The National Centre for Computing Eduction

Last November was important for computing teaching in England, but not many people noticed. Almost exactly a year ago, on November 10th, The Royal Society published its report – After the Reboot, reflecting on the state of computing three years on from the introduction of it as a discrete sucject. You can read my reflections on that report here. The most eye catching headline from this report was that computing in schools was ‘patchy and fragile’ and that to fix it an investment of £60 million was needed over the next five years to address the issues in GCSE computing. In these times of austerity and squeezed budgets this seemed to be an impossible situation. Fast forward a couple of weeks to the 2017 budget, and almost as an aside, the Chancellor announced that not £60m, but £80m was to be invested in the new National Centre for Computing Education.

One year on, and the running of the National Centre for Computing Education has been entrusted to a consortium consisting of:
STEM Learning
the Raspberry Pi Foundation
BCS – the Chartered Institute for IT

The commitment to invest, combined with the choice of these three partners represents a once in a generation opportunity to develop world class computing teaching and learning in England. It also offers the potential for CAS Master Teachers to capitalise on this investment through the growing number of local CAS hubs. There’s never been a more exciting time to teach computing!

The National Centre for Computing Eduction

The Rise of the Maker

What is the significance of two college students, some DIY electronics, a garage and a lot of curiosity? If I told you they were both called Steve, you may have more of an idea. The juggernaut we now recognise as Apple grew from humble roots in garage of Steve Jobs’ parents’ house in Los Altos, California. Out of there the two Steve’s built what was then known as a ‘small hobby machine’ which eventually became the Apple 1, and you could say the rest was history.

Ironically, the success of the PC and Apple Macs in the 1990s and 2000s led to marked decline in the computer hobbyist. Machines were pre assembled and ready to go. Tight warranties and machined casings which were next to impossible to get into meant that the easiest way to upgrade was to swap the whole machine out, and anyone with any kine od brand loyalty towards Apple will know that this is still the case – tinker at your peril.

However, in recent years the tide has changed – with DIY gamers and computing in education the two primary drivers. As PC games became more advanced and resource hungry, gamers began to hack their machines, seeking more and more performance to gain even the smallest advantage over their contemporaries. More people began to build their own machines, understanding that PCs are basically a box full of interchangeable components. In education there was a landmark moment in 2012 – on February 29th (which means it’s still only one year old) the very first Raspberry Pi was released. This brought DIY computing to the masses – just $35 got you a fully functional motherboard which you could hold in the palm of your hand. Nobody could have predicted the impact this, at the time, niche device would have on the worlds of computing and education.

Fast forward six years, and maker culture or #makered has become one of the key strands of computing education not only in the UK, but also around the world. Through Picademy, the Raspberry Pi foundation has created a generation of teachers with the skills and aptitude to bring DIY computing to the classroom and open up a whole world of possibilities. So, what does this mean for us?

The most obvious change is that there are so many more possibilities. There are now a huge variety of maker devices available, many even more affordable than the Raspberry Pi. I have been lucky enough to secure eight Micro:bits for our school, a great little board with 25 integrated LED lights, input buttons, an accelerometer, Bluetooth capability and a lots more besides. All this is backed by fantastic online resources. The codebug is a similar device with the advantage of a smaller battery, which makes it easily adaptable as wearable technology. I’ve also had the opportunity to use a class set of Crumble kits – this is another cheap board which can link up to all sorts of peripherals, from LED ‘sparkles’ to motors and switches. The beauty of the Crumble is that everything has to be connected, including the batteries, so children get a real understanding of all the components and the difference between input and output devices.

In terms of learning, the real benefit of the #makered is the opportunity to use it as a driver for STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths) in primary education. Using the Crumble kits described above, I planned a series of lessons to enable year 5 and 6 children to make a programmable vehicle with lights and motors. In just six lessons I was able to link in computing, science, maths and design and technology. This is the gift which just keeps giving for teachers trying to cram everything into a packed curriculum. What’s more, beyond the core academic benefits, there are many associated skills which children pick up using devices such as this. They encourage resilience, teamwork, perseverance and creativity – I’ve seen more ‘lightbulb’ moments with Crumbles than I have in any other lessons.

There are great opportunities to develop #makered further and promote the use of STEAM in schools. Instead of learning to code with a programmable robot, why don’t children build it themselves from a kits, test it, improve it and then design their own skin for it? With a small contribution from parents, they could even take the finished product home with them. There are so many cross-curricular opportunities – D&T for the design, construction and electronics science for circuits and art for designing skins. You could also link to English for instructional writing…

It’s great to see the spark of curiosity I have seen project like this ignite in children. Somewhere, sometime in the late 1960s, early 1970s the two Steves would have had that spark ignited in them. The next computing billionaire might not come from one of my classrooms, but we are creating a generation of makers with the skill and attitude to succeed in a dynamic, changing world.

The Rise of the Maker

Computing in the Warm Heart of Africa

Thursday/Friday June 14th and 15th

Manchester – Frankfurt
Frankfurt – Johannesburg
Johannesburg – Lilongwe
Lilongwe – Lowani

A journey of clichés and contrasts.

Cliché’s first… My outward journey commenced at 3.30pm on June 14th which coincided with Robbie Williams belting out ‘Angels’ during the opening ceremony of the World Cup. At this point I had the misfortune to be within earshot (i.e. in the same building) of a group lads preparing for their summer holiday by pre loading as much alcohol as possible, presumably as a precaution for the two hours or so of dry time they faced on their plane to the Costa-del-Whatever. At £6.50 a pint, I had to admire their financial commitment to this process, if nothing else. As the beer took effect, they obviously thought that T1 would benefit from a boozy, sing-a-long rendition. Judging from the rather muted reaction around me, and the nervous ‘not my flight, please’ body language, I think they were mistaken. If their destination was, in fact, Russia I wish them luck behaving like that in a bar in Volgograd or Nizhny Novgorod.

Once the drunks were out of the way (and thankfully it was not my flight) the journey began well. There was a slight delay to my first flight, which meant the transfer to the Johannesburg flight was a bit tight, although fortunately it was from the same terminal as the incoming flight, so it was a quick march to the next plane which was boarding as I got there.

About an hour into the second leg, as we flew over the Mediterranean, the next cliché became clear – Africa is big, and by that I mean really, seriously big. It’s proper world map big, not in a squashed Westernised way. We crossed into Algerian airspace about 90 minutes into the flight, which meant he next 8 hours and 30 minutes would be spent traversing nearly the whole length of the African continent. You can cross the Atlantic in less that that. As the cities and towns of North Africa dwindled into more isolated settlements and eventually to total darkness, the sheer vastness became apparent – such a contrast to the twinkling population centres of Germany, France and Italy on the other side of the Med.

After some fitful sleep, dawn broke, revealing the the vast planes of the Sub Sahara (not Sub Saharan Africa). Signs of human habitations slowly became apparent, initially with some plots of managed farmland which grew into larger plots and fields and then eventually large open mines and factories. The descent into to Johannesburg was very impressive. Our route in treated my side of the plane to a great view of the city centre (including Ellis Park – a treat for a rugby fan) and then over several townships – the contradiction between the two partsparts of this hugely diverse and divided city clear, even from the air.

My greeting at OR Tambo International Airport and my first experience of South African hospitality extended to yawn, a grunt and ‘next’ from a very surly immigration officer asI was waved through on a transit visa. I guess that this was not a typical South African welcome, but it did serve as a reference point for my arrival at Lilongwe.

The final flight was surprisingly uneventful. The tales of lost luggage and visa queues at Lilongwe were heavy on my mind as I disembarked from the plane, only to see my case on one of the trolleys right in front of my eyes. It was almost an anti-climax. I had been looking forward to the carousel lottery, but there it was, clear to see, before I even entered the terminal. Immigration was less straightforward. I was ready for another set of stern faced immigration officers, but this time the greeting was warm and friendly – perhaps this really is ‘The Warm Heart of Africa’.

