My Adventures in Malawi

From May 2014, I will be living and working in Zomba (Southern Malawi).  I have been employed by the Board of Governors at Sir Harry Johnston International Primary School.  I will work as a class teacher for the summer term.  Then in September, I will take on the role of Headteacher.

I have set up a new blog where I will write about ‘My Adventures in Malawi.’ The web address is http://jelford3.wordpress.com. You can access it by clicking on the link.

If you would like to be informed when I write a new blog post, please click on the green ‘FOLLOW’’ box (which you will find on the home page of my new site) and add your email address.  You will then receive a confirmation email from WordPress. If you click on the link in the message, you will receive an email every time I add a new post.

I hope you enjoy reading about my new adventures!

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Farewell Abu Dhabi

I left Abu Dhabi three weeks ago – a few days earlier than planned! Unfortunately, my father was rushed into hospital, so I needed to return to England.  Thankfully, he is now out of hospital and recovering well.  Although, I would not have chosen to return home under these circumstances, the timing was quite good in some ways.  As I was due to leave Abu Dhabi at the end of the week, most of my belongings were already packed and I only ended up missing a few days of school.

I am pleased to have had the opportunity to live and work in the western region of Abu Dhabi.  As my town was located in the desert, it was a very different experience to the places I had lived in or visited before!  It was interesting working in a school system embarking on a large scale reform project and learning about a very different culture and religion.  I enjoyed exploring different parts of the country and I was fortunate to make lots of new friends.  It was a shame that I did not get a chance to say a proper goodbye to everyone, but thanks to the internet I know I will be able to keep in touch with the friends that I made.

I now have two weeks left before I head to Malawi, so I have some more time to catch up with family and friends back home.

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Desert Camping

Over the weekend Chris and I went desert camping with Katonya (another English Medium Teacher from our school).  We went to a camp in Al Khazna (which is near Al Ain).  The journey took around two hours.  All was running smoothly, until we took the turn off towards the camp.  Here there was a build up of sand across the road from a sandstorm which took place the previous night.  This resulted in Chris’s car getting stuck in the sand!  The problem was soon solved though as the camp staff arrived to rescue the car and drove us the rest of the way in one of their four by fours.

Once we arrived, we had a look at our accommodation.  We were staying in tents with proper beds.  You could describe it more as glamping than camping!  Our first activity was dune bashing (being driven around the desert in a four by four).  There were several cars out into the desert at the same time, which was quite lucky really, as for the second time that day, we got stuck in the sand!  However, with the help of the other drivers, we were soon back on our journey!  After the dune bashing, we had various different activities to choose from, including camel riding and sand boarding.

Later in the evening we had a barbeque buffet dinner.  Then we watched a film about the development of the U.A.E. by the camp fire.  We then went out into the desert for a night walk before heading to bed.  We had a good night’s sleep.  Then the next morning, we had breakfast and headed back to Madinat Zayed, after a thoroughly enjoyable weekend.

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Dubai

Last weekend Chris and I went to Dubai – the main city of the United Arab Emirates.  We started our trip by visiting the Burj Khalifa – this is the tallest man-made structure in the world at 829.8 metres.    It was built between 2004 and 2009 and officially opened in January 2010. It has 163 floors and you can travel up to level 124 in a lift that takes just 60 seconds!  At the top you can see fantastic views across Dubai.  After our tour, we had some lunch in Dubai Mall.  The Mall is situated next to the Burj Khalifa and is world’s largest shopping and entertainment destination.  It has numerous shops, restaurants, an ice rink and a very impressive aquarium.

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We then went on a short walk along Dubai Creek.  We saw a number of wooden dhows and bustling souqs, giving us a flavour of Dubai half a century ago.  Our next stop was Heritage Village.  Here we saw various historical buildings reflecting the history of the U.A.E.  After leaving Heritage Village, we travelled to Dubai Museum.  This is housed in one of the city’s oldest buildings.  It provides a comprehensive history of Dubai showing its development from a simple desert settlement to one of the most modern and progressive cities in the Middle East.  Before heading to our hotel we watched the Fountain Show on the Burj Khalifa Lake.  The fountain shoots water jets as high as 150 metres, whilst music is played in the background.

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The next morning we headed to the famous spice souk in Bur Dubai: we visited numerous small shops selling Middle Eastern exotic herbs.  We then visited the Bastakia Quarter – this is a maze of narrow lanes providing a sense of historic Arabian architecture and culture.  The streets contain many traditional buildings, as well as cafes, galleries and museums.  Our next stop was Jumeira Public Beach, where we had a quick swim before having lunch at the Intercontinental Hotel.  It was then time to return to Madinat Zayed, but we made a brief visit to the Burj Al-Arab on the way.  This is Dubai’s landmark hotel, which is designed to mimic the sails of a ship.  It floats on its own man-made island and has become the iconic symbol of Dubai’s boom years.

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Abu Dhabi

All schools in Abu Dhabi receive an Irtiqa’a inspection every two years.  The aim of this is to measure the quality of education and to support school improvement. Last week my school had its bi-annual inspection.   We had three inspectors (two English and one Arabic).  They observed lessons and talked to staff and students.  In the next couple of months the school will receive the report and will be given a series of action points to work on.  

