Amazing Umbwi

07 May 2019 – This is an imported page from an old blog I kept during my travels to Malawi. Next month (June 2019) as part of this year’s Norwich-Dedza Partnership exchange, teachers from Malawi will be visiting the UK. So in celebration and preparation for that, I will be re-blogging the thoughts I made during my visit in 2013.

You can find an index of all the 2013 Malawi blog entries here. Zikomo!

“Amazing Umbwi”

27th May 2013; Dedza, Malawi


“Overwhelmed”. When have you truly been overwhelmed? I imagine that first you would have to define what the word actually means, to you anyway. And with that definition, perhaps comes the power, energy and the stock that accompanies it. Now can you think of a time when you have been overwhelmed in a positive way. Did it move you to tears? Did you get a lump in your throat? Most noticeably, did it make you feel like you were only one grain in a nourishing field of rice? If it did, you were truly overwhelmed.


We can list the number of overwhelming things we have experienced today. And I sit here (well, to be honest, both Tracy and I… as it needs two of us!) trying to think of all the jaw-dropping moments. It started very early, as we gingerly made our way by foot from Panjira Lodge along the dusty main road in Dedza towards Umbwi Secondary School in the morning. The street is lined with the odd development (such as Dedza Hospital), but mostly bespoke businesses. Some are housed in single-roomed concrete buildings, some as a wooden stall, and others just a sheet on the ground with the produce laid out in the sun. What does strike you is the buzz of active inactivity. There are plenty of people bustling around but there is not much business actually taking place. Depsite the mass of people walking around on foot (the odd on a refurbished bicycle), I did not see many transactions actually taking place. But we did see a woman with a baby wrapped in a sheet on her back, carrying a live chicken by its wings over its beak. We did see a man in the ‘market place’ repairing shoes by stripping rubber off old tyres. It seems there is the potential for vibrant economic activity, but with people so poor here and I imagine margins to make a profit so tight, that it just cannot get off the ground. I wonder if this is a very typical scene across Malawi.

Most of the day was spent at Umbwi Secondary School. It is the school that the school Joc and I work at (Framingham Earl High School) are partnered with. While I will leave the pictures and their captions to tell more of our experience, I will tell some tales of being ‘overwhelmed’:

Amy’s new duku

Eager to don some of the beautiful clothing that comes naturally with traditional African attire, Amy, having already purchased a chetenje looked into a head-dress. A duku, the cloth worn by women around their heads also come in colourful varieties, takes some skill to actually tie around the head in the correct way. Amy (and her friend and colleague Tracy from Horsford Infant School) had engaged with a group of Umbwi students, and amongst them was a girl called Jane. Seeing that Amy wanted to learn how to wear a duku, Jane stepped up and seemed to take much happiness in showing Amy how to position, tie and wear the duku. After a few practise goes, Amy had her very own neatly worn duku on her blonde bonnet. Although many of those from poorer nations may believe they can learn a lot from the West, perhaps Jane felt the thrill and delight in discovering that she, a schoolgirl from Malawi, can teach a Westerner a thing or too.

Inspirational elders

In Umbwi’s hall, our delegation sat at the front facing what appeared to be the entire school (the students we squeezed in for sure, most sat on plastic garden chairs (some broken) while others clambered up the back wall). The welcome and speech from the Headteacher, ended with an invitation for Joc to introduces us all. With poise and assurance she had the hall captivated, from which she offered each of us to introduce ourselves. We each took our turn, but stepping up together were retired teachers, and husband and wife, Nigel and Anthea. There was a sigh of affection from the students as they positioned themselves in front of the sea of students. When as part of their hello they mentioned they first came to Malawi in 1974 there was a hushed but audible ‘wow’ rippling from the crowd. For a country sees a woman’s life expectancy in the forties, these two seasoned travellers standing shoulder to shoulder together due a huge amount of admiration.

Tracy, Tracy and the insy-winsy spider

When it was Tracy’s turn to introduce herself, there was a little giggle in a section of the crowd upon the mention of her name. Later outside, the reason behind this become clear. Encouraged along by her friends, a schoolgirl was bought up to Tracy and insisted on an introduction. Her name was also Tracy. Something which appears insignificant in our option, such as sharing a name, was the catalyst for a fleeting but precious bonding experience for Umbwi Tracy. No doubt for our Tracy too. Later, English Tracy almost had a not-so-similar fleeting and bonding experience with a spider, which had stretched its web across two shoots of maize. The venom sack must of been at least the size of a tarantula!


It was obvious that Kevin (a primary school teacher from Nightingale First School) was a very popular member of our group. This engaging gentleman took no time at all to start conversations with staff and students. Talking with a young lad about his favourite subject, Biology, Kevin asked him what topic he liked most in Biology: “Reproduction!” was the answer, as quick and firm as a bolt. A very hearty chuckle ensued. It makes you think about taboos…

Convict, unintentional

After a long and eventful day a Dedza, which overran into dusk, (5pm) Dawn and Jill, from Earlham Early Years Nursery and Aldborough Primary School respectively started to head back to Panjira Lodge, but the rest of the group were not in sight. They trooped on in the direction that made the logical sense, until it appeared that they were lost. But wait, there was a gated compound and a guard, and in the twilight it seemed that they found their way back after all. The guard however seemed a bit perturbed and started questioning them. Dawn and Jill had wondered into Dedza’s prison. Instead of asking them to put on convict white and giving them a bed for the night, a guard helpfully escorted them all the way back to the lodge safe and sound.

Celebrity status

For me, I was overwhelmed many times over today. Whether it was standing up for my introduction being applauded and cheered for saying I was a Geography teacher wanting to learn and teach about the world; or having a deep chat with a woman called Loyce as we walked back in the dark from Umbwi (her outlook on life is so inspirational – work hard and keep trying and you will find success and happiness); or seeing passion while playing on the staff team as we took on talented students in a game of football (it ended 1-1, to a crowd of hundreds of children!) Each of these moments took place in a single day, but they will all live with me forever. But one moment led me to hold back tears. During a set of performances in the hall, one was a poem written and read out with confidence by a student called Beatrice. Later on in the day I bumped into Beatrice and thanked and praised her for her poem. After only a few seconds, I was struck by how clear her English was and how knowledgeable she was of prose in general. I saw in her what I see often back at Framingham Earl: a bright, intelligent and confident student who has amazing potential. The kind of student who you wouldn’t be surprised to see as President or leading figure in an influential organisation, or someone who is very very good at a well respected (and well paid) job. I told her this, and conveyed my hope that students like her get the chance to travel the world and experience amazing things that can be shared with others. After wishing her luck, I turned away to walk back to the rest of the group and found myself catching my throat. My knowledge of the world and experiences in a single day suddenly winded me: Will she ever get that chance? How I strongly and dearly wish that Beatrice and other many talented and ambitious students like her here in Malawi (and in other developing nations) get that opportunity. The whole world would be better for it…

A meeting of the azungi side of the partnership!
Resources for Umbwi
Staple diet
Dedza “High Street”
Dedza commerce
Dedza market
Meeting of the staff at Umbwi Secondary School
Whole school assembly for the Azungu!
The “Big Dance”
Attracting a crowd
Football – the global language
The staff team (vs the students)
Happy faces



2 thoughts on “Amazing Umbwi

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