Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Submission and a holiday in Lusaka

For weeks before I submitted my PhD thesis, I had a post-it note on my office wall "submission=Lusaka" it was part of my motivation to push on with the final part of my thesis and submit. I submitted on October 31st. It was, for want of a better word, an anti-climax. My thesis was printed and bound, then I took the copies to the college office to submit. I was given a lollipop in return, no fireworks, no dancing.  I don't think it has really sunk in if i'm honest, I keep waiting for someone to tell me to go back to the office and finish it. There was however,  Prosecco, chocolate and a 'submission rosette' from some of my work colleagues and a mini-celebration in the pub on Friday after work.

So where am I? Safely in Lusaka after a couple of rather bumpy flights on Thursday/friday. I made it...so far I've read half of one of the books I brought with me, slept (a lot) and tried to get used to the heat. I'm looking forward to a couple of weeks of relaxation, rest and hopefully recuperation - it certainly feels like I'm back in Africa and in fact the water has been on and off just in case I needed a reminder.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Finishing a PhD...nearly there!

Sorry I have been really quiet the last wee while, I've been working on my thesis- it's due for submission at the end of October! Yes, this October! and Yes, I know how close that is!

My desk is semi-strewn with the revisions to the full draft - thankfully my supervisor didn't say I had to re-write the whole thing :) - so in the grand scheme, the revisions are just another stage in what is the long journey of researching and writing a PhD thesis. It is progress not perfection! 

For the last few months now there has been a large post-it on my office wall that says "Submission = Lusaka". As the date for submission gets closer (3 weeks away) I've booked my flights to Zambia, taken the post-it off the wall and replaced it with a list of other stuff I now have to do in preparation for the trip. I've had my typhoid booster, thankfully just one injection this time as I've had everything else!!  This will be my first visit to Lusaka but not my first time in that region of Africa (having spent many months in Malawi) I wonder how much Chichewa I will remember- and if it will be useful! 

There have been a few changes in the last couple of weeks; I've started a new job with the Institute for Academic Development, promoted and now with a permanent contract - I'm continuing to work with the operations team. The IAD turns into a crazy place this time of year - the calm(ish) summer months have been left behind for the buzz of the new academic year.  I've also become the section co-ordinator for Baden-Powell at Guides and now I'm helping to organise the Division Thinking Day activities! I really must get better at saying 'no'.

I'll also be starting the PgCert in Academic Practise in December - I'll go from full-time student in Social Sciences to part-time student at Moray House School of Education. So much for putting down the books after submission!  I'm an educationalist at heart and the option to do the PgCert straight after a PhD may sound crazy, probably is crazy but I would just get bored if all I had to do was go to work...

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Education - returning to the merit system

Today the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology announced (albeit through its facebook page) that admission to public Secondary schools will return to the merit system. The following quote comes from the Official Malawi Government Online facebook page.
"The Ministry of Education, Science and Technology would like to inform all members of the general public that with effect from the 2014/15 academic year which starts in September 2014, admission of students in public secondary schools based on applications has been abolished. The Ministry has reverted to the merit system of selecting students into public secondary schools to improve the efficiency of the system and more importantly to ensure high quality of education and fairness to candidates. Following this policy shift, the Ministry would like to urge all candidates who may not make it to public secondary schools through selection by merit to still pursue their education through the Open and Distance Learning mode available in most of our public secondary schools. In the same vein, the Ministry wishes to warn all headteachers and teachers of public secondary schools to desist from illegally admitting students in public secondary schools including their own wards as that action will attract appropriate disciplinary action".
What does this say about education in Malawi? Whilst the return to the merit system may lead to a slight improvement in the quality of secondary school education, the consequences of the merit system means many children will not progress beyond primary school. Further, this policy shift doesn't really address the inadequacies of the primary and secondary education sector in Malawi, rather it alleviates the symptoms without addressing the cause.

The merit system, will favour the brightest students; those who were able to thrive at primary school and will ultimately leave those in need of more support without the opportunity to continue with their education. The proposal to access secondary education via the Open and Distance Learning mode will create a further divide between secondary age students. The system is based on the Primary School Leaving Certificate examinations and the pass rate is ultimately set by the Government.