The process of getting a visa was maddeningly slow and laborious. I joined the first queue, quite near the front, but was then sent to the back to fill in the visa form (why this couldn’t be handed out on the plane, I have no idea). Then I had to join another queue to get it checked and approved, a third queue to make the $75 payment and then a final queue to get the sticker and stamp. Even then, it was checked by a fourth person. The whole process took nearly an hour, which was really frustrating because it was so obvious that it could be run so much more efficiently.

Once I had my bag, I got hold of some Malawian Kawecha. The rate was easy – about 1,000MK to one pound. Once through I met Lamson, who would be driving me to Lowani. Before leaving the airport I had to go through the process of acquiring a voice and data SIM card for my phone. Lamson pointed me in the right direction, and I was very fortunate to get into the shop just as he was about to close early, possibly for Eid. That being said the guy in the shop was in somewhat of a hurry to get away and I was left to my own devices to activate it. After some trial and error I got the new SIM up and running and got a text through to home, although it took about an hour before I could use data on it.

I was pleased to see that there were two others with me on the long taxi journey (about 200 miles) – Ellen and her son Ryan who were both from Albuquerque, New Mexico. They were also volunteering on Ripple Africa projects. They had some very close ties to Malawi – Ellen lived there for three years in the 1970s when her family moved to Malawi, and her father has lived here ever since. As a result they frequently make the long trip here. It turns out they had a very similar political outlook to me – I vented my feelings about Brexit and they did likewise about Trump.

Poverty in its most profound sense was evident almost as soon as we turned out of the airport. Lamson took a short cut down a dust track to avoid a busy trading area. The track was flanked by the most basic housing comprising of single story, brick built huts with straw roofs on a footprint no bigger than 15 by 20 feet. There was clearly no electricity, running water or sanitation. Seeing that so close to the airport was a real shock to the system. This was typical of the housing for most of the journey. Only the bigger towns had electricity, some houses had the luxury of a tin roof, but that was about as good as it got. I didn’t really know what to expect, but it’s difficult to prepare yourself for seeing so many people living in such harsh conditions.

As we made good progress, it became clear that the towns and villages were becoming busier and busier. It took as a while to realise it, but eventually we worked out that people were celebrating Eid, and that meant many hundreds of people walking along the roads to their nearest town. As darkness fell, the new moon was clearly visible to the west.

All along the road there were several people on the side of the road trying to sell produce. It was difficult to see exactly what they were pushing at the speed we were travelling, however I could tell that many of them were holding sticks or skewers with something attached to them. As we slowed in one village, I realised that it was roast mice attached to these sticks. Apparently the kids light fires in the undergrowth, which flushes out the mice – they then catch them and cook them and sell them as a snack by the roadside. Not a local delicacy I particularly wanted to try!

Until that point the journey had been very smooth – the roads were better than I expected, particularly closer to Lilongwe. The behaviour of the traffic was also a surprise – nothing like the free for all I had experienced in India nearly 20 years ago. There were some parallels – the horn is used a lot. A short beep means ‘I’m here’, and the car is king – the onus is on every other road user (pedestrians, cyclists, goats etc) to get out of the way. If any of the cyclists had helmet cams they’d be internet sensations for the number of close pass videos they could post. This approach is bad enough in daylight, but at night it was terrifying. I spent most of the last hour looking out of the side window – looking straight ahead was just too scary.

After what seemed like forever, we finally reached the Matete road block, which was where we turned off for Mwaya and Lowani beaches. After a bit of confusion of who was on which camp, we dropped Ellen and Ryan off at Mwaya (where we said a quick hello to Nikki) and then Lamson took me to Lowani where Dave and Christian were waiting. I also met Esther, who looks after the Lowani camp and we sat down for a lovely beef stew. Christian had been hiking in the day and had clearly worked up an appetite – there was a huge bowl full, and he must’ve eaten three quarters of it himself. After tea, I had a brief tour of the camp, which didn’t make a lot of sense in total darkness. At this point I caught my first glimpse of the southern sky – a moment I will not forget. With no light pollution whatsoever, the night sky looked like I’d never seen before, even than I the depths of rural France. Had I known it at the time I would’ve spent more time appreciating it – for the rest of the week the moon became highert and brighter and washed out a good proportion of the sky.

After a few abandoned WhatsApp calls home, I called it a night at about 8pm. It took a while to get used to the various noises of the room, from the waves crashing onto the shore to branches scratching across the tin roof. Once I got used to it I settled down to a very welcome night’s sleep.

Saturday 16th June 2018

I woke up at first light, about 15 minutes before my 6.30am alarm call. The daylight revealed what a beautiful spot this is – right on the shores of the lake. Although basic by western standards, the accommodation is really good – very clean and comfortable. It’s certainly a lot better than the conditions or living standards faced by the average Malawian, which is quite a difficult thing to reconcile.

Esther had set out a breakfast of fried egg, banana and toast, together with a cup of tea – the ideal start to the day. I then shared a shower with a couple of very dubious creatures, but after having been travelling for two hours, it felt really good to finally freshen up.

I had an hour or so to kill after breakfast, so I started writing this diary, before getting ready to head off to Bandawe Girls school (a boarding school, hence lessons on a Saturday) to teach a Scratch session. Dace drove, picking up Drew – Ryan’s brother, with whom he’d shared a very touching reunion yesterday evening. Drew is studying computer science at university in the US.

The facilities at Bandawe Girls extended to a temperamental power socket and single desks which could be moved to suit our requirements. Technology wise, we had to be self sufficient, daisy chaining a load of four way adapters to the various desks. We were able to set up five Pi Tops and Dave’s laptop. No sooner had we set up, I managed to knock the power socket, meaning we had to reboot the whole lot. Following that, we found a way of wedging the power in to the socket, and we kept power for the whole of the lesson.

Dave led the session, though he was feeling a bit unwell, so once it was up and running Drew and I took over. Because of the resource constraints it was very much a copy code style lesson. Despite this, the girls did began to experiment themselves and came up with some neat extensions to the crab maze game the lesson was based around, so there was some guided exploration towards the end.

The enthusiasm and willingness to learn was striking. Despite having to share one device between several children there were no arguments, no fall-outs and everyone got an opportunity to have a go. A similar ratio at home just wouldn’t work – you would be guaranteed to face arguments over who’s done what and who’s turn it is. Having taught the grand total of one lesson in Africa, it’s probably not the time to delve too deeply into the psychology of the situation. However, I do wonder whether our culture of whatever you want, when you want it may have something to do with it. Either way, I found their attitude humbling, and it was a great start to my week here.

After a lovely lunch back at Lowani of papaya and banana with bread, Dave spent a few minutes briefing me on all the diseases and conditions I can pick up here and what I should get tested for when I get home, which was nice. Apparently, later in the week we’re going to be wading through mud on the lake to see a fisheries project and that will open up a whole new chapter of tropical diseases, including Bilharzia, which sounds lovely.

After an hour or so on the lake shore including a call home and a nice chat with a local lad called Elvis, who Dave had told me about and an appearance of what I’m pretty sure was an African fish eagle, I spent the next hour relaxing outside my room and writing. I could get used to this…

At about 4:30pm we walked down to the Mwaya beach camp for tea with Nikki and Ellen – the students had gone up to Nkhata Bay for a couple of nights. Nikki made a jug of Pimms which was very welcome (imported from Heathrow, you can’t get it here) and perfectly complemented a nice meal of pizza, boiled potatoes and avocado salad. It was a great opportunity to find out more about Ripple Africa and the volunteers who help them out.

Nikki and Ellen had spent the day at Kapanda Secondary school for their graduation ceremony – it sounded like a bizarre event. It apparently ran two hours late (which is par for the course). The speeches comprised of Jane, the head of Mazembe Primary school preaching about birth control, though solely by advocating the virtues of abstinence, citing the childless thirty something European Ripple representatives as role models! There then followed a speech by a graduating student who was showing off his learning in history by quoting key facts and figures from the life and times of… Adolf Hitler. Every time another fact was successfully recalled the audience launched into a huge round of applause. Nikki described how the Ripple team were nervously glancing around the room as this was going on, and how one of the teachers at Kapanda was reacting, who just happened to be German. If nothing else, this story highlights the massive social contrast between Malawi and the western world.