Following our busy week, Chris and I decided to head to the city for a weekend away.  On Friday, we went to the Shangri-La Hotel for a swim and a buffet.  Later in the day we met up with Theresa and her husband and spent a pleasant evening in the outdoor area.

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On Saturday, Chris and I went to visit the Falcon hospital.  Here we learnt about the history of falconry, as well as the life of falcons in modern times.  We visited the free-flight aviary to see them swoop through the sky and we had our photograph taken with them.  We even saw the vet performing an operation under anaesthetic.

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In the afternoon we headed to the F1 track for a behind the scenes tour.  We looked at the race track, visited the control room and had our photograph taken on the podium.  We both enjoyed the weekend.

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School Events

We are now half way through the second trimester.  The children have been busy preparing for their EMSA  (External Measure of Student Achievement) Exams. All children across Abu Dhabi (in grades 3 to 11) complete these assessments each March.  They are used by Abu Dhabi Education Council to measure the impact of their education reform programme.  Although our focus has been on the teaching of English, Maths and Science, we have also planned various enrichment activities to ensure that the curriculum is both varied and interesting.

Each year GASCO (Abu Dhabi Gas Industries Limited), organise an exhibition in the town to showcase the latest in Information Technology.  The aim is to increase the community’s awareness of  what IT can do to assist people both at work and at home.  Many different organisations participate in the event.  We felt that the children would find the exhibition interesting, so we took the whole school along to visit the various stalls.

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We have also taken the whole school to the Al Dhafra Sports Complex for a Sports Day Festival.  The children participated in various team games and developed their skills in co-operating with each other.  Everyone enjoyed the morning and thankfully the weather wasn’t too hot!

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The other news is that I have a new job!  I will be leaving Abu Dhabi at the end of this trimester.  From April 2014, I will be living and working in Zomba (Southern Malawi).  I have been employed by the Board of Governors at Sir Harry Johnston International Primary School.  I will work as a class teacher for the summer term.  Then in September, I will take on the role of Headteacher.

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Desert Island Safari

Last weekend Chris and I decided to explore more of Al Gharbia (the Western Region of Abu Dhabi).  On Friday we left Madinat Zayed and headed to Mirfa, which is about one hour from where we are living.  Mirfa is a sleepy fishing town, with a beautiful white sandy beach.  We walked along the beach and visited the public gardens, then we had lunch at the hotel.

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After leaving Mirfa we headed to Jebel Dhana.  We stayed here over night at the Danat Resort (a super-luxury five star hotel, with a country club feel).  It has its own private beach and a beautiful swimming pool.

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On Saturday we caught the ferry to Sir Baniyas Island.  We had lunch at the Anantara Resort and then went on a  four by four Nature and  Wildlife Drive accompanied by a guide from the hotel.  More than half of the the island is made up of the Arabian Wildlife Park, one of region’s largest wildlife reserves,  It is home to more than 10,000 free roaming animals including Arabian Oryx, gazelles,  giraffes, hyenas and cheetahs. We were very fortunate to see lots of different animals during our safari.

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Al-Ain

Last Saturday, Chris, Kim and I went on a visit to Al-Ain.  Kim took part in a run, whilst Chris and I explored the sights. Al-Ain is on the border with Oman and is about a three hour drive from Madinat Zayed.  It is nick-named the garden city, as a lot of greenery has been added to the desert surroundings.

Al-Ain is the birthplace of Sheikh Zayed.  He was the founder of the United Arab Emirates and  served as President of the UAE from the formation of the Federation on 2nd December 1971 and he was also the Ruler of Abu Dhabi from 1966 onwards.  He died in 2004, in his late eighties.

Our first visit was to Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum. This was Sheikh Zayed’s residence from 1937 to 1966. It is a traditional building set around several courtyards.  We were able to see the meeting rooms where the ruler received visitors, his living space and bedrooms.

Our next stop was at the Al Ain National Museum.  Here we saw archaeological displays and artefacts from the tombs at nearby Hili and Umm an-Nar, which date to the third millennium BC.  We also saw some silver Bedouin jewellery and traditional costumes.

After leaving the museum we visited the Al-Ain oasis.  This is around 3000 acres and consists of 150,000 date palms, along with mango, almond, banana and fig trees.

We then headed to Al-Jahili Fort.  This is one of the largest forts in the UAE.  It was built in the 1890s as a royal summer residence.

After leaving the fort, we met up with Kim, who had successfully completed her run.  Chris then drove us all to the top of Jebel Hafeet.  This is a 1240 metre lime stone mountain.  It has stunning views of the desert and a mountain-top hotel.  We stopped there for a meal before returning to Madinat Zayed.

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India

I have just returned from an amazing holiday in India with Rashidah (one of my VSO friends).  We visited Delhi, Agra, Jaipur and Varanasi and saw many interesting sights.