There are several disadvantages of the  merit system - it relies on exam results. Not everyone is good at (or does well in) exams.They are essentially a test of memory and not of understanding. My point? quite simply exams should not be the only markers of educational attainment, especially not at primary school and the merit system doesn't allow for this. Surely the Government of Malawi has to realise that the only way to improve the education system is to address the inadequacies at primary and secondary schools. Whilst primary schools remain under-resourced, under-staffed and classrooms are overcrowded then it will be impossible for the education attainment levels in Malawi to improve.

The future of Malawi will one day be in the hands of today's children - only by equipping them with skills and knowledge through education will Malawi prosper.


Monday, 14 July 2014

Getting to the end of the PhD...

Sorry I've been rather quiet on the blogging front the last couple of months. After the activities of the Malawian election, I've been fully focused on revising my PhD Thesis - it's due for submission soon!

I've become rather revision engrossed recently, which is a good thing as I'm pushing my way on with it - there is almost an end in sight! It's hard to believe it's almost 4 years since I started my PhD and it's 5 years since I did my MSc - time goes really quickly! So much has changed since I did my undergraduate at GCU!

The process of researching and writing a thesis, is long, complex and often isolating; you eventually become the expert on your thesis subject.  Everyone works differently and at different paces; making comparing your progress against that of your colleagues complex and confusing. I currently share an office with a group of PhD students all at similar stages, writing-up and in the final few months of their PhD. 

Image courtesy of @cybeastie
I think @cybeastie, has a really good approach to her PhD writing-up; her mantra of "progress not perfection" sums up the process of writing-up quite well. After all the thesis will never be perfect. The process of making progress is a personal journey; I like having a plan, including deadlines to work to. I found it was easier to make progress and worry less about perfection once I had some reassurance from my supervisors, that what I was writing was the makings of a PhD. 

I've been trying to make the most of the nice weather that Edinburgh has had over the last few days - working from home and reinventing an open window and windowsill deep enough to use as a work space!  The photo does show me making the best of the weekends sunshine and dangling my feet out the window.  I'm glad I did as now it's raining again!

So whilst I continue to make progress with my thesis revisions, I would like if the sun could replace this rain. 

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Waiting for Official Results...

...to be announced

Still waiting on the announcement of the official results of the Presidential Election in Malawi, there is increasing speculation of how each of the 4 front runners have done. Yesterday's elections were subject to logistical problems, delayed voting and in some areas there were pockets of election related violence.

As the Malawi Nation (newspaper) continues to publish the unofficial results of the presidential election, it would appear that the DPP and Peter Mutharika could be the front runner. Unofficial results and exit polls can be problematic though - in the most part these appear to be taken from urban polling stations, most of Malawi is considered to be rural.

Whilst the press continues to speculate about the future Presidency of Malawi, I wonder what these figures really suggest. It's probably reasonably safe to suggest that the allegations of rigging by the PP haven't come to anything - surely if the allegations were true  the PP would be showing leads even in the unofficial results.

The news is dubbing the elections as "chaotic" and highlighting the instances of violence in some areas across Malawi. Whilst logistical problems have caused some problems, including the issue of a lack of voting materials to some polling stations, the majority seem to have been problem free. The scenes of violence from Blantyre were in Ndirande, an area with a reputation for trouble, as one commentator @Thembinkosi said on twitter
 "the scenes from Ndirande are not dissimilar from the scenes when a big soccer match is on!"
So whilst we wait on the official results, it's good to see that voting in areas such as Ndirande and others which suffered delays and disruption yesterday are continuing today without problems. The Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) have undoubtedly had challenges to overcome and problems to fix along the way.

According to the MEIC twitter feed the MEC will start to release 
"progressive preliminary results at 30% and 70% before the final announcement" @MEIC_2014
As we are asked to be patient and wait for the official results - I leave you with the words of Franklin D. Roosevelt  
"Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education"

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

It's election day in Malawi...

As Malawi goes to the polls today...

