Picture yourself trying to teach high-school science to 80 students in a classroom with no equipment besides a blackboard and some desks. Then imagine that these students don’t understand English very well. That’s the situation Eric Yff (’10) found himself in as a Peace Corps volunteer. Yff recently returned home after a two-year stint in Malawi, a small country in sub-Saharan Africa near Mozambique and Zambia.
Faced with designing experiments for his students in a school with no scientific materials, Yff had to improvise. “If I was doing a titration experiment,” he says, “we didn’t have graduated cylinders or burettes so I’d go to the nearest health clinic and borrow syringes there to measure liquid.” To get magnets or electrical components he would take apart old speakers and radios that he bought at local markets.
Creating the experiments was Yff’s favorite part of the job, and his students enjoyed the results. “They weren’t used to seeing a lot of experiments and they really enjoyed the experiments I did,” he says.
Yff taught math and physical science to students in forms 1-4 (analogous to grades 9-12) at the Msenjere Community Day Secondary School in Msenjere Village, near the shore of Lake Malawi. The school consisted of four classrooms. Each grade stayed in one classroom, while teachers moved from room to room. There was no electricity, no running water, and no break for lunch. There were also no administrators or support staff—teachers were responsible for speaking to parents, managing finances, overseeing maintenance, and anything else that came up during the school day.
At the beginning of the school year, the classrooms would be crowded with as many as 80 or 90 students. As the year progressed, classes shrank to 50 to 60 students in the younger grades and 30 to 40 in the upper grades. “During the rainy season, which is from late December up until April, the roads become really muddy and it’s difficult to travel either on foot or bicycle,” Yff says, “so the students are very late to school or don’t come at all.” Students also dropped out of school to help their parents farming or fishing, or due to pregnancies. The earlier grades had equal number of girls and boys, but by the upper grades, the ratio of boys to girls was about 3 to 1.
Yff completed two months of teacher training before being assigned to his school. “Once you get to the village, it’s a matter of building confidence and finding out what works for the students and what doesn’t,” he says.
At first, just communicating with the students was a challenge. The national exams are conducted in English, which is the official language of Malawi, so high school classes are conducted in English. But most Malawi people speak Chichewa. “It’s difficult to teach the younger students because they don’t understand much English,” Yff says. “They were supposed to have learned it in primary school, but a lot of times they weren’t adequately prepared. To get through to them, you have to talk very slowly, use simple English, enunciate very carefully, and write on the board. The upper grades understand English quite a bit better although you still have to speak more slowly and enunciate things somewhat differently because people are accustomed to English accents.” He adds, “I would occasionally mix in the local language but that was mainly to entertain the students.”
Yff applied to the Peace Corps when he was a senior, and he left for Malawi a month and a half after graduation. “They especially like people from math and science backgrounds to teach because there’s a big shortage of teachers of math and science in some of these developing countries,” he says. At Duke, Yff double-majored in physics and philosophy. He spent one summer abroad, on the Duke in Oxford program, which was his only experience outside of the United States before going to Malawi.
Now Yff is at home in Louisville, Kentucky, applying for jobs and considering going back to school. Although he’s enjoying seeing family and friends, driving his own car, and eating American food, he misses his friends in Malawi. “I was really close to the headmaster at my school and I had a lot of friendships with the other teachers and students so it was sad to leave that,” he says.
Mary-Russell Roberson is a freelance science writer who lives in Durham.