Chance of a Lifetime -Last Chapter of Mikes Mad Malawian Idea

Twelve months of living in a totally different environment, culture, existence – you name it, it’s very different.  Those twelve months have come to an end. Just far far too many things to remember and experiences that have happened. But of course although the country may be beautiful it’s the people that make it.  And I have met some amazing people over the last twelve months.

Most of them belong to the “school environment” but there have been other chance encounters with others as I sit drinking in a bar or on a beach or even just walking down the road – the plumber, the builder, the mechanic, the fisherman.




All wanting to talk and make friends, – “Will you be my uncle?” “Can I be your friend” and of course the classic “Give me money”  But even this is not done in any aggressive way but more with a smile on the face and a cheeky grin.


I don’t believe they actually think you will give them money but its more a greeting than anything else. I often suggested that just this once…….  maybe ……… possibly ……… the Malawian could give the Mzungu some money for a change.  This generally brought great guffaws of laughter and a high five – which invariably I missed! and felt rather silly trying to do it 5 seconds after their hand had gone down !

Looking back through my blogs many of them centre around my journeys to and from places; to the schools of course; to trainings of teachers and Head Teachers, to beaches at the side of the lake, down paths that you really don’t think a motor bike should go let alone a car; up hills that are incredibly steep yet unbelievably people are pushing bikes that are over ladened with enormous bags of charcoal or wood; ladies walking absolutely upright carrying enormous loads of wood or straw on their heads, well over their actually height in length. ( Does that make sense – just very very long pieces of wood !)

Sweat pouring down their faces in the heat of the day.  They do this journey every day, either to sell at the local trading centre, or to their village, or just to sell anywhere!  And every single one of them has a smile on their face.  As you go past either on the bike or the car a raised hand to say hello and a smile always gets a hugely positive reply.

Occasionally and very occasionally you can be going along a path or track and there is no one around…… or so it seems!   But come off your bike ( accidentally) or have a puncture or get stuck in the mud with the car wheels spinning and suddenly when you look up there is a sea of faces!  Where they come from I have no idea. They just appear as if they have been waiting every day for me to come off !!!


They just appear from nowhere, and rather than stand and just look, they desperately want to help, to get you sorted in whatever way they can.  They appear magically with the right size spanner to take a wheel off to mend a puncture or straighten a stand.  I did say to one –


“Where did that spanner just come from?”  and they just laugh and wink And again always with a huge smile and a tremendous willingness to help.

For the last few days of course I have been visiting the schools, both to say goodbye as well as to check that they are all up and running with the technology and the software.


Just 3 of my schools




Despite going to these schools over and over again I always just stand in amazement at just how many Learners are at the schools,literally thousands ………. both inside the classrooms and outside. How few physical classrooms there are. How open the spaces are all around the school. How magnificent the scenery is. How welcoming everyone is to see you.

As you arrive at the school, if you are lucky its directly off “the tarmac”, but many of my schools are along very dusty/muddy (depending on season – wet or dry!) tracks.

Many of these paths go through small trading centres or villages, where everyone stops and watches as you go past.


Every time I went through here I just thought it was the set for a “Western” !  Sorry it’s just my strange thought processes


The ladies sit on the ground with their tomatoes neatly piled in pyramid shapes on a maize bag, potatoes neatly stacked in small metal buckets that are over flowing with a pyramid shape of potatoes, maize laid neatly like a white carpet drying off in the sun, wooden stalls where vegetables are on display. Women at the water pump which clearly is the meeting place to chat and talk about the recent happenings.  And the ever present shelter made from sticks and straw where the local males congregate to sit and chat, mending bicycles and playing Bao ( a great game played on a wooden board with large hard seeds amazing for maths which probably accounts for why Im rubbish at it ! ) . Everyone watches as you go past, many wave and smile. ……..  Id love to know if they are the same people I pass every time and they recognise me, saying – “Hello here he comes again! ”  ………..I kind of hope they do

You drive/ride into the school and never quite sure where to go as obviously there is no car park ! You just drive literally between the learners who again just stand very still and watch.  You drive close to one of the classrooms or the Learning Centre, hoping that the door and burglar bars that protect the centre are open.  Usually a good sign is if there is a chair outside with a bucket of water outside.
This is for the learners to wash their hands before entering the centre and using the iPads. As you walk into the centre the Learners are in rows sat on wicker mats.  Each one with their iPad and headphones, working through the Masamu (Maths) App or the Chichewa (Language) App.







The teacher walks around the Learners just observing, occasionally talking to a Learner what to do or what not to do.  When I say ‘talk’ thats really a euphemism for  “shout”.  Now thats in the nicest possible way. I’ve told all the teachers this and so its nothing they don’t know.  Malawian teachers are really good at shouting. Thats not shouting because they are cross or angry ( as in a UK teacher shouting at a child within 30 cms of their face, which would produce a crying child in no time at all) but in Malawi they do that to explain what the learner should be doing.  And amazingly the Learner sits …… listens …. and does exactly what they should do………. without batting an eyelid or showing any emotion at all ! I have a theory that they do this because of the class sizes of 200+ and this is really the only way to communicate.  I have tried to get them to just go up and explain in a quiet way what the learner should be doing, but it may last for 2 minutes and then reverts again to “the shout” However, both parties seem perfectly content with this arrangements and the Learners are queuing up at the door to have their go !