Picking up on the speech by the head of Mazembe, birth control and attitudes to sex are massive issues in this part of the world and Ripple are doing great work to break down barriers. They take pride in asking the questions which no one else will. As an example, they ask women if they enjoy sex, and the most common answer is that they don’t – it’s something which is done to them. Young men have a sense of entitlement which combined with high rates of infidelity is a recipe for bad relationships. Rippple are challenging this with a view to improving attitudes to encourage healthier and happier relationships. Teenagers are not taught any form of birth control, apart from abstinence. A 15 year old boy asked Nikki if it was OK to have sex with himself- a question which only open and frank discussions can prompt. There are still some areas which are off limits – homosexuality is still illegal in Malawi, as it is in 34 of the 55 African states. It’s difficult to see how that can change, in the short term at least.

It was great to hear how integrated Ripple have become within the communities they work. They know the lives and families of many people in the areas they are active and can offer help and support in many ways, including healthcare and financial planning. Many of the day to day social issues faced in Malawi are similar to anywhere else – alcohol and financial problems are common, albeit in a very different context. Nikki is in a unique position to understand the challenges Malawians face. She has spent time living with Malawian families in their own homes. I think this is crucial for charities to really get under the skin of the issues they encounter. As a volunteer who is here for a very short time I am well aware that I am being sheltered from many of the harsher realities of life in this country.

The walk back to Lowani was quite and experience. Just out of the Mwaya camp we turned off our head torches where we’d been told you can see fire flies. After about a minute, the grassy banks began to light up revealing dozens of lights, mirroring the stars above us. I’m not convinced they were fire flies though, they looked very similar to the glow worms I’ve seen in France. If they were flies, we didn’t see any in the air. There were also lots of very distinctive spiders which reflected a vivid bright blue light through their eyes. The stars were amazing again – I would love to have access to a decent telescope here.

Sunday 17th June 2018

A relatively quiet and lazy day. I woke up in the middle of the night with a throbbing headache, probably down to not keeping hydrated enough. A couple of paracetamols took the edge off it enough to get back to sleep and by the morning it was easing off.

If I was worried about the food, I’ve not exactly gone hungry yet, and this continued at breakfast. A bowl of (Kellogg’s!) cornflakes was followed by porridge – at this point I was already pretty full – only to be followed by a huge plate of beans on toast. I managed about half of it before admitting defeat. After breakfast, Dave an I discussed the plan for the rest of the week. It looks like after my induction tomorrow morning I’ll be split morning and afternoon between primary and secondary schools. Primary will involve unplugged activities, possibly outside, whilst at the secondaries we’ll be using micro:bits with a Python editor. I’ll be learning with the students on that one. It’s not yet clear wat ages I’ll be teaching – primary can extend up to 14 depending on when they started school and if they had to re take any years and in secondary students can be well into their 20s. Elvis, who I met on the beach yesterday is currently in form four at the age of 23.

I’m hoping that I’ll have the opportunity to communicate with Lowerplace a couple of times next week. With a good enough signal a WhatsApp video call is possible. The plan is to try it with Chris Dance’s class and then attempt to link up with the Friday afternoon assembly.

Whilst Dave and I were talking the ladies were cleaning our rooms and Genius, who is Esther’s grandson came over – he really is a character! The conversation amounted to the words Dave, Genius and Ben and pointing at the appropriate person together with a few high fives. The way he says ‘Dave’ is brilliant – straight out of The League of Gentlemen.

With an hour to kill before lunch I decided to walk along the beach to Mwaya. As I set off I spotted two large, brown birds soaring low over the lake. I initially thought they were some sort of hawk – that’s what the wing shape looked like. As they got closer I could see they had a long, pointed bill, much more like a wader than a bird if prey. Once I got to Mwaya, one of the local Ripple workers, Arnold, confirmed they were Hamerkops, a fresh water fishing specialist so called because they have a crest which makes their head resemble a hammer shape.

Along the shoreline I bumped into several groups of local children playing on the beach. Once they saw my camera, their first words were always “Mister, picture, picture.” This revealed a big clash of cultures – with my sensitivities of working with children in the UK I found it difficult to take pictures of kids without parental consent, so I politely refused. I discussed it later with Dave, who said that all they want is to be able to see themselves on a screen. I think if the same situation happened again I might react differently.

After another hearty lunch of sweet potato with vegetable stew, Dave took me through the python projects he has developed for the micro:bits. Despite my lack of Python experience it looks quite straightforward and there are full instructions for the students (and me) to follow. I’m a bit nervous should any troubleshooting be required, as without power here we’ve not actually been able to test the micro:bits with the Pi tops. At least I’ll have a couple of computer science students with me. In terms of learning, the biggest obstacle is likely to be keyboard skills, with quite a few special characters needed in the code they will be running.

For the primary sessions I have mapped out three unplugged activities based on Barefoot activities: tutting (which went down a storm at Lowerplace), Bee-bot style instructions and directions language to move around a grid and an adaptation of the crazy characters algorithm lesson. It’s difficult to visualise how it will go without knowing the setting, class size, language skills or even age of the children. They key will be to be as flexible and adaptable as possible. I’m confident the activities will be strong enough to make it work.

As I was planning these activities there was a welcome, and very African distraction. Nearby, I could here a very loud, distinctive seagull like, but much louder call coming from high in the trees. As soon as I stepped of my balcony to investigate, there it was – an African fish eagle perching right at the top of the tallest tree, less than a hundred feet from where I was standing. I was able to get some nice shots of it perched with the zoom on my camera, and then as I approached to get a bit nearer it took off and treated me to a couple of very close flybys before returning to a perch not far away from where it had started. From memory, I think this is only the third place I’ve seen eagles in the wild, after Mull (golden and white tailed), Florida (bald) and now Malawi. It was a real treat to get such a good view of it.

As I write, it’s not 3pm and this is the first time I’ve managed to get this diary up to date. I must be writing too much!

The afternoon dragged on a bit, as I thought it might. Thoughts of home prevailed. Ella and Louise were at an athletics competition in Carlisle and Archie was with the McGraths. It’s at these times when I’m not sure whether it’s a good thing or not to be so well connected, even when you’re so far away from home. It’s obviously great to keep in touch so readily, but it does serve to remind you of how far away you are and how you are of no use to those back home. Once the teaching gets underway tomorrow, and once I’m a lot busier I think things will improve. I’m very conscious that I need to savour every moment of this experience – I owe that to my family and everyone who has supported me, without them I wouldn’t be here in the first place.

The three University of Manchester students – Hannah, Gabi and Ben arrived from Nkhata Bay at about 6:30pm, by which time darkness had fallen. They had the same disorientating experience I had on my arrival. I think they were a little shocked by how basic everything is – they had been staying in relative luxury in Nkhata Bay, and their Malawian experiences so far had been bars, restaurants and beaches.

Once they had settled in we had dinner, together with Dave of catfish curry, bean stew and rice. I avoided the curry, but the bean stew was really nice. The evening was remarkably still, with quite a lot of cloud cover. This seemed to bring out more of the insect population, in particular there was one quite large beetle who took a liking to Hannah. This wouldn’t be her last insect encounter of the day.

After dinner we discussed plans and logistics for tomorrow, with the proviso that everything will probably change, before returning to our rooms. As we were settling in, I heard Gabi as Dave “How do we get a scorpion out of our room?” And sure enough, there on the wall above her bed, there it was about an inch long. Dave wen t to investigate and comprehensively despatched it with the sole of his sandal. I was grateful he did, because I didn’t fancy taking it on. Having seen that, I’m now being a lot more careful with footwear in the room. I really don’t want to stand on one of them or find one in a shoe.

