Travel tales II

17th January 2018

News, Student news, Alumni news

From teaching in rural Sichuan to charity work in Malawi and theatre in Edinburgh, Wadham students have been putting their alumni funded travel grants to good use.

Donated football strips brought joy to villagers in Malawi thanks to charity work by Greg Ritchie (History and Politics, 2016).

“Over the summer of 2017, I travelled to Malawi. It was the second time I had been there, but this time I wanted a more immersive experience so was staying for two and a half months. Having already formed links with the country and with the help of knowledgeable people at home with contacts there, I was able to travel independently of any organisation, thus was unrestricted by safety policies, allowing me to get the maximum from the trip. 

“For the first half of my summer, I was based in the Mulanje region. Here, I taught various classes to primary school students in a Standard Six class. This was an incredibly difficult challenge, with class sizes going into three figures, as I struggled to use my very limited Chichewa to get points across."

  • Namatuni FC sporting their Celtic kits, and orphans from Rose's House in their Manchester United gear

"What’s more, at the end of each primary year there are exams which determine whether a learner may proceed to the next level. This meant the age range in the class varied from as young as ten to as old as me.

"Nonetheless, the experience taught me much, and allowed me to gain great insights into the flaws of the Malawian education system. These ranged from issues with the teaching content to the institutional structures. For instance, while primary schools are nominally free, secondary education isn’t, meaning many intelligent learners, especially girls, could not develop their learning sufficiently. Visiting various schools also opened my eyes to the wide disparities in finances and management, with many receiving (relatively) good support while others faced unteachable class sizes and crumbling buildings.

“I lived with a fellow Scot, Lewis Carter, who had been in the region for some time before me and is still out there as I write this. One of the projects he was involved in was the Umodzi Support Group – a micro-loan group for women in the area. While being a very successful venture, I learnt much from the initial difficulties he faced, and improvements that could be made in future projects.

“After my learners had finished their exams, I moved around the country. I visited and volunteered with Open Arms Malawi – winner of the Wadham SU’s Charity election – for a little while, and gained much insight into this successful Malawi based charity. I went to Mangochi, one of the most beautiful regions of the country next to the world-famous Lake Malawi. Here, I was struck firstly by the friendliness of the locals, but also by the huge difficulties they faced. Developmental groups tend to group around specific areas – usually in big cities, touristy areas, or around regions which have a history of developmental groups working there. Once one steps a little off the trodden path, problems often become far worse with no international or domestic aid to hand. Speaking to various village chiefs reinforced the importance of these local authorities, in places where governmental infrastructure was limited and often mistrusted. All effective development work must take heed of these local power structures and customs. It is a far better mechanism, both in principle and practice, to empower local communities and have faith in their decision-making – a lesson many developmental initiatives could benefit from.  

“Special mention must go to Wadham’s very own porter, Dr Alan Slater. Alan and I had struck a friendship once we discovered we grew up in the same town, and even went to the same school. Both of us thought it would be a smashing idea to get professional football clubs to donate kits, which I would then take over and give out to deserving teams. Alan drove the initiative, emailing a wide array of teams. Celtic FC Foundation and Manchester United Foundation were particularly generous, giving kit that would have had a retail value of nearly £1000. In the end, it was a struggle for me to fit all of them in my luggage, and even harder to drag them across the country on Malawi’s very cramped minibuses! We identified a team from a remote village, a half hour motorbike journey away from my Mulanje base. I was told that I was the first ever white person to visit the area. After exchanging formal greetings in Chichewa, I unveiled the brand new kits. I have never seen grown men so thrilled. Locals often make a lovely ‘eeee’ sound when they are excited, and I heard a chorus of them that day. We also gave Manchester United kits to the children of Rose’s House, a home for orphaned boys in Blantyre. I’d like to thank Alan again for his amazing help. It’s incredible how a little initiative can induce such happiness.

“There were other projects I took part in, countless Malawians I met and unforgettable experiences I learnt from which I do not have the space to delve into here. Established perceptions of developmental problems I had been fed in the classroom and through the media were torn down. All of this was not only greatly beneficial in giving me international development experience, but also the most memorable journey of my life. I hope to continue improving my Chichewa until I reach fluency, and am already setting up the groundwork for upcoming projects in preparation of my return to ‘the warm heart of Africa’.” 

  • Andreas Iskra with his students in Gulin, Sichuan

Teaching in rural Sichuan, Andreas Iskra (DPhil Physical and Theoretical Chemistry, 2013) was the only westerner in town.

“I had the good fortune to spend a month teaching English in rural Sichuan, China, as part of Tsinghua University Summer Service and Learning Program. I volunteered within a group of students that consisted of Tsinghua University students and three international students. We were assigned to the Gulin Experimental School in Gulin, Sichuan province. We spent the first few days in Beijing which even allowed me to do some sightseeing and pay a visit to the Great Wall.

“The travel from Beijing to Sichuan was quite a challenge – we boarded a sleeper train which took more than 22 hours to Chongqing. However, the train passed through truly scenic countryside and the view from the window was never boring.