We started off in Delhi, where we had a brief tour of the capital city. We visited Qutb Minar (the tallest Minar in India, originally an ancient Islamic Monument, inscribed with Arabic inscriptions).  We then visited the Jama Mosque (the country’s  largest Mosque).  Next, we headed to  India Gate.  This is found at the centre of New Delhi; it is an “Arc-de-Triomphe” like archway in the middle of a crossroad. It is similar to its French counterpart and commemorates the 70,000 Indian soldiers who lost their lives fighting for the British Army during the World War I. Finally we went to Humyuns Tomb.  This tomb was built in 1570 and is of particular cultural significance as it was the first garden-tomb on the Indian subcontinent. It inspired several major architectural innovations, culminating in the construction of the Taj Mahal.

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We were then driven to Agra.  Here we saw the famous Taj Mahal.  It is regarded as one of the new seven wonders of the world, and some historians have noted that its architectural beauty has never been surpassed. The Taj is the most beautiful monument built by the Mughals, the Muslim rulers of India. It is built entirely of white marble.

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Whilst we were in Agra, we made a visit to the Agra Fort, which is situated just outside the city.  it is about two and a half kilometres northwest of the Taj Mahal and can be more accurately described as a walled city.  The present-day structure was built by the Mughals, though a fort had stood there since at least the 11th century.

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After leaving Agra, we headed to Jaipur and visited Amber Fort. This is perhaps the most stunning example of Rajhastani forts and gives a grand view of the city down below.  We had the unique experience of travelling on elephant back to the top of the hill where the fort is situated.

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Whilst we were in Jaipur, we also visited three other monuments.  First we saw City Palace, which is known for its blend of Rajhastani and Mughal architecture.  Adjacent to the palace is Jantar Mantar (an observatory begun by Jai Singh in 1728 that resembles a collection of bizarre sculptures.  Each construction within Jantar Mantar has a specific purpose, for example, measuring the positions of the stars, altitude and calculating eclipses).  Our final stop was to the Hawa Mahal (or Palace of Winds).  This was constructed for the royal ladies to watch royal processions without being seen.

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After we had explored the sights of Jaipur, we returned to Delhi.  Here we caught the 13 hour night train to Varanasi.  This is one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities and is regarded as one of Hinduism’s seven holy cities.  Pilgrims come to the ghats lining the River Ganges here to wash away a life time of sins in the sacred waters or to cremate their loved ones.  It’s a particularly auspicious place to die, since expiring here offers moksha (liberation from the cycle of birth and death). Dead bodies are carried through the alleyways of the old city to the holy Ganges on a bamboo stretcher swathed in cloth.  The corpse is then doused in the Ganges prior to cremation.  Every evening at sunset Varanasi holds this Ganga Arti ceremony. Pilgrims gather on the banks of the Ganges where fire is offered to Lord Shiva and the river. Fire is used as a link between this world and the spirit world.

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After leaving Varanasi, we went on the night train back to Delhi.  This is where we spent the final few days of our holiday.  We visited the majestic Red Fort, which was the residence of the Mughal emperors of India for nearly 200 years, until 1857.  We also visited the Bahai House of Worship (this extraordinary temple is shaped like the sacred lotus flower and has 27 immaculate white marble petals).  We went on a tour of the city organised by the Salaam Balaak Trust.  We were shown around by a former street child, who showed us what it was like first-hand for inner-city homeless children.  We ended our holiday by exploring the city and visiting some of the many shops and factories.  We  enjoyed our holiday and had many unique experiences!

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The Al Dhafra Festival

Every December, the Al Dhafra Camel festival is held in Madinat Zayed.  It is now in its seventh year and is one of the world’s largest desert heritage events.  It features around 24,000 camels and attracts several thousand spectators.   Camel breeders come from across the region to compete in this massive camel beauty pageant.  The aim of the festival is to celebrate local culture and to develop heritage tourism.  It also aims to stimulate economic activity in the area and to create a market for selling and buying camels.

The festival started last Saturday and lasts for two weeks.  Throughout the festival, a number of heritage events and competitions are organised.  These include:

the Mazayna Competition (the camel beauty contest),

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the Traditional Camel Race,

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the Purebred Arabian Horse Race,

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the Arabian Saluki Race,

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and the Falcon Hunting competition.

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There is also a Best Dates Competition.  The Date Palm is an essential part of the cultural heritage of the UAE – it has played an important socio-economical role within its history.  Before the oil discovery, the date palm was used for many different purposes. The Western Region is one of the main areas where the Date Palm is grown.

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Each year, there are huge prizes for the winners.  This year, the total value of the prizes for the various competitions has been set at over 46 million dirhams and includes 198 cars.  However, it is the camels that are the most valuable with the best changing hands for up to 10 million dirhams.

Next to the camel race track, a traditional souq has been set up – this features about 180 shops.  They are run by Emirati women and display a number of traditional products.  There are also numerous tents in the surrounding area selling a wide range of local goods.

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The Camel Festival has received international recognition and there is even a video about it on the BBC News website.  Click here to watch it.

It has been good to experience this unique heritage event and to learn more about Emirati history and culture.

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