I settled down for the evening at about 9pm, leaving Ben to spend a bit of time with Hannah and Gabi – they’re not used to early nights.

Monday 18th June 2018

A humbling day.

Monday morning meant it was mine and the students time for our Ripple Africa induction. We met Dan, who is the local co-ordinator for Ripple Africa and who has worked with the charity for over 11 years. We met him at Mwaya beach, where we each picked up a bike to help us get around easily. This was my first time on a bike since my little incident, which delayed my trip here by nearly a month. My African ride (should that be a hashtag?) is an aluminium hard tail mountain bike with a very wobbly seat, no front suspension movement and only about four useable gears. Still, a bike’s a bike. Riding in Malawi is not particularly hazardous (at least in daylight), soft, sandy surfaces keep the average speed very low, and when on the roads there’s very little traffic to worry about.

Our first stop on the induction tour was Mwaya pre school. Pre school in Malawi is roughly from ages three to six years old. It was an amazing place – we were greeted by at least sixty children sitting beautifully around the outside of a classroom. The room itself was about the size of an average UK classroom, but just had a bare concrete floor. The windows were completely open to the elements, which was actually a blessing, as it was hot and it meant there was some air circulating. Despite the uncomfortable setting, all the children were attentive and engaged.

We introduced ourselves, following a script, which was something like this:

Children: What is your name?
Me: My name is Ben
Children: How are you today?
Me: I’m very well thank you

It was lovely to hear the children repeat this script with a little bit more confidence each time one of us was introduced.

We then watched on as the children completed some activities showcasing their understanding of the alaphabet, shapes, animals and days of the week – all in English. Considering only one child at a time was active, their behaviour was incredible. After that, somewhat unexpectedly, they then turned to us and said what would you like to teach the children? My natural reaction was to look around for inspiration from one of the other teachers and hope they might take the lead – it was at this point I realised there were no other teachers, and it was going to have to be me. Out of sheer panic, I suggested heads, shoulders, knees and toes, which we went through a couple of times. They either picked it up very quickly or they’d been asked to do it a few times before… As we left the pre school, the children were enjoying their break time, so it was loads of hand holding and high fives – I felt like a celebrity!

We then had a guided tour of the Mwaya Community Library. The library itself is a small, hexagonal building, probably no more tan 20 foot across at its widest point.. It was well stocked, with book shelves piled high around the outside as a well as some in the middle. There was also a large section of National Goegraphic magazines, inlcuding one for the month of my birth, which featured an article about men in Japanese corporations sharing communal baths to help team bonding. I’m glad that idea didn’t catch on… The most recent was from 2012 – it would be nice if they could have a way of bringing them up to date. I was so impressed with the commitment and dedication of the librarian. The library was clearly his pride and joy and he could tell you in great detail information about each section and the books within them. Despite looking well stocked, the library is chronically under resourced. There tends to be a very high demand for a very small number of books, with particular pressures around exam times. Many of the books are well out of date (the most recent Guinness Book of Records was fro 2002) and were written for curricula which are no longer in use. The magazine section featured a Four-Four-Two magazine about Euro 2012. It really made me think about our throw away culture. So many of the things we discard without a second thought at home would be valued and cherished here. The library is supported by Ripple Africa, and they do donate books. I would really like to do something back home to get more books and resources to this wonderful library.

Our nect stop was Mwaya Primary School. We met the Head Teacher, who was holed up in a cramped little office. The walls were lined with hand drawn graphs measuring various performance indicators. Some were similar to things we report on in the UK, though others were obviously very different. There were some stark statistics on those graphs. The school in total has over 1,000 pupils across only nine classes. The government target is for a maximum class size of 60, however teacher shortages have made this figure impossible to achieve. Perhaps the most striking metric was the number of desks verses the number of students. Across eight year groups, no children have access to desks until standard six. Only in standard eight does every child have access to a (shared) desk. We asked him about electricity as we noticed wiring for lights, but no bulbs in the fittings. He explained that they don’t have electricity at the moment as they were unable to keep up the payments. As we parted, I exchanged contact details – it would be great to be able to link up with Lowerplace.

We were given a lovely tour of the school. We visited standards 3, 4, 6 and finally 1. In all classes we were introduced with a lovely welcome (similar to the pre-school, with a scripted intro) which involved us explaining who we are, and our roles. I think it was powerful for the students to see six people who were either graduates or who were studying towards a degree. This prompted an amusing moment when I said that I had a degree, only for Ellen to immediately trump me with her Phd in psychology.

The most remarkable part of the tour, and the class that will leave a lasting impact on me was the standard one class. There were some stats on the board – for one teacher the total class size was 120, of which 99 were present. The classroom had no desks, chairs or tables. It was great seeing how the children interacted with their teacher – he had the whole class in the palm of his hand. The enthusiasm was boundless, but however excited they became, he could bring them straight back round. I would love to be able to see a lesson in progress to see what teaching actually looks like in such a challenging setting.

Dan concluded our tour at one of Ripple Africa’s environmental projects. This is another arm of the fantastic work going on throughout the region. We saw examples of how they are improving the cultivation of various foods, including avacados, limes and mangos. Some of their ideas are really ingenious. For example, they can change the sex of a papaya tree from male to female as only the female trees can produce fruit. They do this by drilling a hole in the trunk of a young male tree and hammering in the core of a corn on the cob. I have no idea how this works, but apparently it does. They have also developed clever ways of producing seedless oranges by splicing them to lemon trees and finding a way to make mango trees fruit from a younger age by bonding them to established trees. Some of their projects are less complicated. Ripple have introduced a new breed of sweet potato which grows more abundantly and keeps longer than the traditional Malawian breeds.

At the tree nursery, Dan give us a quick demonstration of how to build a Changu Changu Moto (quick quick fire). Using 26 locally produced bricks and an easily made mud based mortar, a fuel efficient stove can be made in less than an hour. They replace the traditional three stone fires, which are both dangerous – it’s very easy for pots to fall off or be knocked over, and inefficient – they use three times as much wood as a Changu Changu Moto. They also produce a lot less smoke. So far Ripple have built over 42,000 of these stoves in the Nkhata Bay area alone. Each stove costs less than £10 – this is a remarkable project. During the demonstration, Dan managed to disturb some of the local wildlife – there were a couple of scorpions hiding in the pile of bricks, which he expertly managed to move, and then there was small wasps nest on the wall of the shelter we were in, which he deliberately disturbed… This led to some very agitated wasps and a swift exit for all the volunteers!

After lunch, Dave gave Ben and I a lift to Kapanda Secondary school with the Pi Tops so we could do some python work with the micro:bits. Drew joined us shortly after we got there, having cycled from Mwaya beach. Kapanda was a real contrast to Mwaya Primary. Most of the buildings looked reasonably new – the school was built only about 15 years ago and has always been supported by Ripple Africa. Unlike the primary schools, the secondaries are fee paying. At Kapanda they charge 8,000MK (£8) per term for day students and 48,000MK (£48) for boarders. Many of the schools have borders because of the logistical challenges many students face to get to school. Virtually no one has access to a car and very few have bicycles. Therefore, if you live further away than a comfortable walking distance, boarding can be the only option.

We met Collins, the Head Teacher who was very supportive of our work. He was also appreciative when I pointed out that the laptops which came out with the project last year were from Lowerplace. I was also pleased to see them still in use, although they have had issues with the batteries. They are in the process of building a new computer lab which will host these laptops and some new computers which they are receiving through donations. That will mean they will also be able to carry on using the micro:bits which we’ll be leaving behind, so hopefully there’s an opportunity for a lasting legacy.