I hope that the election process is peaceful and democratic. 

There have been a few reports of demonstrations this morning, although in the most part I've heard that as Malawians go to the polls that the day is generally peaceful and calm. As the candidates for the presidency cast their votes, there remains four front runners for the position - Joyce Banda (PP), Lazarus Chakwera (MCP), Atupele Muluzi (UDF) and Peter Mutharika (DPP). With each of the four front runners having strongholds across Malawi, it won't be surprising if the wards are dominated by one party or another.

As I followed the news over the last week or so, I've read reports of alleged rigging, of the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) being unprepared and of supposed pre-marked ballot papers being destroyed.  I wonder if these are stories of scaremongering, if they are tactics employed by the opposition parties to discredit the PP and if there is any truth in the allegations? 

The elections present a variety of challenges for the MEC - no election is without it's challenges. I was at the Royal Highland Centre at Ingliston, for the count of the votes of the 2011 Scottish Parliament general election.  I remember the anticipation during the count and as the first seats were announced. Watching the Malawi election feels a little bit like that. The anticipation for the election process to be over and the result to be announced.

But what about after the results...

With all the allegations of  PP rigging the election, I wonder what will happen after the elections. If Banda wins, will the election be deemed as rigged by the PP?  Will there be doubts of a free and fair election? From the outsiders perspective, I feel there is increasing suspicion of corruption surrounding the politicians, the cashgate scandal didn't help as neither did the actions of Bingu's Government before he died.

With each of the presidential candidates signing the The PAC (Public Affairs Committee) Peace Declaration Take a Stand against Violence in Malawi During and After Elections, does this suggest that violence around the elections was expected?  As I hear some reports of violence, the areas don't really surprise me - Ndirande in Blantyre, has a reputation for being in the "thick-of-it" whenever there is any sign of trouble.

I just hope that the result of the election is respected and is upheld, regardless of who wins. I hope that Malawians have been able to make the choice which is best for Malawi. As it doesn't matter who is President as long as they have the best intentions for Malawi's future. 

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Academia, PhD's and Mental Health...

This is Mental Health Awareness Week and 2014 is all about raising awareness of anxiety.

Over the last few months there have been a few articles published on mental health issues in academia amongst PhD students and researchers alike. I'm no expert on mental health, however I do feel  there needs to be more attention paid to mental health issues amongst students and across academia.

You only have to Google mental health and academia, to find a plethora of blog posts/ news articles and publications on the issue.  I think Jessica's blog post is particularly interesting on the issue of what you should and shouldn't say to someone with mental health issues.The notation of what not to say, is one thing - but identifying the issue is another. The NHS identifies Mental illness as;
a diagnosable condition that significantly interferes with an individual's cognitive, emotional or social abilities such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia. (http://www.nhsinform.co.uk/mentalhealth) 
Are you Anxiety Aware Mental Health Awareness Week 2014 12-18 MayMental illness can affect people in various ways and last different lengths of time, sometimes re-occurring. Depression and anxiety are amongst the most commonly discussed mental illnesses. During this Mental Health Awareness week,. the Mental Health foundation asks the question "are you anxiety aware?"   

There are various organisations which provide support and advice on mental health. The University of Edinburgh has a Student Counselling Service, as well as the Mental Health Mentor Service for students with long term mental ill-health.  

More information about Anxiety is available  at on the Mental Health Foundation website.

Watching Malawi's Elections from Afar

This blog post also appears on http://centreofafricanstudies.wordpress.com/ 

In the run-up to the elections on 20th May, I am watching with anticipation. There are twelve candidates running in the presidential elections with four front runners; Joyce Banda (Peoples Party), Lazarus Chakwera (Malawi Congress Party), Atupele Muluzi (United Democratic Front), Peter Mutharika (Democratic Progressive Party).

Joyce Banda is the current President, she assumed power after Bingu Wa Mutharika died whilst in office. Her move into the role of President was contentious as the time and since assuming the role, she has devalued the kwacha by nearly 50% and has re-secured support from donor countries and the IMF which had been withdrawn under the previous regime. Forex is no longer so difficult to get, tobacco prices have risen and there are no longer severe fuel shortages like there were in 2011. However, Banda was never actually elected, as Vice President it was the constitution that ensured she became President when her predecessor died.

