Travels and Reflections by Angus Yellowlees

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Well, being home is an indescribable feeling. It’s like waking up and the last eight-and-a-bit months of my life just never happened. The bubble is burst and now it all seems so far away it’s difficult to write about, but I shall try my best.

I’m not entirely sure where I left off as my last report has been lost somewhere on the internet, but I’ll start with the arrival of the new volunteers:

Beth arrived right at the end of January and, although she was a good laugh, she completely changed the dynamic of our little house. It was an odd feeling letting a stranger come in and live with us, despite the fact that we’d been strangers to each other only five months before. Nevertheless, everyone was friendly and we all got on (just about.)

The second volunteer to arrive was another girl called Sian who flew in on valentines day. The problem was, that both Sian and Beth had organised to live in Mtende (a village about six kilometres from Makunduchi). However, when the time came for them to begin teaching and settling into village life, they just didn’t want to go: they were too comfortable in our house and they wouldn’t budge. Obviously, tensions rose and eventually Elise broke the ice.

It wasn’t that we didn’t like their company; we just needed our own space and they, as Zanzigap reps, needed to experience the whole “settling in,” part. Having lived with us for several weeks, they’d done very little for themselves.

Anyway, these tensions came to a head at the end of February and by March time it was back to Elise, Natalie and myself.

At this point we’d been teaching for a good while and I began to feel more confident in my techniques and my ability to engage. I had two classes at Kiongoni school (each with between 20 and 30 students) and one huge class of 65 students in Kajengwa. The Kiongoni classes were really fun and interesting to teach and, as long as I kept it entertaining, I could hold their attention. Unfortunately, the bigger class was far more difficult to control. There were several occasions where I wondered why I’d said “yes” to teaching physics, and why I’d been lumped with the worst class in the school. There was a period toward the middle of April and the end of our teaching stint, where I was pretty down about my physics class.

However, I persevered and, hopefully, I managed to impact upon a couple of students at the very least. This is something I realised quite quickly: It is useless to believe you can change the lives of every child you meet. The best you can hope for is: knowing that you’ve made some minor improvement in the lives of those already alert and intuitive enough to learn.

Teaching English became easier with time and as my knowledge of Swahili grew I found I could engage the students on subjects I wouldn’t go near at the beginning. Strangely, Zanzibar has very little in the way of a sporting or artistic culture: there is no P.E, no music, theatre or art. They spend they’re time reading up on the Islamic faith and learning Arabic. As a whole, Zanzibar feels small and alienated from the rest of the mainland. In school, they study just one religion, Islam, and they’re historical education applies only to Tanzania. This feeling of separation made connecting with students and crossing the cultural boundary considerably more difficult. It’s for this reason, I taught very little in the way of drama or juggling while in Makunduchi.

The Easter break came half way through April, and with just a small sigh of relief, we packed our bags to go travelling once more. Teaching in Zanzibar had taught me a lot and, although tiring, had imprinted on me the value of maintaining a stable and student-focused educational system. Like I say, I’d discovered so much, but I was fairly ready to leave Zanzibar behind.

We’d made plans to meet up with a friend of mine from home who’d been volunteering in an orphanage in southern Malawi. I’d spoken to Chaz via skype and we’d agreed on Nkhata Bay as our meeting point, which meant taking the Tanzara Railway down the length of Tanzania and then using busses and other means to cross the border and travel half way down lake Malawi. It was a fairly big undertaking in two weeks, but I looked forward to the challenge.

We left early in the morning to ensure we got tickets for the overnight ferry to Dar. Having secured passage we hung around in Stonetown for the day and as night fell we set off. The ferry was fairly similar to the last one so I shan’t bother describing it in detail. We arrived in Dar harbour at around six in the morning and took a dala dala to the station to reserve our tickets. We decided we would book a first class cabin for the three of us as the prices were reasonable. Quite a large part of me would have liked to experience economy class, however we decided we’d experienced enough in the way of sleep deprivation and uncomfortable wooden benches on our treck through Kenya, so we settled for first.

The Tanzara rail line takes twenty-four hours to reach Mbeya, runs south of Dar-es Salaam and passes through the Selous game reserve, so we got our fair share of animal spotting from the windows. The planes just stretched out for miles on either side of the carriage while giraffes, zebras, antelope and water buffalo flashed passed. We spent most of the daytime journey gazing, open mouthed through the glass.

Our bunks were cramped but bearable and when night arrived we tried our best to sleep through the endless mechanical crunching as we lurched into southern Tanzania.

Mbeya, the major city stop before reaching the border, settles between mountains in the southern highlands and is a breathtaking combination of colonial organisation and African community. It is both quiet and full of life; both a peaceful retreat and a bustling industrial centre. We stayed one night here and in the morning found a dala to the border. Unfortunately, the dala dalas don’t go all the way so we hired three motorbike taxis to take us the remaining few miles.

Our plan was to cross in time for the bus to Karonga and, having stayed a night there, we’d begin heading south. A previous volunteer of the Aston Makunduchi partnership and friend of Zanzigap put us in contact with a guy named Spencer who lived on a beach right on the lakeshore.

On arrival in Chitimba (the village where Spencer lived), we were all pretty knackered and decided to spend a day or so resting by the lake and absorbing the incredible scenery. We were due to meet Chaz two days later so we decided we’d treck down to Nkhata Bay early and organise a hostel etc before she arrived. This was a six hour bus journey with a changeover in Mzuzu (a quiet little mountain town just over half way.)

At about this point Nat began to get sick, so on arrival in Nkhata Bay we made plans to walk up to the Hospital, which was some way behind the village and get her tested for Malaria. We met Chaz off the bus in the morning, and it was great to be able to talk face-to-face with a friend from home who’d experienced similar things to me. After taking Nat to the Hospital and paying for La (the drug they use to fix malaria) we went back to the hostel and left Nat to sleep while we went out to the market. By this time I knew enough Swahili to avoid getting ripped off for anything and I could even hold a descent conversation with some of the locals, so overall Nkhata Bay was awesome.

After our third day mooching around with Chaz and swimming in the lake we parted and began heading back up the coast to Spencer’s. (We’d promised to drop back in, and anyway, both elise and I wanted to climb up to livingstonia, which was a 30 km round treck from Chitimba.

As it turned out the La that Nat was taking wasn’t working at all so she was more ill than ever. While we (that’s Elise and myself) walked up to Livingstonia she went to the local clinic to get two large injections of quinine: the same treatment I received in Kenya.

We said goodbye to Spencer and Benson and all the people in Chitimba and headed back up North through Karonga and made it across the border to Mbeya in a day. From there we spent two nights in the mountains before catching the train all the way back to Dar and, eventually, Zanzibar. The trip, it seemed, had been a success and although Nat was only just recovering we had no other major hiccups. Besides, it was worth it no matter what: seeing a different people and living outside of my comfort zones makes the travelling and the whole time away an incredible experience.

So now, as I said in the beginning, I feel pretty lost. Most things are the same as they were, but I find that I can’t really handle being alone having spent so much time in Nat and Elise’s company. People ask me, “How was Africa?” and I find it fairly tricky to answer. Africa was amazing, incredible, lonely, miserable, glorious and infuriating all at once. Living in Zanzibar, and living with the two girls became so normal and so comfortable that analysing it now feels wrong somehow. I had an incredible time and can’t wait to get out of Britain again, whether it’s France, India, or South America.

People ask me “How was Africa?” and, at the end of the day, I say: “Yeah, it was good… How was the last nine months of your life?”