The set up for the lesson was reasonably straightforward, apart from a minor glitch in getting the Pis to see the micro:bit through the Mu Python editor – are you still with me? Thankfully, there was someone present with a bit of technical kno how (not me) and Ben managed to sort it out. We had a about 20 students, with some coming and going – as with all the afternoon sessions this was an after school session – formal lessons end at 2:30pm every day. The start was a little chaotic. As soon as the students came in, they all raced to get to one of the Pi Tops, so we had to reign them in a bit to give them a little bit of guidance on the project they would be attempting and the keyboard skills which would be required. Once on task the students worked really well, especially one group who raced ahead and managed to compete extra challenges which Drew set. We were fortunate that the power stayed on throughout the session, so we were able to attempt a plenary at the end to try to extract the learning points. We had some success, most of it centred around accurate use of the keyboard rather than the computer science elements, I think clearer objectives at the beginning might help next time.

We got back to Lowani for about 5:30pm to find Faston, the local wood carver on site – he was a lovely bloke. I bought a set of 6 small dishes from him which had been imported from Kenya, each with one of the big game animals on them, which I hope Louise will like. I also asked him to make a couple of plaques with the kids names on them. That used up nearly all of my Kwecha, but I changed it to spend it, and I’m happy it’s going to such a nice guy.

I managed a quick WhatsApp video call home before tea, which was lovely. Archie spent most of the time admiring himself on the screen and Ella reluctantly gave me a brief update on her tests, which seem to be going well. They all seemed a lot more relaxed than this morning, as was I. The only issue with a video call in the dark was the light I used to illuminate myself attracted all sorts of unpleasant flying creatures.

I ended the evening with Dave and the students. They played cards whilst I wrote my diary. We were joined by an Oleander Hawk Moth – when it first flew towards us, it was so big we thought it was a bat! As our head torches caught its eyes, they glowed bright red, giving it a demonic look.

I managed to sporadically follow England’s first world cup game on twitter – as I write this, England have just conceded an equalizer. Given what I’ve seen and done today, it doesn’t seem that important.

PS – England won with an injury time goal. It still doesn’t seem that important.

Tuesday 19th June 2018

After a restless night, possibly caused by a sherbet lemon binge shortly before I went to bed, I woke to a wonderful sunrise over the lake. In a couple of minutes, I took some lovely photos of the lake itself, the fishing boats which had returned after a night’s work and the fish eagle, which was once again perched high in one of the nearby trees. In those few minutes it felt like paradise – so peaceful and beautiful. If the word ever gets out about this place, it will be overrun by tourists.

Today was the first full teaching day. I was at Mwaya primary with the three students starting off the unplugged activities. We were also joined by Drew from Mwaya beach. We made our way there on our bikes. Despite it being less than a mile, the combination of less than perfect bikes, sand and hot weather meant we arrived suitably hot and bothered. We met the Head Teacher, who we’d spoken to yesterday and I went through the plan we had which was to teach 3 different unplugged activities across three of the older classes in the school – standards five, six and seven. It felt slightly awkward explaining the concept of an unplugged activity to the Head Teacher of a school with no access to computers, or electricity.

The activities went really well. We decided to begin with the ‘tutting’ activity. The structure of the lesson improved each time we did it, but each session had its highlights and I’m confident we got the key messages across. I really enjoyed the lesson with standard seven – we asked then if there was any process they knew which could be broken down into step-by-step instructions, and they showed us how to make a fishing net from a single loop of string. My attempt was abject, which thoroughly entertained the children, as did my equally poor attempt to draw and algorithm for the process. Despite that, it did get across the point that processes can be decomposed into a series of small, manageable steps. Gabi was really good at relating the activity to computing, which I felt gave the lesson a real purpose, even in the absence of any access to technology. Standards five and six both taught us dances, which were easier to translate into algorithms. The language barrier was an issue, however all the class teachers were present to translate, and we were able to use lots of non-verbal communication. Overall, we all felt it had been a successful morning.

The ride back was easier as there is a slight downhill gradient from the school back to Lowani, and that really helps on the softer parts of the sand, where a little momentum can keep you going. As we were at Mwaya, the sky darkened appreciably and the wing picked up. We cycled back through light rain, which briefly turned heavier once we were back at Lowani.

Once the rain stopped, I noticed what looked like cloud or smoke like formations over the lake. I had read about this before I came – they were actually swarms of lake flies. They appear when mass hatching occurs. The lava live on the lake bed, then simultaneously hatch into huge clouds of flies, creating the illusion of smoke on the lake. As a people used to living on very limited resources, the Malawians do not waste anything. When they swarms reach the shore, they catch them and turn them into very protein rich burgers…

As I watched this phenomenon I ate my packed lunch of bread and banana, which seemed preferable to lake-fly burgers. The swarm seemed to make land fall somewhere south of Mwaya beach. It was interesting to see that the hatching prompted a number of other event – many fishing boats headed in its direction, as did quite a few Hamerkops. I assume that volume of insects present in one place must create a bit of a feeding frenzy.

For the afternoon, all of us except Ben headed over to Bandawe Girls for another Python/micro:bit session. Once again, the girls took to the task really well. We started with about 30 girls between the seven machines we had set up (five Pi tops, one laptop and one Pi on its own). As the session progressed some left and we got down to a more manageable number. One thing which really struck me was their perserverence and resilliance. Tackling a task unlike anything they had done before on unfamiliar equipment, they just got on with it. If they hit an obstacle or a problem, their first instinct was always to try to solve it themselves. We had to actively offer assistance. It’s an attitude which I’m sure comes from living in an environment where things do not come easy and where you have to have those qualities to survive. These are qualities which the children back home could learn a lot from.

I was glad when the lesson finished – the bread and banana light lunch and a very clammy classroom caught up with me, and I think my blood sugar levels took a significant dive. I was quite shaky for a few minutes so I had a few minutes outside in the shade to cool down. A couple of custard creams back at Lowani did the trick when we got back. Tea was pasta and a vegetable bolognaise which really filled me up, I’m surprised by how well I’ve adapted to a vegetarian diet – since the beef stew on the first night, meat has been off the menu.

After tea I spent half an hour on the beach looking at he stars. The sky wasn’t as good as the first couple of nights – the moon is becoming brighter each night and there was also some patchy cloud. I could pick out Venus, unmistakeable in any sky and the Southern cross. With the help of an app I also found Jupiter and with my binoculars I could see loads of clusters. Without knowing the southern sky it was difficult to identify anything else. I think with a half decent telescope and a bit of know-how it would be easy to pick out nebulae and galaxies. I got up again in the night at about 12.30 and there was much more visible with the moon out of the way. By that time there were also several more fishing boats on the lake – too many to count, an amazing sight.

Wednesday 20th June 2018

Today is (nearly) the summer equinox in the UK, but not here. It’s difficult to accept we’re actually in midwinter. As I look at another beautiful sunrise over the lake it doesn’t really feel like that. There are distinct seasons here – the rainy season runs from March through to May. We are currently moving into the dry season, before it really heats up for summer.

The plan for today is similar to yesterday. We’re at Mazembe Primary for more unplugged activities, before we go to Kapanda Secondary for the afternoon. Jane is the head at Mazembe, she did the birth control speech at the Kapanda graduation ceremony. She is apparently very open to collacborations with schools in the UK and is married to a Ripple Africa coordinator so I’m hoping we can set something up with Lowerplace. We’re going to do a Bee-bot style activity, focusing on directional language and the importance of accurate instructions. This will be the second of three unplugged activities that the students will take forward next week.

The bike ride to Mazembe was only about three and a half miles, but it felt a lot further, due to a combination of sand, heat and a saddle on my bike which feels like it’s cutting me in half. We took it very easily, but still arrived dripping with sweat. My first impression was that this school is a step up from Mwaya – everything seemed a bit newer and a bit tidier. The classrooms were much brighter with more and the walls, and it was one of those schools where you immediately get a good feeling.

Nikki was there when we arrived. She didn’t stay around for long (I found out later that she saw a bit of our lesson, but were so involved we didn’t notice) but she did introduce us to Jane. As with the school in general, my first impression of her was very positive, she’s clearly a very good leader with a firm grip on all aspects of the school.

