Yesterday Stephanie and I went down to the soccer “pitch” (more like a ¼ acre of treeless space) to kick my soccer ball around and on the way down there were two teenagers who asked if they could join us. We played with them for about an hour and then as we began to make our way back up the hill one of the boys who introduced himself as Vincent asked to speak with us. He explained that on June 13th he is taking his examination for English and politely asked for us to help him study. Since we were kind of put on the spot we hastily agreed and told him to meet us after school the following day.
Honestly I wasn’t too excited about tutoring Vincent probably because I suppose I have become a bit jaded by the relentless begging and asking of favors by some of the villagers. I know I’m not alone in this because some of my fellow students have expressed similar sentiments. Regardless of how I felt about it I had made a commitment to Vincent so today after lunch I prepared myself to go down with Stephanie and meet him.
We started to head down around 1:30 but as we started to leave our dorms we saw Vincent come striding up the hill with his notebook in hand with a pen and a highlighter. We went into the vacant dining hall and began.
Vincent explained to us that he wanted us to assist him learn “parts of speech” and it took Stephanie and I a while to recollect all of our elementary English lessons. We started with the basics such as nouns and verbs and eventually finished with adjectives, adverbs and pronouns. Once we accomplished that we proceeded to explain prepositional phrases, contractions and conjunctions with a little help from Caroline (we couldn’t remember what exactly prepositional phrases were so we needed her assistance).
The real importance of this story was Vincent himself. Initially I was a bit skeptical and even a bit unnerved by him (he came up last night maybe 4 hours after we played soccer with him, gave me a big hug and he said he was stopping by because he missed me and wanted to wish me a good night’s rest) but those doubts and concerns quickly evaporated as he explained why he was so adamant about learning from us.
He stressed that the key to success in Malawi was an intimate knowledge of English as well as speaking it fluently. He explained very excitedly that above all other subjects he wanted to succeed in English because then he could be more employable in Malawi or he could go to neighboring countries or South Africa to seek work there if necessary. “I want to get a good job like my father who is an accountant” he told us. When we asked him about how his schooling was he explained that his English teacher routinely showed up to class drunk and was never too enthusiastic about teaching. Vincent recounted one episode when he asked the teacher for extra tutoring and the teacher gruffly replied that if he wants to learn more he should read his notes at home. Well when the teacher is too drunk to teach, there aren’t many notes to take.
I really cannot emphasize how impressed I was with Vincent. Not only was I humbled by his eagerness to learn and better himself, but he was in fact a quick learner and had very few difficulties absorbing the lessons we bestowed upon him. Vincent really possessed a work ethic and optimism that I was beginning to fear was absent in Malawi. We discussed in class that Malawians (as well as much of Africa) have a cyclical conception of time and therefore think things will not change too much and will just keep repeating themselves. I had an interesting conversation with Evan that night about whether or not that idea of time hinders progress here. Vincent on the other hand seems to possess a strong sense of self-worth and improvement.
We gave Vincent about 10 pages worth of notes as well as two homework assignments (which by the way he asked for) and told him to come back up to CCAP House on Monday and we’d go over his homework as well as help him with any questions or difficulties he had.
It was a cheesy little “save the children” hour of my day today, but it was one of the more fulfilling and rewarding experiences of my life. It can be very easy to be here in Malawi and feel that nothing can be fixed, but to meet Vincent and experience his enthusiasm was a much needed boost of optimism.