The Learners iPads are effectively controlled by the teachers iPad The Learners sit with a screen that displays a lock.  The teacher starts the session and the lock disappears and the Learners can begin the session. Usually after 20  minutes ( however long the teacher has set the session for ) the Learners iPad will again display a lock and their session is over.






Now for the majority of the Unlocking Talent project schools throughout Malawi, (some 130 at present)  the iPads are locked down to just Masamu and Chichewa, but not Mangochi District ………. mine !



Why because I like to make things difficult for myself as always !!!! Why I have no idea  I think its a self-destruct button The iPads being open also at the request of the Donor – Unicef – but nobody else did it ! See I just like to make things difficult  I must learn the words “No …… It’s too difficult”!

The reason for having an “open” iPad  is it gives the Learners( and Teachers)  the ability to use other Apps. ………provided they don’t need connectivity ! With the iPad being locked to just 1 App, however good the 1 App is and it is excellent for Maths and Language, we are only using a small fraction of the power of the iPad. My schools have used an English Grammar App that exactly mirrors the final exams that Standard 8 Learners have to take………  to great effect with some amazing results.








We’ve also added some Role Model Videos of Malawian Women who are working in important jobs despite many problems whilst growing up.  These videos can be watched by older girls to try to show them that Girls/Women can actually achieve great things through staying on at school.

The use of the Notes for Learners to use the keyboard …… something which they don’t encounter – punctuation, space bar, delete buttons all things they haven’t seen before. Insert images, video, text to be shared amongst the iPads

The Coordinators of each of the schools have learned the technicalities of the iPad and can transfer files, images and documents amongst the iPads to be viewed by the Learners. In this way not only are we giving Learners knowledge but also giving Teachers technological knowledge of the use of mobile devices.  Something which gives them huge enthusiasm and great excitement  …….. it does me as well They love learning how to use the technology. Ive trained, Teachers, Head Teachers, Inspectors, Advisers …… all of whom have shown a real enthusiasm for the tool and can see the huge potential – tip of the iceberg comes to mind.

The potential of the project Unlocking Talent is enormous.  Sadly sometimes the organisation and project management can hinder rather than advance the project.  But I guess that’s true of many projects.  Education Specialist Volunteers, like myself,  carry out many activities and supported by good organisational management the results are indeed amazing.  Of course there are frustrations, but then you have to continually remind yourself that you are working in an African Country that is one of the poorest in the world. And the vast majority of Malawians really want their country to achieve and improve ……… this is particularly true of the dedicated group of teachers and Head Teachers with whom I have been working.

I could go on and on about the special moments that I have enjoyed during the last 12 months  ……….. “No please don’t !” i hear you say and for those of you who have already stopped reading  ……… well you haven’t got this far anyway !   Amongst many of the images that I have in my head of my experiences, there are 2 that stand out.  One i have a photo of and the other I follow the advice of many people who say – put the mobile/camera away and just enjoy the experience …………

Ive mentioned about when you go into the Learning centres all the Learners are sat on mats with their iPads  If all is good the teacher is walking around checking that the iPads are working and the Learners aren’t stuck on something.  Sometimes because the App is an individualised program the Learners just work their way through the program with no need for help from the teacher (or at least that’s the perception of the teacher).  As a result the teacher sits down somewhere and has a rest or secretly goes on their mobile and sends texts ( shhhhhhhhhhh don’t tell anyone !)

But occasionally you witness something very special.  

I recently saw this teacher in the photograph get down to the Learner, who had special needs and spend at least 15 minutes on supporting him.  This would be impossible within the teachers classroom setting of 200+ learners in a pretty small classroom with very limited resources – certainly no time for 1:1



But here was the teacher spending time with an individual guiding them through the knowledge needed ………… nothing to do with technology but about advancing the Learners understanding of very simple basics of number.  In the classroom this Learner would have struggled.  The technology supported the learning of the child.  To those who say why use technology when the country needs so much else …………… this is why technology is so important …….. it literally empowers the learner – not technological empowerment but Knowledge and skills empowerment so important for individuals growing up as well as the future of Malawi.

The other image of course is related to a journey.  You wouldn’t expect anything else ! It was a Friday and the area I work in is mainly Muslim.  This particular Friday was Eid al-Fitr  All schools and public offices were closed.  It was a National Holiday.  But of course there were things I needed to do in a school so I arranged with the school, Mdinde school, to meet a teacher and adapt some iPads that weren’t particularly behaving. I visited the school, sorted out the iPads and commenced my return journey.  This journey took me on one of the most difficult tracks that i journey along – in the rainy season its just mud and extremely slippy and in the Dry season its just pure sand and extremely slippy.