We did two sessions – one each with Standards six and seven. The class sizes were much smaller than Mwaya, with only about 30 children in each class. Jane translated the first session, which was a great help. We ended up delivering the sessions outside – it was the perfect setting. We had the shade from a canopy of trees and just enough sand and dust to make good marks on the ground. If we’d done the session at home we wouldn’t have been able to find as good a learning environment.

It went really well – definitely the best sessions we’ve had so far. The children really grasped the concept of accurate instructions, and the visual nature of the activities meant that language was not really an issue. They were able to create and follow their own algorithms. We also touched on debugging towards the end of the sessions. I handed over to the students for the second session – they were understandably a bit nervous to begin with, but they soon grew in confidence and delivered a really good lesson. I have no concerns about them doing it by themselves next week.

There was a strange incident just before we began the second session. Jane pulled me to one side, she looked very stern and I thought she was going to say she didn’t like what we were doing. Fortunately, this wasn’t the case. In fact, she wanted me to check over a Samsung Galaxy S8 phone which someone was trying to sell to her, to see if it was genuine or not. My first impression was that it was not – the build quality didn’t look up to scratch and the look and feel wasn’t right. I got Ben over for a second opinion and he agreed. He also knew a way of checking the serial number is that of a genuine phone by searching it. In the end we didn’t have to, the serial number was 0123456789ADBDEF! Jane was not impressed, and I got the feeling someone was about to face a bit of an earful.

The ride back to Lowani was also a bit of slog, this time a headwind not helping, although we bumped into Jane agopain at the entrance of the school and she took some group photos of us with my phone. We got back at about 11, which gave us a bit of time to regroup before heading off to Kapanda (again on the bikes) for more Micro:bits.

On the way to Kapanda we stopped off at the tailor’s shop for Dave to pick up some shirts. He was working on a low wall outside the front of his house on an old Singer machine, mounted on a wooden base. As we arrived he was finishing off a pair of shorts which Dave was picking up for Christian. The process for getting clothes made is that you provide him with material – typically about two metres and then he can make pretty much anything you want. The best choice of materials are at the markets (we’re going to the one at Kande tomorrow) however, because I wanted a shirt to take back he took me to a couple of shops just down the road. I chose a very African, but not too loud pattern for a short sleeved shirt. The material cost 3,500MK and Kololo charges a further 2,500MK to make it, so that’s a made to measure tailor made shirt for the sum total of £6. I wonder if we would deliver to the UK…

After being measured up Gabi and I continued to Kapanda where we met Drew. As we got there we were told that there was no power, so the Micro:bit activity was a no go. We stayed around to see if there was anything else we could do. At about 2.45 six girls arrived in the classroom, so we did a Q&A session about the Micro:bits and computing in general. I’m not sure how much they got from it, but there was one girl in particular who was really switched on, and asked some very pertinent questions. We decided to call it a day ay about 3:30, just as the power came back on, but by then we didn’t have enough time to set up for any meaningful lesson.

The ride back was lovely – Drew showed us a nice shortcut off the main road. On the way out of Kapanda we stopped to have a look at some cassava drying – this is one of the staple foods in Malawi. It’s a root vegetable which grows year round. Once picked it has to be dried out. The raw ingredient has arsenic in it, and the drying process removes this. They do this by placing it flat on large tables, directly in the sun. The smell is very strange and difficult to describe, blue cheese is about the nearest thing I can think of. Once it’s dry, it’s ground into a flour which then forms the base for a paste which can be eaten with pretty much anything.

As we came back to the main road to camp (which is more of a dirt track) we heard the sound of beautiful choral singing floating in the air. It was coming from a church, and it was just a perfect moment to hear it. I videoed it for a short time to help keep the memory alive.

One thing which has struck me all week, but particularly today, is how friendly everyone is – and it’s genuine, not the fake ‘have a nice day’ type. A few examples – the tailor, Kololo is such a lovely bloke, like Faston (the wood carver) you just want to buy things from him. We met another guy on the way home – Ignacious who wanted to know what we were doing. We told him about our work in the schools and he explained that he was from form four at Kapanda. They are starting their end of year exams tomorrow, so we wished him well. Everyone is interested in what you’re doing which is just so different from people’s attitudes at home.

I’m also amazed how safe I feel here. We’re very much embedded in the local community, and for obvious reasons we are easily identified, yet we’re able to walk around with phones, watches and cameras clearly visible, and not once have I felt in the slightest bit vulnerable. I was more nervous walking around the streets of Islington a couple of weeks ago, where you’re told not to have your mobile visible because of moped thefts. There’s so much we should learn from the people that live here.

We walked over the Mwaya beach for tea – we ate on the terrace, which is right on the lake front. The sky was crystal clear too, so it was a magical setting. We had a vegetable stew with rice, and some really tasty curried lentils which Esther made and we took with us. On the terrace I saw two meteors, one of which was a very bright fireball to the west, there were also fire flies in the air, hopping between the tree tops. Later in the evening Mars rose in the east, looking redder than I’ve ever seen before – usually I find it difficult to distinguish it from other planets, but there was no mistaking it this time. The clear sky meant that the temperature dropped significantly, which had the welcome effect of cutting down the number of insects in the air.

We got back to Lowani for about 10:30, and after a long day, I was definitely ready for bed.

Thursday 21st June 2018

Today IS the shortest day (see yesterday…)

The students and I were back at Mwaya primary this morning to deliver the third unplugged activity – crazy characters algorithms. On paper (or not…) this looked like the most challenging of the three activities to adapt as it needs some resources. For example, the worksheet template which we didn’t have would be very useful.

We started in Standard five. This is a very difficult room for both learners and teachers – there’s only about five desks for at least seventy students. Some were chairs with no desks, but most were on the floor. It’s worth remembering that these are roughly year 6/7 equivalent students – can you imagine students in the UK putting up with these conditions? I led this session. The initial draw a character part was OK, though language was a problem. This activity relies on the teacher using very specific and precise vocabulary, and I’m fairly sure that some of this was being lost in translation. The second part – drawing their own character had to be adapted as we went along. I don’t think the children are used to working in pairs or peer assessing, they were also reluctant to move around the classroom so the describe and compare bit didn’t really get off the ground. Instead, we focussed more on them creating an algorithm of their own. I think we just about got the key messages across. One thing which did help, was that the children had their own exercise books – we had been expecting that we’d have to use small pieces of scrap paper which we’d cut up from the Barefoot resource packs.

I stepped back for the sessions with Standards six and seven, so the students could take the lead. Right from the outset it was great to see them reflecting o the first session and making some amendments to improve it. Their confidence is definitely improving and I’m sure they’ll be fine next week on their own. It’s easy to forget how daunting this must be for them. If you ‘ve never really taught before this is a pretty extreme setting to start in. Their session were also somewhat compromised by translation errors, but overall they also got the message across. As this was my last session at Mwaya I told each class I wouldn’t be back next week, which was greeted by a round of applause – hopefully for the sessions I’d done and not because I won’t be back again!

I popped in to the tailor on the way back, as I had not told him I was going back so soon – he said it wasn’t a problem and promised to have my shirt ready for tomorrow.

I tried again to get a Whatsapp video call through to school – I know it can work as I had another successful one with home this morning, but for whatever reason it doesn’t seem to be happening. I think I’ll just schedule one fir assembly tomorrow and hope for the best. Hopefully the phone’s been tested for airplay over the AV system in the hall, it would be a shame if I can’t get a call in.

After lunch, Dave, Ben, Gabi and I set off for Bandawe girls school to do some more Micro:bit sessions with Form two. On the way we stopped at Kande market – what a place! It was a real sensory experience, with bright, vivid colours everywhere, loads of noise and all sorts of smells from the various food stalls. We headed to one of the fabrics stalls – I wanted to get something a little bolder for another shirt, and I think I succeeded with blue and orange musical themed pattern featuring a circle of trumpets… We also went there on the way back. I sent a picture of all the different fabrics to Louise and she asked me to bring a few back, so I got five more in various colours. We had been told that the market can get quite lively on the evening and night, and even in the couple of hours we’d been at Bandawe it was a lot louder and there were a few interesting characters around. One who seemed to be a bit the worse for wear was trying his hardest to sell me a Manchester United picture, when he learned where I came from – he took a bit of shaking off! The others loaded up on fabrics as well, so our final stop on the way back was at the tailors. Between us we asked him to make nine shirts and a pair of shorts. He promised to give my shirts priority, so they should be ready for me tomorrow in time for me to take them home.

