Steak Out

Hippo

It took me a few days to notice that Mr Steak had disappeared from school.

“I have not seen our friend for a while,” I say to Mr Jerry in the elliptical vernacular that is common in this part of the world. He looks at me quizzically. “That one,” I say, motioning in the direction of Steak’s desk.

“Oh. He has gone to get a transcript,” Jerry says, “In Mzuzu.” Thyolo is in the South of Malawi. Mzuzu is in the North. Nothing unusual about the journey taking a few days.

But then he is gone the whole week.

He never calls to explain. The Head Teacher has to call him. Steak says the transcript took longer than expected. The Head Teacher asks him to report for duty on Monday. He agrees.

Monday comes. No Steak. Friday comes. Still no Steak.

He never calls to explain. The Head Teacher has to call him. Steak says he had to visit his family in Kusungu. His mother is sick. The Head Teacher tells him to report for duty on Monday. He agrees.

Monday comes. No Steak. Friday comes. Still no Steak.

He never calls to explain. The Head Teacher has to call him. He says he had to help his brother in Lilongwe. At this point, the students are beginning to complain. The Head Teacher demands he report for duty on Monday or face disciplinary action. He agrees.

Monday comes. No Steak. Friday comes. Steak reports for duty.

Big. Gap-toothed. Chibuku bellied. His pink shirt hovering in that twilight zone between tucked-in and untucked. The Head Teacher informs him his classes have been delegated to other teachers and the incident is being reported to the Ministry.

As Steak’s case slowly crawls through the bureaucratic maze of the Malawian Ministry of Education, I begin to understand why formal discipline is rarely ever meted out to teachers in this country.

Over the next three months, he is indefinitely suspended (with pay) and the school is shy one Math and Geography teacher. Ironically, I see more of him than ever as he needs to show up every day to report for duty. But because he is barred from teaching, he must turn around and go straight back home.
Report for duty. Go home. Report for duty. Go home. At one point he has to write a detailed account rebutting or apologizing for all the allegations of poor behavior that have been leveled against him. Coming late to school. Skipping school. Drunkenness. All of it.

It requires quite a bit of paper.

Eventually, the judgment comes down. Guilty. Guilty of dereliction of duty. Guilty of failing to contact the Head Teacher about his absence. Guilty of being drunk at work. Guilty of basically being a really crummy teacher in a crummy system with a crumbling infrastructure.

The punishment: transfer to another school.

“He disappears for a month and the most severe punishment is a transfer? Is a teacher ever fired for anything in Malawi?” I ask Jerry.

He contemplates the question for a while. “Only very rarely,” he says.

“What if a teacher was having sex with a 14 year old, Form 1 student?” I asked. This question he answers much more quickly.

“If he marries her, it would then be OK.”

________

Weeks later I am walking home and see Jerry talking with someone. It is Mr Steak. “How is our friend doing?” I ask the next day. “Where is he teaching?”

Jerry informs me that Steak is now teaching at a school a couple of hours away. At this school all the teachers arrive an hour before class begins in the morning. The time table is followed. The teachers teach their classes every day and make up classes if they happen to miss one. The students are of excellent caliber and achieve highly on the national MSCE exam. There are enough textbooks at the school for every student. There are 23 teachers, two streams of students and no more than 40 students in any class. “There will only be four or five students who are not selected to college or university,” he tells me. The school is several kilometers off the tarmac but the priests who run it have several private cars and they travel into Blantyre every weekend to pick up supplies. Usually, they will even take a trip or two to the nearest town during the week if anyone needs anything important. In short, it is a well run secondary school and one of the best in the entire region.

“So, does he like it?” I ask, my mouth hanging open slightly, like a man in a desert dreaming of the perfect oasis he will never live to see.

“He is hating it,” Jerry says.

I look around the staff room, empty save for Jerry and myself. It is 8:15. School began 45 minutes ago, but most of the teachers have yet to arrive. I look down at my copy of “Looking for a Rain God”, which I had to purchase myself after the school’s lone copy was stolen. I think of the students. Yesterday a kid proudly wrote the sentence, “i wear shart” on the board.

“Are you going to class, Mr Quick?” Jerry asks me.

I pull out my chair and sit down. “Maybe I’ll go in ten minutes,” I say.

Or maybe twenty.

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