Small People, Big Impressions

By: Dr Jessica Thompson

Well, another field school has passed and this time no students were able to find time during the season to write a blog entry…hopefully because they were kept too busy learning! Or it could possibly be because I was not enough of a nag about it. Perhaps we could rename the blog “Reflections of the Field” rather than “Dispatches from the Field” and that would motivate some of them to contribute upon their return…? More likely, however, I am afraid that as they integrate back into their real lives they will do as we all do and quickly lose touch with the very different environment in which they just spent their time. This time here, which seems so exquisitely to be your entire reality while you are here, quickly fades to a status more like a vaguely recalled dream after you have left.

Regardless, the field school deserves an entry – and it will indeed receive one in the near future. However, for this entry I am starting with the end, the day that the students left on the bus we had hired to go back to Lilongwe. It was that afternoon that I had an appointment with Lulindo School, a government primary school in Old Town of Karonga. It had been identified to me as a school in particularly great need by Malani, one of our Antiquities representatives who has been working with MEMSAP since 2011. Many of the UQ field school students had asked about opportunities to contribute to the community while they were in Karonga, and I had encouraged them to bring anything they thought would be useful in the way of clothing, books, and learning materials.

Many of the UQ students actually went out and generously purchased brand new packs of crayons, coloured pencils, notebooks, and other school supplies, so that seemed to be our main materials for 2014 donations. In 2012 we had donated a large number of anthropology and archaeology books to the Cultural and Museum Centre Karonga, in order to establish a public reading room that might raise local awareness and capacity in those fields. However, the field school students that year had also made a massive effort to transport early learning books donated by The University of Queensland to Karonga. As these were not appropriate to the reading room, these books were donated to several local schools. This year, we targeted Lulindo School to receive the materials the students had brought with them. Unfortunately, by the time it was organised the UQ students had already gone and I was left as the representative to Lulindo. How badly now I wish the students had still been around!

It was a day that had started with children. Children on the wall of our compound, children stealing the student’s bags of rubbish to see what was in them, children reclining on the backdirt pile at site, children shouting and waving as you drive past. It has always been this way. For example, here was a photo taken at the end of a day of test pitting in 2010:

Photo 1

There are always children around, curious and noisy, checking to see what you are doing. If you are lucky, they are only occasionally asking that you give them money. I have never quite gotten used to that part. It reminds me always of the shock I felt in 2005 when I was driving through Africa, my first real transit across any substantial distance on this continent, when at every turn a child’s first words seemed to be, “Give me my money”. Here I shamelessly post some bad poetry that I wrote at the time:

The Seed

This precious thing

She reaches out

To claim from me

What’s mine

Her tiny hand

So neatly formed

So innocent

Her mind

But in this budding

Shameless youth

Is planted

Like a weed

A word, a thought

Idea, plan

A seed

A seed

So here are the children of this part of Africa, taught from birth that foreigners have money and that our purpose here is to supply them and their families with it. If we don’t we are stingy. If we do, it is not enough. Because, in their perception, we must have unlimited money in order to have the things we have. And indeed on this day, by benefit of the UQ field school students, I was able to reinforce that stereotype with the greatest of pleasure.

I first met with a school representative, as well as the head teacher, at Lulindo School. The head teacher, wearing a faded pinstriped suit with extreme dignity, opened the meeting by searching extensively for a record-keeping book and a pencil in which I could record the details of my visit. While he searched, I ran my eyes over a series of hand-drawn charts taped to the wall. These showed figures for enrolment, as well as some exam results. In one case I noted a percentage pass rate of approximately 11% for boys and 7% for girls. The cramped room was stacked nearly to the ceiling with disintegrating and discoloured papers, which to be honest looked much like most immigration offices I had seen in this part of the world. We were seated on what were clearly the best seats in the school, which were plastic deck chairs. But what gave me the most perspective was the fact that has this year the school had enrolled more than 3300 students. When asked, the teacher said that they had about 30 teachers on staff.

I had gone to the school with Davie, who is a graduate from the Catholic University of Malawi and has been working with our project since the first reconnaissance in 2009. We were on our lunch break and had been mandated with the task of bringing lunch to about 25 very hungry people who had been excavating in the hot sun all morning. But although we were in a hurry to supply them with sustenance, when the head teacher suggested we go meet some of the learners at the school we could not refuse.

We stepped into a small room full of young faces and a sense of electric excitement. The children who had not been allowed into the room crowded around the building and peered through the windows to see who it was who had driven up in a vehicle and walked into the room with a large bulging sack, much like an oddly gendered and out-of-season Santa Claus. Inside the room the teacher said, “These are the children who have lost their parents. Here at Lulindo School we have over 100 of these. Who can look after them?” He then proceeded to introduce me, and I then introduced myself. I told them that I was also a teacher, but to university students in Australia. I said that I had brought a sack of gifts from those students to give to them.

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After much chanting and clapping and excitement, the teacher bent to open the sack with a flourish. It proved to have been tied too tightly, and so after several awkward moments of watching him attempt to work the tie free with his teeth I managed to get the cord cut with a set of keys. The teachers then held up and showed each and every item in the sack to the children, who let out a great roar at each presentation. “Have you seen this one?!” the teacher would cry, and the children would scream with excitement. The hottest item was my son’s backpack I had kept in storage from two years before. It had been given to us for free by Kenya Airways on our flight in 2012, and I had thrown it into the sack admittedly as an afterthought. Just as any spoiled foreigner might.

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After the presentations, the teacher said we should distribute something to each child. He said that those with no parents should receive something, and the rest would go to the school library. And so, with time pressing upon us each child’s name was read aloud. As they approached, I distributed two coloured pencils to each. I noted with a certain irony that the pencil packets were named “School Essentials”. But these children had nothing essential for their learning except tattered clothing and a single tightly rolled piece of lined paper. This they held clutched in their hand or hidden in their pocket when they reached out to receive the gifts my own students had brought.

When we ran out of normal coloured pencils I distributed one normal pencil and a special coloured pencil with a grip on it. When we ran out of pencils I gave a coloured pencil with a grip and a small piece of chalk. When those finished, each child received a single fat crayon with a koala bear toy attached to it. We kept aside the black and white crayons, so that all the tokens from our visit would be brightly coloured.

As we drove away from the school, very late to fetch our worker’s lunches, I saw the children having their own lunch. This consisted of a large plastic tub filled with runny maize gruel. The children swarmed around the tub brandishing assorted scoops – cups, bowls, old plastic butter containers – and as the opportunity arose they dashed in to the tub and scooped out a bit of gruel. Then smiling, laughing, and waving at us, incongruous in their happiness, they escorted us off of school grounds.

Later that day I mused to Sheila, our lab manager as well as one of our lithic analysts, about what impact my visit could possibly have had on those children or on the community as a whole. As the school visit had occurred the day after our public archaeology event (in 2012 you may remember this event as “Archaeology Day”), this was very much on my mind. I wondered how the elaborate cultural activities and archaeological demonstrations we had implemented on the public day would affect people, and how many of them would actually have taken away something lasting. In contrast, I know that at least 100 children at Lulindo School had gotten something out of my visit…if only a random memory of an archaeologist who was also a teacher and who once gave them a bright pencil from her own students. And maybe as a result someday they will ask again what it is exactly that an archaeologist does anyway. And then…maybe…well, who knows?

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