Form two took to it really well – we did just over an hour and most of them managed to get the buttons functioning on the micro:bit – as with all the other classes, their persistence and resilience was fantastic. I’ve really enjoyed working at Bandawe, all the students are really bright and enthusiastic – they deserve so much better in the way of facilities than what they have there.

On the way out we drove past another westerner who was working with a group of children outside. I asked Dave if he knew who he was. Apparently he’s doing missionary work, but won’t have anything to do with Ripple or anyone working with them, to the extent that he’s actually balnked people who’ve tries to speak to him. I find this a strange and worrying attitude – either he’s totally ignorant, or he’s worried that exposure to other voluntary organisations will show up the work he’s doing. Either way it’s not great given the place on the context of his work.

Whilst I’m here, I keep picking up on some of the idiosyncrasies of life in Malawi. There’s a great example on the roads – as you drive alongside the lake there are several tributaries which feed it. Each of these has a bridge over it, which is usually single lane. Before each bridge there are a series of about ten rumble strips which are designed to slow the traffic down. The problem I they are shaped and spaced in such a way that the only way to take them comfortably in a car is at great speed so you skim over the top of them instead of getting shaken to pieces. So instead of slowing traffic, they actually speed it up!

Faston showed up at Lowani just before tea with the kids’ carvings. They look absolutely great, and they’ve been carved in teak, so they are really heavy, solid pieces of wood. I was getting a bit worried with today being Thursday that he would not come back, but Dave kept telling me not to worry about it. That’s another feature of the people here – they keep their word.

Tea was vegetable stew with sweet potato mash – I’ve now been vegetarian for a whole week.

Friday 22nd June 2018

Not the best night’s sleep. Overnight the wind picked up, which whips up the water on the lake. With the breeze being onshore it sounded like the water was right outside the door. Added to that, the branches were knocking against the roof of the chalet, with the clattering on the tin amplified throughout the whole room. All in all it was a bit noisy.

To make matters worse, we had an early start to visit one of Ripple’s fisheries projects further up Nikhata Bay at Mukala. We walked to the crossroads to meet Claire who took us there in Ripple’s Land Cruiser. We had a great ‘Malawi moment’ just after we set off – Claire spotted a group of school children from Mwaya Primary on their way to school and stopped to give them a lift – three of them piled into the boot! It encapsulated a feeling of innocence which has completely vanished back home. The last bit of the journey was notable for different reasons – the road became a track, and the track gradually deteriorated to virtually nothing. The views of the lake, however made up for the rather bumpy ride.

There were loads of people there to meet us. We were hosted by Solomon who works for Ripple and heads up the project. He introduced us to several members of the committee who run it on the ground and a local official employed as an enforcement officer – we would see him in action later in the morning. They gave us a detailed explanation of the issues and how they are managing fishing on the lake. The problems are two fold – the lake has been overfished, particularly in the breeding pools where fishermen have been using illegal nets (often made from mosquito nets) to catch smaller fish. In addition to this, deforestation upstream has impacted on the breeding patterns of fish which breed in the tributaries to the lake, as the lack of trees means the rivers cannot hold sufficient water. Therefore, there is less breeding, and the fish that do breed in the lake are more likely to be caught when they’re young – the yields of local fishermen have really suffered as a result. The future for this kind of project should be bright. Around the schools I have visited I’ve seen quite a lot of evidence of sustainability and environmental issues being taught – this is one way Ripple could add to their impact, by making a more direct connection between their environmental projects and their work in schools. It would be great if children could learn directly about projects such as this.

To counter this, a number of local by-laws have been introduced and there has been a big effort to educate the local people in the practices of fish conservation. For three months each year the breeding pools are not fished at all, so the population has a chance to recover. There is also much stricter enforcement of nets and permits are required to fish certain areas. The project has been running since 2014 and by 2016 they were already seeing an increase in the number of larger fish being caught. The local community are all on board, helped by a funding scheme which gives them access to cheap loans and shares in the overall project. It’s a great example of sustainable support and fits in perfectly with Ripple’s ethos.

Once the project has been explained, we were treated to a tour of the breeding pools and the reed beds so we could see where the project is having an impact. We boarded a small motor boat and headed into the reeds. As we got into them we saw a fisherman at work – illegally. I asked how often they see this and they said it was about once a month. We approached him, and after a brief exchange of words his oar was confiscated and he was ordered to pull his net in. For a while it looked like we were going to have his company back to the shore, which would’ve been a little awkward. However, because he was known, they let him make his own way back to the shore in the knowledge that a fine would be heading his way soon.

In the reed beds we could see lots of the smaller fish – exactly the stock they’re trying to protect. We also saw a Pied Kingfisher, and Yellow Weaver and either a juvenile Fish Eagle or some sort of Kite. Once back on dry land we had a few minutes where I could keep watching the Kite/Eagle and a couple of Hamerkops.

That wasn’t the end of our wildlife encounters for the day. As we walked up the grassy path (in flip flops) back towards the car, I heard Claire (who was just in front of me) let out a scream. At that moment I saw the back half of a large grey snake shoot across the path to the left. The locals immediately identified it as a Black Mamba – the most dangerous snake in Africa. Claire has lived in this part of Africa all her life and had never seen one before – for me to see one inside a week is very lucky/unlucky depending on your viewpoint. When we got back to the car I looked up more information on Black Mambas – the fortunate thing is that they very rarely attack humans, they are more likely to run away, which is what we witnessed. If you are bitten you have 45 minutes to get anti-venom or the outcome will be fatal. There was no way we could get anti-venom in that time…

Still in one piece we headed back towards camp to meet Soldier who is responsible for co-ordinating the Chango Chango Moto project in this area. He took us to the home of a local villager (who seemed a little perplexed by our presence) who was building a new shelter for a kitchen outside the back of his house. It seems he was a single father with three children. It’s not clear where his wife was or what had happened to her, but I guess life has not been very easy for him to have ended up in that situation. We watched Soldier construct the Chango Chango Moto there and then. It is a remarkably simple process and the end result delivers great results in terms of safety and efficiency.

I’ve absolutely loved the teaching experience in Malawi, but I think it’s equally important that Ripple expose volunteers to the wider scope and impact of their work. It has given me a really rounded view of the work they do and also introduced me to so many people who live and work in and around Mwaya, and helped me understand a bit more about their everyday lives and experiences.

As we were watching Soldier make the stove, more and more kids gathered around to see what was going in. Many of them recognised myself and Ben from our sessions at Mwaya Primary, so we got lots of excited shouts of ‘Benny, Benny’ until one of us gave the a wave. When the Chango Chango Moto was complete, Soldier lit a small fire in it and got all the kids to sing the Chango Chango Moto song – what a brilliant way to get the project into children’s heads at such an early age. I videoed it to show the children back at home – I think they’ll love it.

For the afternoon, Ben and I headed back to Kapanda on the bikes for one last time to do some digital literacy. On the ride there I was consciously taking in as much as I could. These are sights and sounds I may never experience again. We stopped to have a look at a half finished fishing boat on the track up to the main road. The sheer amount of work in cutting and carving such a large piece of work is ridiculous. The skill is also amazing – this must’ve been passed down through generations virtually unchanged. In so many ways this part of the world seems untouched and in many ways untroubled by what we would call progress.

