Doing volunteer work can be challenging but also a rewarding experience. Such has been the case for Josephine Breton, a Scottish volunteer teacher at M’buka C.C.A.P. private school in Lilongwe. In this interview she shares her experiences with Samuel Chunga.
Ms. Josephine Breton, what circumstances made you to arrive at this school and how long have you been here in Malawi?
For many years I had planned to do volunteer work in a developing country. When I retired from my teaching post in Scotland, this dream became a possibility. My friends at my church, St, Kane’s, New Deer, suggested I should apply to M’buka CCAP. Our two churches are twinned. My programme was built on this already positive relationship.
I arrived in Malawi in January, 2014 and returned to the United Kingdom (UK) in December 2015. After one year at home, I came back to Malawi in January, 2017. The plan is to remain until December this year. Mulungu akalola (God willing).
Please share your personal and professional background. How does the background make you pursue a mission to a remote area in a country you had not known so well before in your life?
I was born in Karachi, Pakistan, where my parents were living and working. So foreign travel is in my genes! I studied Music and English at Glasgow University. I continued to work as a Music Therapist in psychiatric hospitals and schools for disabled and disadvantaged children in Glasgow. In 1994, I moved to Aberdeenshire to work as a music specialist teacher in the government schools. I spent a year on exchange in Northern Canada (1997-1998). I have been privileged to travel to many countries as a tourist and on short-term volunteer programmes. I always saw this as a preparation for longer-term voluntary work abroad.
We know that in the initial days and months, it was not so easy for you as you tried to settle down, especially as a teacher. Some of your own pupils cried and were frightened stiff to be so close to a white person (“Mzungu”). How frustrating was that, initially?
It was a challenge at first to be living in Malawi and working in the classrooms. But I was welcomed, supported, trained and guided by my loving hosts, school and church staff. This was no easy task for them and I am eternally grateful!.
But it was not long before even the most frightened, or skeptic, pupils realised that you meant no harm! What charm offensive did you apply? And was this your hardest test in your long teaching profession?
We gradually became accustomed to each other, most particularly the language. We are now at least understanding each other’s English better. My Chichewa is still pathetically weak. I am seldom in the classrooms alone. My role here is to assist the teachers. I can be quite relaxed with the children while the teachers take on the major responsibilities of class control and exam success. My work in Scotland was more challenging. The children at M’buka are easily delighted. There is a culture in Malawi of obedience and respect for elders, which makes life easier for me!
Now, almost every pupil loves being with, or around, you! Why do you think there is now this love-and-scramble for Josephine? What psychological and other lessons have you learnt about being relevant to a foreign society?
It seems to be the nature of children in Malawi to be generally affectionate. Some are less eager to interact, which is fine! At M’buka, there is the spirit of Christian love. This ethos is maintained by our head teacher (Yowasi Nkhoma) in the school and our Abusa (Reverend David Zembeni) in the church. By God’s grace, both leaders demonstrate personal caring attitudes to individuals, despite dealing with such vast numbers. This spirit cascades down to us workers and the children.
I am always treated very politely. Everyone seems to be interested to hear how we do things in Scotland, even if these ideas are not always suitable for M’buka.
We feel the love and appreciation is mutual, when we note that you gladly decided to extend your Malawi service at M’buka to this year. What makes you committed to working in a remote area, away from your home in Scotland?
You are right! I felt bereaved when I returned to UK in December, 2015. I also felt the two years had passed very quickly and, if God allowed, I would be able to contribute something once again by returning to M’buka. I am blessed with very loving and faithful friends and family in UK who maintain contact and support wherever I am. By God’s grace, they are keeping healthy. I am not getting any younger but, fortunately, the managers here at M’buka accept my considerably slower pace.
As you teach English and Music at M’buka School, what do you note as challenges and surprises, or breakthroughs, among the pupils, in particular, and in the education system, in general (in Malawi)?
The major improvement at M’buka has been the increased staffing level. This means that if teachers are absent, classes are not left unattended. Simultaneously, staff attendance and punctuality have improved dramatically. My mantra is “check for understanding”. There is no point in teaching “at” children. The pupils must be engaged in their own learning by asking questions, discovering why they are making mistakes and learning from their mistakes.
Teachers and learners are responding enthusiastically to the new literacy programme (Chichewa and English) which the government has introduced for Standars 1 to 4. Teachers attended training courses in the holidays and have returned highly motivated and using new techniques. The language used in this programme is more child-friendly.
Some of the Scottish assistance has targeted women at M’buka CCAP Church. What has happened and how significant is this assistance in needy families in the area?
A faithful, determined group of ladies regularly attends the sewing group. Among their number is a trained tailor. This has not yet developed into a business venture, which is the goal.
How did you feel when the Honourable first Scottish Parliamentarian Colin Cameron last year visited M’buka CCAP School and church, bound in a relationship with St. Keane Church in Scotland?
My pleasure at Colin Cameron’s visit was primarily seeing the joy of the M’buka people. For them, a visit from one of Malawi’s national figures was enormously significant. His presence reminded us of the strong historic links between Malawi and Scotland, which are continuing to this day.
What has been your most exciting experience in Malawi?
Very kind M’buka friends have taken me on several trips to the Northern Region. I have admired the beauty of your country. I have enjoyed the Lake and Liwonde National Park with visitors from UK. It is always a particular privilege to visit home villages and to be invited to people’s houses. I love any interaction (in my extremely poor Chichewa) with market vendors, and with my fellow members of the Chigwirizano (Women’s Guild). I have been blessed to experience life changing spiritual highs when worshipping at M’buka CCAP.