"To reach our final destination, an additional five-hour bus from Chongqing to Gulin was required. Although the school was meant to be in rural China it was not very rural at all – Gulin has a population the side of Oxford.  However, Gulin is not a place that many tourists visit – often I felt quite bizarre to be the only westerner in town; but the teachers at the local school were always very open and welcoming.

"The Gulin Experimental School lies in a picturesque valley surrounded by mountains. "Every day the birds chirping awakened me to a wonderful panorama of mountains blessed with the morning sun. The pupils at the Gulin Experimental School are some of the most enthusiastic and friendly students I have had the pleasure to meet. Even though they are not graced with material abundance and are often left alone in school dormitories because their parents left for a metropolis to find work, they remain positive and optimistic about life. I hope I managed to bring some of their optimism back home with me as well.

“Besides classes covering English grammar and pronunciation, I also talked to pupils about various other topics including London 2012 Olympic Games, Great British heroes such as Florence Nightingale, and about British cultural icons such as the Beatles or Harry Potter. The pupils were always happy to hear about my life as a university student and I hope I managed to inspire them to value the importance of education.

“Apart from teaching academic subjects, we also organised games of basketball, badminton, and football and for some of them, it was their first time playing football as it was my first time as a football coach. We also played an exhibition basketball match with the local teachers since basketball is probably the most popular sport in China. The local teachers are all keen basketball enthusiasts and sport really acts as a social catalyst bringing people closer together. Furthermore, with my fellow volunteers, we also held several music classes, and were able to enthuse the pupils to sing some popular English songs.

“Teaching in China allowed me to truly appreciate Chinese culture and to make friendships that will last a lifetime. I even managed to learn some basic Chinese, albeit at a very slow pace.“I would like to thank the students and faculty members of Tsinghua University who made this project so special and I am grateful to Wadham College and its benefactors for their generous financial support.”

  • Verity Babbs with the Oxford Imps and Oxford Revue in Edinburgh. Photos Amy Hong

Verity Babbs (History of Art, 2016) returns from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival a stronger and more confident performer and producer.

“With the money I was granted by the Wadham Society, I was able to pay my rent and travel for a month’s run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe with the Oxford Imps and Oxford Revue. Each year, the population of Edinburgh doubles from 500,000 to a million during the Fringe – to misquote Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and then in turn to misquote Henson’s The Muppet Christmas Carol - it is harvest time for landlords.

“I had joined the Oxford Imps in Michaelmas 2016, and in August 2017, what was to be the Imps’ 13th run at the Fringe, I moved into our flat in central Edinburgh. The apartment was minutes’ walk away from the main Fringe venues (hosting a record number of shows: 3398) and the famous Royal Mile. However, because spending your time in a house of 20 improvised comedians was statistically more likely to be a consistently amusing time than risking seeing any of the hundreds of comedy shows on at the fringe, the majority of the time spent not performing or flyering, for many imps, was spent in the flat.

“I produced this year’s run at the Fringe and so the booking of both the performance venue and our living accommodation had been my responsibility. Almost everything was organised on time, except the 5,000 flyers for a theatre sports show against our rival troupe The Cambridge Impronauts, which arrived the day after the actual performance, but this was only partially my fault. Having been able to pay for a full month’s rent I was able to oversee and/or fulfil all responsibilities in my role throughout the festival.

“The Imps performed in the Gilded Balloon Teviot (a building which usually acts as the University of Edinburgh’s Students Union) and sold out 12 performances of the run with consistently high numbers for the remaining 26 performances. Through the run our audiences saw, among many things, a fairy-tale about limpet harvesting, a musical about the forbidden love of two star-crossed zoo-keepers and a gritty story about the underhand dealings of the Blu-Tac industry. In an exciting turn of events a reviewer from BroadwayBaby.com called me “competent”.

“For the earlier half of the Fringe, following a show with the Imps I would cross town to perform in the Oxford Revue’s mixed bill stand-up and sketch show The Oxford Revue: Free. We performed for an hour at Moriarty’s Bar, with 10 minute slots going to each act apart from the compere comedian for the day and the “headliner”. These roles were exchanged between performers each day. I would alternate between performing as a solo stand-up comedian and acting as half of sketch duo “Bell and Babbs”. The acts for this show were all relative newcomers to the Oxford Revue but the high quality of the performances were reflected in the generosity of the audiences in the money they put in our bucket at the end of the show. In the words of almost all comperes for Free Fringe shows: it was free to see the show, but certainly not free to leave.  

“As I was staying in Edinburgh for the entirety of the Fringe I was also able to take up an exciting opportunity to play a small (so small that “small” may well be an overstatement) role in Joseph Morpurgo’s critically acclaimed show Hammerhead at the Pleasance Courtyard each evening. As part of a multi-media punchline, I would make my clowning debut and juggle for around 6 seconds before disappearing behind a curtain.

“The money from the Wadham Society Travel Grant has undoubtedly helped me to cement my future career aspirations and given me the opportunity to gather contacts and skills within the comedy industry. I have returned from the Fringe a stronger and more confident performer and producer.”