Watching the election campaign from a distance, the colours of the PP (orange) and DPP (blue), dominate the news headlines and it feels a little like this is a Banda v's Mutharika race. Peter Mutharika is the brother of former president Bingu Wa Mutharika and is now the DPP candidate for the 2014 elections. He was allegedly involved in the plans to bypass the constitution after his brother’s death, to prevent the succession of Joyce Banda to the presidency. The DPP dominate in the southern region of Malawi, however they have the memory of Bingu's final years in government overshadowing their campaign.

The Afro-barometer report on the upcoming Malawi elections surveyed adults of voting age and "based on the stated voting intentions of adult Malawians some six to eight weeks before the May 20, 2014 elections, their report stated the outcome of the elections is too close to call"(1). The below pie chart, taken from the Afro-barometer survey, illustrates how those asked would vote.

Whilst it is maybe too close to call, all the candidates for the Presidential elections have signed a Peace Declaration(2). The PAC (Public Affairs Committee) Peace Declaration titled: Take a Stand against Violence in Malawi During and After Elections; hopes to engage the election candidates in ensuring a peaceful and democratic election and a process afterwards which is for the good of Malawi.

As I watch the political campaigns develop in the lead-up to the May 20 elections, I hope that they are free of violence. Of the four front runners in the election, the People 's Party continue to have a stronghold in the north, the MCP in the central region and the DPP, followed by the UDF in the southern region, Whilst the Afro-barometer poll suggests that the DPP have a slight lead, I do wonder if (or how much) the legacy of the DPP's previous term in power and the memories of Bingu's Government will influence their current chances. Is electing the DPP a chance Malawi can afford to take?

Reading the news, Banda has made some controversial decision since her time as President, although she has managed to entice the international donors back to Malawi. Having made some unpopular decisions and viewed as not following through on all their promises, the PP has encountered some problems during their time in Government. The question is have they done enough to win an election?

As Election Day approaches, it looks like this 12 horse race has 4 (or maybe 2) front runners- now we have to wait and see who crosses the line first.


Monday, 21 April 2014

Dreams can come true...

I got a message a couple of weeks ago from a friend in Malawi with the words "I have good news for you". Oli was a waiter, one of the many I had got to know during my time staying in Blantyre, Malawi. Like many of the staff where I stayed, Oli had become one of the people I would ask the most random questions of, what words in Chichewa meant, where places were. Oli's good news is he's attending Teacher Training College, training to be a primary school teacher. 

I've often came across young people working in jobs below their capabilities, they lack the opportunities that education provides many of us but more than anything they lack confidence in their own abilities. With many children in Malawi struggling to finish primary and secondary school; further and higher education is massively under-accessed. Education for many is the key element of breaking the cycle of poverty, without it job opportunities are limited. I was really pleased to hear that Oli is training to become a teacher, the investment in furthering his own education will benefit him and his family, but as a teacher he will help many children to progress through primary school; benefiting them, their families and the wider community.  

This post is entitled Dreams can come true... and education really is the yellow brick road to lots of dreams. When children say they want to be doctors, nurses, teacher, lawyers, police officers and even presidents; education is the key to their dreams. So whether they are from rural Malawi and attend a school with no electricity or from central Scotland with access to all the latest gadgets- they all have one thing in common; the need for an education.

We sometimes take education and our right to primary and secondary education for granted in Scotland. I'm currently working on a chapter of my PhD thesis. There was never a question over whether I would progress through primary and secondary school and I went on to university. I've had twenty-two years of education, I try not to take it for granted, to appreciate the opportunities I've had. 

I hope one day I am able to "pay it forward"...

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Today I've been writing about...

It's not very often that someone asks me about what I have am writing about in great detail. It's probably a good thing..if I'm honest because the answer could be weird, even weirder than this one!

