on their stereotype for young western white girls; in the way we act and behave. This was tough to deal with at first but did only made the feeling so much better when we got to disprove them and as a result, accepted into their community. We were welcomed into our neighbour’s homes and told lots of story and the traditions that were followed. Some of these were hard to hear and others hard to take seriously, but I have learnt this year to have an open mind and even though I think something is bonkers, to others it is their beliefs.

Whenever we wanted we could turn up to our neighbours for a meal of nshima and a relish of either vegetables or meat. This is the main dish in Zambia with most people eating it 2-3 times a day. My friends joked that I would get addicted to nshima and they were right. As a result I had to bring back a 5kg bag of mealie meal (grounded maize) with me so that I could share some Zambian culture with my family and friends (also so I did not get withdrawal symptoms from nshima). A massive part of life in Zambia is religion and going to church. Everyone in the community goes and it is basically a big social gathering with food, singing, dancing and preaching. It is very lively and cheerful, something which, in my experience, the UK churches are lacking. By embracing the culture, I was considered a proper Zambian woman as I cooked my nshima in my colourful chitenge (fabric wrap).

My time without constant running water or power really opened my eyes to what actually matters in life and the things that you need to make you happy. In my whole time in Zambia, I rarely met one person who never had a smile and would not say ‘Bwanji’ (‘hello’ in Chinyanja, the local language). Being welcoming and friendly is part of the Zambian way and it is considered rude if you do not greet everyone you walk past. This is why it was important to learn a bit of Chinyanja so that I could have a basic conversation with someone. In my experience, it made people’s day to know that I was interested in their culture and could greet them properly. It was also helpful in the classroom as for almost all of my students, English was not their first language. This was also the case with most of the children that we babysat on a daily basis. In Zambia, your neighbours are your babysitters, there is no such thing as nursery. The upbringing of a child is a community effort which means that if the parent wants to go anywhere they send the child to a neighbour without asking or without saying how long they will be (timekeeping does not exist in Zambia). It is just a given that you will look after them. This meant that we had basically become full-time teachers and full-time babysitters. Even though it took some getting used to, the children really made my time in Zambia and would always put a smile on my face, even if they were being a pain.

Even though I did sometimes experience sexism and misogynistic views, my overall feeling towards Zambian people is love. They are always happy, even when the most horrible things happen, and can always see the positives in a situation. Something which I really benefitted from.

Conclusion

Overall, my experience teaching in Zambia was incredible and I so happy that I had the chance to go. This year has truly changed me and made me a lot more appreciative of everything I have and the ability to access. I have met some amazing people and travelled to wonderful places, but most of all I have found that I love to teach. I got so much joy seeing my students progress and building a really good but professional relationship with them. This definitely will not be the last time that I am at the front of a classroom. I will forever be grateful to my Zambian family who took me in, really making this place a home, and the teachers who welcomed me into the school and helped me out whenever I was struggling. I have done stuff which I never dreamt off, such a doing a traditional Zambian dance on the stage in front of over 1,000 women and the majority of the school students for International Women’s Day. I have been able to have these experiences due to the funding I generously received and as a result, will eternally be grateful.

Once again thank you for your support,

Ellen Whitehouse

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