Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Bandawe Secondary Schools Cluster Textbook Initiative

When our Bandawe Secondary Schools Cluster textbook drive was proposed, it seemed like such a simple idea: raise money, purchase materials, use new textbooks in the classrooms of the eleven schools involved. The plan mimicked one implemented by Danida, a Danish aid organization that assembled Malawian secondary schools into clusters in order to provide support in an organized manner. According to the system, schools contributed a textbook revolving fund consisting of 250 Malawian Kwacha per student per year; Danida would then triple that amount to provide funding for a large textbook purchase. Unfortunately, Danida no longer assists schools in Malawi, and the textbook revolving fund has remained at MK250 per student per school per year through inflation, devaluation, and skyrocketing textbook prices, leaving Malawian schools with an immeasurable shortage of textbooks and teaching and learning resources.

I considered this idea very carefully before agreeing to help raise the funds for this project. I was aware this project would cost me personal stress, but as a teacher in Malawi I knew firsthand the difficulty of teaching literature without textbooks. If there was even a chance that as a cluster we could improve our students’ learning environment, we had to try.

When this project was commenced in September of 2012, the cluster leader and I anticipated the completion of the fundraising and textbook purchasing to be January, allowing ourselves four months to collect donations and textbook revolving funds and complete order forms across the cluster. It was nearly a year later, however, when we finally gathered for the dedication and distribution ceremony and reflected on all the obstacles we had overcome, celebrating victory while surrounded by many, many cartons of brand new textbooks.

Fundraising from afar proved to be a true challenge for me, and the donation website often refused contributions from people with open wallets. The acquisition of funds was delayed. In the meantime the schools scraped the bottom of their bank accounts, readying their checkbooks for the collection. One of our schools could not source their contribution, and unfortunately resigned from the program. Finally, though, after months of working and waiting, thanks to many generous American donors, our funds were in hand.
After I finished manually compiling extensive order forms, we ordered 821 textbooks. It wasn’t long, however, before we learned some of Malawi’s publishing houses were currently halted in printing; several titles we had ordered were unavailable. Working in partnership with Maneno bookshop, we struggled to find suitable substitutes for the unattainable items. During this scramble, the school year ended; our books would be distributed over the holiday, several months later than anticipated.This project had become urgent and stressful. The end of my service was looming less than a month away when the books were finally safely in the hands of the cluster teachers; I still had to do all the associated paperwork and hoop jumping to close the project and was under high stress as my last three weeks in country ticked away.

Still, as we conducted our dedication ceremony—as I listened to the speeches overflowing with gratitude, as I shook hands with our fortunate recipients, as I chatted about creative incorporation of the new materials, as I received phone calls from distant teachers thanking me for my work, as I spoke to the group in acknowledgement of their patience and their persistence, as I handed cartons of books to head teachers—I realized that every single stressful moment, every day that held another speed bump, and every flash of immense apprehension and frustration were all worth it because the feelings of pride and satisfaction were more overwhelming than any period of stress.

I am infinitely grateful to our donors and the Peace Corps Partnership Program. I am so proud of my cluster of secondary schools and its sacrifice and collaboration. I am proud that together, we were able to provide 10 schools of over 100 teachers and nearly 3000 students with teaching and learning materials and over 750 new textbooks. Teachers were trained in library management, textbook care and maintenance, and resource utilization, so these books will continue to serve as important tools for thousands of students and teachers over the course of the next several years. I am very optimistic about the continued determination and motivation of my teachers and have high hopes for future student success stories thanks to this project.

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