However, if you were ask me today what I was writing about, not in general ..what is your thesis on.. but in detail, then the answer would be "I'm writing about toilets and chickens". Not exactly the answer you would expect - I know. You're now thinking "how does toilets and chickens fit into global school-partnerships" . Well surprisingly rather well. I should point out that the sub topics of toilets and chickens are not actually related to each other, nor thankfully were the chickens in the toilets -or they weren't to my knowledge.

After a while of writing, I sometimes get flashbacks from fieldwork - like been given a tour of various toilet blocks - apparently schools in Malawi are very proud of their toilets, especially when they have been the result of having a link to a school in Scotland.  My flashback to the chickens; was the opening a classroom door, finding the classroom has been turned into a temporary chicken coop and the door being quickly shut. Chicken coop experience over!

So today blog followers, interested readers, work colleagues, fellow PhD students (and possibly my supervisors), today I have been writing about toilets and chickens!

Monday, 13 January 2014

Why do a PhD? It's more than just a thesis...

It's Monday and once again I could quite happily throw my notes and everything else out of my office window, I just want to finish! I have felt a bit like this before as described in a previous blog.  Whilst it would be great if the thesiswhisper could magically appear in my office, it's unlikely that she will be around to help me keep up the motivation and help me get to the end of my writing!

It's a few hours like this when I start to question, Why am I doing a PhD? - what possessed me to apply for a PhD programme in the first place?? It was a love of my topic and partly wanting to find a proactive way to help others. I also wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.  I'm always busy, I work part-time whilst studying and volunteer as a leader with GirlGuiding. Having previously tutored alongside my research, about two years ago I changed job and went to work for the Institute for Academic Development. I love my job with the IAD and I enjoy being able to help other PhD students...if only I had known 3 years ago what I know now... Maybe I would be a more "Effective Researcher", capable of more successfully "Managing My Time, My Goals and Myself" who was better at "Mind Mapping" and "Speed Reading" and had adopted a better "Writing Process" to ensure I wasn't always asking "Is My Writing Academic Enough?" whilst worrying about giving "Effective Presentations".  

I think it's just as important to admit to having a bad day in the office as it is to admit to having a good/ successful day, after all you get out of your PhD what you put into it. Any PhD student who tells you they've never had a bad day are lying.  I quite like being able to do other things, I think if I had nothing else to focus on I would drive myself (and probably everyone else) a little crazy. I've always maintained that I didn't want to get to the end of my PhD, look back discover I had achieved nothing else in that three/four year period than producing a thesis which may just sit on the library shelf.  So being busy is great, having a job I enjoy is great - now all I need is to find some much needed motivation to get through this chapter! If anyone sees said motivation, please return it to me. :) 

Monday, 6 January 2014

Where did the holidays go??

Happy New Everyone!

It's January 2014 already and I'm once again back in CMB, in my PhD office! It looks pretty awful outside and I'm starting to think if I'm going to go out, it might be better to go home than get wet trying to get some lunch...the trouble is I'm not sure I really want to go outside in this at all. I wonder if anyone would notice if I camped under my desk?

The festive season, didn't feel particularly festive this year - maybe the lack of snow is to blame. I noticed this year that there were less Christmas lights on the outside of the houses, especially around where my mum stays, probably due to the continuous windy weather and the increasing cost of electricity. I spent a few days in Gourock over Christmas, then returned to Edinburgh for New Year and to spend a precious few days with my lovely other half.

So as I sit at my desk, peering out the window at the not-so-tempting weather, I wonder where the holidays went.  Although it feels like I have been away from my desk (and from work) for a while, I don't really think I ever put the thesis away or stopped thinking about it for more than the time taken to enjoy my Christmas Dinner.

The return to the office this morning, was not particularly difficult. I chose to avoid the usual rush hour traffic, opting to get the bus about 9am into uni. Thinking I would arrive to a bustling campus, I was surprised to find it so quiet. With the exception of Esje and I, the office is deserted and it doesn't feel like the university is fully functioning yet. So whilst I wonder where the holidays went, what happened to the Christmas break, I'm going to try and make the best of the quietness of CMB!