The lesson at Kapanda was frustrating. We eventually managed to cobble together four working laptops, albeit one with an external keyboard and one with a cracked screen. Two of them were form the batch we donated last year, so it was nice to see them up and running and in action. We had to share the four machines between about twelve children, but yet again there were no arguments or disputes, they just got on with it. We did some basic typing skills and formatting in Word before the power went off at 3.20pm. In many ways the attitude of the children in that lesson summed up the attitude of so many people I’ve met here – you make the most of what you’ve got, even though invariably that’s not much. What they have got is vast reserves of spirit, hope and determination.

On the way back we stopped by to see the tailor, Kololo, to pick up my shirts. On the way there I found another really nice fabric which I’m going to get made up into another shirt. Ben said he would bring it back. The trumpet patterned shirt is something else! Kololo gave me a really sweet letter explaining his background and how he wants to complete his studies, but also asking for money to help. Ironically, he’s probably the person I’ve met who least needs that kind of help. With his personality, skills and entrepreneurial spirit I’m sure he has a bright future.

As the whole experience draws to a close, I leave with mixed feelings. I would love to stay here and do more, but equally 10 days away from home is plenty long enough. I will keep on supporting Ripple Africa back at home and there are some really easy ways I can help, from sponsorship to donating resources to the Mwaya library. This alone would be a great benefit to the local community and the schools nearby. I also want to get more of our obsolete kit out to the schools. Kapanda are in the process of building a new computer lab, and as well as the desktops they have already secured it would be useful for them to have more laptops, especially with functioning batteries in the event of power outages. In more general terms I would like to raise awareness, and I hope I can achieve this through posts like this.

It’s difficult to sum up an experience like this in words, but I’ll try. People said beforehand that it would be life changing, and unquestionably it has been. The warmth of the welcome from everyone has been overwhelming, as are the situation and the circumstances they have to live in. It puts some much from back home into perspective.

Above all, I leave with a sense of hope. Malawi has the skills, attitude and knowledge to help itself. Guided by brilliant organisations such as Ripple Africa, Malawi can emerge, develop and grow in a sustainable way. I hope to come back one day to see for myself.

Saturday 23rd/Sunday 24th June 2018

Lowani – Lilongwe
Lilongwe – Johannesberg
Johannesberg – Frankfurt
Frankfurt – Manchester

Lamson was on time to pick me up for a 6.30am start. I don’t know what time he arrived, but he was waiting at 5.30am when I went for a shower.

I was all packed up from the evening before, but last minute sorting hand luggage took a few minutes. Esther had made an early breakfast and Dave and Ben kept me company which was really nice. Nikki also came across to say goodbye and Gabi and Hannah were there to wave me off too. It was great of them all to do that.

We se off right in time. The only hitch was that I very nearly left with the room key in my pocket, which would have been a bit of a problem for Ben… Luckily he remembered at the last minute. It was ironic, as I was really conscious when I put it in my pocket that I shouldn’t leave with it.

The journey to Lilongwe was really smooth – Lamson managed it in just under 4 hours. It’s so much less stressful travelling in the daylihght.

There were a couple more ‘Malawi moments’ to round off the experience. At one of the roadblocks (there are three between Mwaya and Lilongwe) Lamson entered into quite a lengthy conversation with the officer on the barrier. Once he finally waved us through I asked Lamson what it was all about, and he sadi he was looking for a lift… It seems he wasn’t going in the same direction as us, or at least the direction Lamson said we were going. The other moment was a lot more worrying. In one of the villages, on quite a fast section of the road a very small child was wondering down the middle of the road. His dad was nearby, but didn’t seem to be particularly bothered by the incident, even after Lamson gave him a piece of his mind.

Despite this I felt totally safe and relaxed which meant I could enjoy the beautiful scenery on offer – lake views, sweeping plains and forest covered mountains, Malawi has it all. It really feels like it should be a must visit destination, maybe in years to come it will be. If it is, I hope the warmth of the people and the welcome doesn’t change.

The flight from Lilongwe was really smooth. Maybe it’s because I’ve not had anything like it for a while, but the lamb curry for dinner was absolutely fantastic. When I said that to the stewardess she offered me another one, I was sorely tempted.

The transfer at Joburg was equally smooth, apart from quite a long queue for the transit visa stamp. I had a quick look around duty free, but the prices were ridiculous – no cheaper than at home, although I had been tempted by a $6 bottle of whiskey at Lilongwe… In the end I got the kids some South African sweets and in doing so borrowed a paper clip from the guy at the till to swap my sim card back over. As soon as I asked if he had one he knew what I needed it for. Having swapped it over I called home and boarded the flight to Frankfurt after a stunning sunset at the airport.

The overnight flight was not great, not enough space and 11 hours is a long time. I managed to watch the second half of the Germany v Sweden world cup match, which Germany won with a last minute winner. There was no reaction on the plane whatsoever – if it had been a BA flight full of English people I think it would’ve been bedlam.

The final transfer at Frankfurt was lengthy, involving a train between terminals, visa queues and more security. It was a relief to finally board the flight back to Manchester on time. To cap off such a memorable experience, I was picked up by my brother-in-law and after a quick change he whisked me off to the one day international between England and Australia at Old Trafford. The experience began with contrasts on the journey out, and it certainly ended with one too.

Computing in the Warm Heart of Africa

Project Malawi – plans falling into place

It’s now just over three weeks before I set off for Malawi. Fundraising has gone better than I ever expected – the latest total is nearly £1,200, way beyond my initial £500 target with another school event to come. Another huge thank you to everyone who has supported me, this wouldn’t be possible without your generosity. If you would like to add a donation this link will take you to my fundraising page.

The flights are booked – I will be flying from Manchester to Frankfurt to Johannesburg and then finally to Lilongwe – the capital of Malawi. Once in Malawi it’s then the small matter of a five hour taxi journey to our final destination on the shore of Lake Malawi. Total travelling time will be about 24 hours, so hopefully I can get some decent sleep on the long flight to South Africa.

We had our last big project meeting this evening at The University of Manchester and the plans are now firming up. We will be teaching in three schools with varying IT infrastructure ranging from none to limited, but with the equipment that was taken out last year and a stash of new kit we should be set to get up and running quickly in Malawi. We will be teaching a range of unplugged activities and basic computer skills before moving onto coding using Micro:bits, Crumbles and Raspberry Pis. The main challenge onsite is likely to be finding a reliable power source.

Communication will be a challenge in Malawi. This will start at Lilongwe Airport where I will have to buy a data SIM for my phone and manually cut it to size! The network coverage is patchy and tends to drop out entirely between 6-10pm when the load is at its highest. This means there will be little or no access to the internet in the evenings – I’ve yet to decide whether this is awful or blissful; time will tell…

We are meeting again in a couple of weeks time to plan out teaching activities and finalise plans – exciting times.

Project Malawi – plans falling into place

Ripple Africa

Ripple Africa are changing lives in Malawi. Here’s a short video showing one of their most innovative projects – the ‘Ripple Rocket’. Known locally as the ‘Changu Changu Moto’ it’s a brick built stove which makes cooking safer and more efficient for thousands of families. This is a simple, sustainable solution to a long standing problem and a great example of how Ripple are making a difference.

If you would like to support Ripple Africa with projects like this, please make a donation to my #ProjectMalawi page here:

Ripple Africa

Project Malawi – update

Fundraising has got off to a flying start – less than a week in and on the back of a couple of emails, blog posts and tweets my total stands at over £250! In addition we have arranged a week of activities in my school, including a non-uniform day, disco and biscuit sale. Also, one of my colleagues, who is running the Manchester half-marathon has offered to raise money in aid of this cause. Huge thanks you to everyone who has donated or offered their support so far.

In other news, I now know I will be spending much of the Easter holidays being a pin cushion. In no particular order I need to be boosted or inoculated for diphtheria, tetanus, polio, yellow fever, rabies as well as going on a strong course of anti-malarial drugs. If I look a bit peaky after the holidays, you’ll know why!

If you would like to make a donation to help support sustainable education projects in Malawi, please use the link below:

Project Malawi – update