Fortunately i was in my car as this is the track where on several occasions on my bike the ground has come up to meet me, and Malawians appear to assist.  As Im driving along the track taking care as even in a car the sand doesn’t make it easy to drive, I see ahead a large group of women coming towards me.  Effectively blocking the road, dancing and singing at the tops of their voices.  I slowed down and hadn’t got a clue what to do.  As they got to the car ……..  to use a biblical expression they parted like the waters of the Red Sea and just continued around the car.  I was surrounded by approximately 500 women just singing, dancing, smiling, waving, laughing …………. I just sat in the car inanely smiling back at them and returning their waves.  By this time I had completely stopped.  After what seemed like hours but was probably only a few minutes, the whole entourage carried on its way down the track, singing, dancing, smiling, waving high fiving, waving flags whilst I sat now on my own in the car and just went

” Wow!” This was their way of celebrating Eid.  An amazing event.

I carried on along the track only to see in the distance another group of women from the next village.  This group seemed slightly larger than the last one.  Forewarned about what was to happen I pulled the car over to the side of the track and waited for the swarm to approach.  On they came all wearing amazingly bright coloured Chitenjes (rectangular cloth wrapped around their body ) singing, dancing, waving flags, laughing, smiling, waving flags.  As they surrounded the car yet again many clearly wanted to high five me as they went past.  I started to move a bit like “dad dancing” as I sat in the car.  Many of the women noticed and applauded – Im sure not for my dad dancing but for sort of joining in with their celebration.  At this point I think I must have been caught up in the moment and throwing all caution to the wind – as you do when faced with a situation such as this !  I opened my car door and joined them in their procession, singing, dancing smiling, and laughing.  There was I surrounded by more than 500 women in one of the most rural parts of Malawi, dancing ( well just jigging a bit if i was honest)  ……… well known for my previous dancing exploits and severely embarrassing my off spring on many occasions, “Dad,  just stop !”….

I put all they had taught me and “Dad danced” all the way down the track with more than 500 women. Huge howls of laughter went up, cheering and just sheer pleasure, from both 500 women and myself ………… is this a Guinness book of records – hahahah.

It was a moment that just didn’t warrant taking out my mobile to record ……. it was indeed a “just live for the moment” experience.  After a while they continued on their way and I had a long but fantastic walk back to my car. …….. still ‘Dad dancing’ !

As some would say “A Chance of a Lifetime”

Why did I get out of the car and join in …………  ” Carpe Diem ”


And while Ive been out here i have had so many “Chances of a Lifetime” Every moment, every chance  has been amazing.   ……………. But I couldn’t have done it and remained sane without my truly amazing family and friends who have kept in touch and given me so much encouragement over the last 12 months.  To all of you I say a huge


Zikomo kwambiri

Will this be the last blog ?

10 thoughts on “Chance of a Lifetime -Last Chapter of Mikes Mad Malawian Idea

  1. It better not be he last one! It isn’t an end just a starting block for something new, who would have thought over a year ago you would end up in Malawi! Life takes lots of different t directions and I KNOW this is purely the beginning of a new adventure.
    We need to hear more about this amazing country and it’s people, they need to be celebrated and applauded! So let’s find a way to do that!
    Such a great blog Dad!! Well done!!
    IMMENSELY proud of you! Just took it by the horns and went full throttle… xxxx

  2. Wow what an incredible journey – you’ve done an amazing job depicting scenes in this last blog. I wanted to get up and dance with you! Safe travels back to the UK and we look forward to hearing about future exploits!

  3. Mike,

    What an incredible year to read about – thanks so much for bringing it alive so spectacularly!

    We hope to see you soon, and send lots of love to your whole family,

    Paul and Carolyn

  4. The best but not the last….. this one has made me cry!😰
    It will be a great backdrop to all the talks you MUST give once you are home.
    Proud but pleased you’recomi G home. X

  5. Amazing!! What an amazing chance!! What an amazing person you are to take such an opportunity and to share it so brilliantly with us all!! How amazingly kind and friendly the Malawian people are to welcome you!! How positive they are!! You and them have taught us a lot!! Thank you dad! What leg ends 😉 love you xxx

  6. A fab final last blog Mike (no surprises there). You’ve done yourself proud. Safe journey home. Can’t wait to see you and share your adventures xxx

  7. What an amazing adventure Mike! I’ve enjoyed reading your blogs and clearly you’ve enjoyed the whole experience and done an a fantastic job. Always good to hear about what other people have to put up with around the world to bring you ‘down to earth’ and realise the advantages we have that they don’t. We must catch up for a beer and you can tell me more about your year. I’ve had a couple of adventures volunteering to deliver medical supplies and food aid, but they pale into insignifsnce with what you’ve achieved. Great stuff Mike.

  8. Thoroughly enjoyed every blog Mike, you are an amazing Chap, I must agree with comments made by members of your family and friends, there definitely is a book waiting to be written, and I for one would love a copy,
    There will be some smiling faces upon your return amongst your fantastic family,
    Try not to fall off your bike on your way to the airport, though it would be a wonderful opening chapter for your soon to be released Book!!

    Take Care Mike,
    Safe journey,
    God Bless
    Barbara & Alan (Ben’s Godfather)xx

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