I awoke Saturday morning feeling incredibly refreshed. I didn’t immediately bound out of bed, however. Instead, I stretched and yawned and enjoyed the comfort of the lower bunk as Dylan lay sleeping a few feet above me. Given the lack of movement in the cottage, I assumed that both Justeen and Jon were sound asleep in their respective beds. From my vantage point, I could see the canopy of leaves just outside my window. The sun was just beginning to rise over Lake Malawi, and its rays were filtering through the trees, filling the room with a soft morning light. I sunk a little deeper into my bed, enjoying the fact that I had no reason to move save for filling my belly with what Dylan had promised would be a most delicious breakfast and coffee.
He wasn’t wrong. Breakfast indeed was fantastic, but the coffee was outstanding. I drank a pot meant for two all by myself, and probably would have had more if not for the fact that we had plans to hike to a local secluded beach. Fortunately I knew I’d be back the next morning for more of the tasty bean.
After filling our bellies, filling our water bottles, packing appropriate beach attire, and ordering food to go (so that we had something to eat once we arrived at our destination), we started a hike to a secluded beach that Dylan had been to previously. The trek may have taken an hour or two – I honestly don’t recall as I was too busy taking in the scenery or laughing with the crew.
The hike took us by a local school and through a tiny village where kids both played and helped with chores. As we passed by, many of them came by to smile and wave, some asking What’s my name? Others asked for our empty water bottles so that they could return them for a few Malawian kwacha. After handing my bottle to one particular little girl, she then asked if she could have my glasses. I politely said no because I needed them to see, before noticing a rather mischevious smile on her face.
Before long we’d made our way to the beach. In front of us were a white sand beach and plenty of open water. To the left was a collection of small fishing boats. Several fishers worked nearby, tending to nets and other chores while also watching a collection of kids that seemed to range in age from 7 up to 12. Initially, the kids continued to play with each other, but soon our presence was noted. One by one they began approaching.
The first little boy who decided to sneak up did so as we sat enjoying lunch on the beach. He made a few faces at me, mimicking the things I’d do. If I raised an eyebrow, he did the same. If I looked surprised, he’d giggle a bit and repeat the expression. He then crept along the sand – innocently stopping in place, huge smile on his face, whenever I happened to look his way – until he was next to me. Finding a twig, he stuck it in the ground and built up a wall of supporting sand around it. I watched, not really sure what he was doing. When he knew he had my attention, he decided to sweep some of the supporting sand out of the way. He looked at me, somehow intuiting that 1) we were playing a make-shift Jenga game, 2) it was my turn, and 3) clearly I needed to sweep away some of the sand on my side without causing the twig to fall over. Slowly, turn by turn, we each swept away a little more sand until a winner was decided, and then we played again.
After the second game I lifted my head to notice that most of the other kids had gathered around. One boy sat next to me and smoothed out a patch of sand. On this he drew a square that was then bisected vertically, horizontally, and in both directions diagonally; the resulting intersections creating 9 playing spaces. He handed me three stones, and broke a small twig in three. Each taking turns, we dropped our pieces onto one of the playing spaces. Once the pieces were placed, we began to move them one at a time to playing spaces that were both open and connected to the space that was occupied by the piece we wanted to move. The goal was to create a solid line of pieces while simultaneously preventing my opponent from doing the same. More of the kids gathered round as I battled it out with one after the other. Somehow I managed to hold my own, but I think that’s because many of the kids would offer advice whenever it was my turn.
At some point after playing what seemed like 1000 rounds of their game, I learned that the favourite class of some of the boys was mathematics. Obviously the giant nerd in me couldn’t let this go. I began by asking them some simple multiplication questions – 3 x 5, and 2 x 4 – which they easily and very promptly answered. When I pressed with more challenging questions – 9 x 8, or 9 x 11 – they began to slow their responses and struggle with accuracy. To help them out, I decided to show them some tricks. This included a simple way to remember the 9 times table (whereby the digits of 9 times any integer add up to nine or a multiple of 9 – e.g. 7 x 9 = 63, and 6+3 = 9, 14 x 9 = 126, and 1 + 2 + 6 = 9), which seemed to blow their collective minds. I also demonstrated a way to multiply two digit numbers together using sticks – which posed a bit of a challenge because I had to draw the sticks in the sand, and the sand was not the best surface to work with. Regardless, they seemed super excited about these tricks. Who am I kidding, I was geeking out as well.
Feeling rather content and just a little sun-kissed, we made our way back to our cottage. Along the way I couldn’t help but giggle a little at what I’d just experienced. Who’d have thought that I’d have such a captive audience on a beach in Malawi while teaching math? Who’d have thought I’d be teaching math in Malawi at all? Beyond the beauty of Mayoka Village, beyond the incredible views of Lake Malawi, and beyond the breathtaking sunsets, this place was my own little paradise because it let me get my math on. What more could I ask for?