zondag 4 november 2018

7 quick takes

1. It's been ages since I wrote a proper 7 quick takes and I am really sorry for that. (Mainly sorry for ourselves as it means that many memories will go undocumented and therefore probably move to the back of our minds where they will drown in a sea of things that should have been remembered but did not survive the cut.) Anyway, I have good reasons. The main one being that October was very very busy, we are starting to believe that our marketing strategies are working and the lodge has been a busy beehive of activity (at least compared to what it was when we came.).  But fortunately I have been taking notes of events that should never be doomed to the sea of the forgotten and now that it's a relatively quiet Saturday morning, the girls are playing and Hartmut is reading, I have time to add some meat to dry notes to make them tastier and easier digestible (don't worry, I don't make up that meat, it's all true 😜).
2.  I got distracted. It's Saturday afternoon now, the lake is still and calm and the girls, who are splashing in it, the opposite of that. Their giggles and happy screams make me very happy as they were grumpy little muppets just a few minutes ago. They just woke up from a nap on this sweltering Saturday afternoon and the best thing we could do after waking up sweaty and hot was to jump back in the lake, eventhough we had been playing in it all morning already. While the girls are swiming I look for delicious ripe mangoes. We are in the middle of mango season and we definitely get the recommended amount of vitamin c each day as all we snack on these days is mangoes. The earth is littered with mangoes and as I am looking more fall down. However,we cannot eat all of them. Most have been plucked by the monkeys who take one or two bites out of them before throwing them down. It feels a bit wasteful and the result is the constant smell of rotting mangoes but training the monkeys to change their habits seems difficult so we will just live with it and eat whatever they did not eat.
3. We don't use laundry lines but the strong sun bakes the dark rocks on the lake shore all day long; creating a perfect space for drying laundry quick and crisp. Every now and then a strong wind blows light items such as napkins and underwear into the surrounding shrubs or rocks but hardly anything goes missing until one day one of the staff members realised that her knickers had disappeared. She looked everywhere but coupd not find them and realised that they were probably gone. A few days later she looked up in one of the trees where a pair of hamerkopfs was building a nest. For weeks they had been flying with sticks, bits of fluf and anything they could get their hands (er beak) on. A familiar piece of fabric was sticking out of their gigantic nest (they were building onto an old previously used nest). We all had a good laugh but she was determined to get her underwear back so she got a long stick and climbed the tree until she could reach it and  removed it from the nest with a quick sqing of the stick. I hope that my underwear stays untouched as my tree-climbing-pole-flicking skills are not as advanced.
4. The days here might be slow but they are never boring and often things happen that we could have never predicted or made up. Like the day we went to stay with mr Bombwe, one of our staff members who lives in a village high up in the mountain. His family had kindly cleared a room for us so that we could sleep but before we entered they warned us that there was something in the room that did not want to be moved. I was curious to see what that was but could hardly believe my eyes when I saw what they were talking about. In the corner of the small room was a hen sitting on her eggs. She did not move, even when we came closer and that's how we got to spend the night with a hen, just a meter away from our heads.
5. We stayed with mr Bombwe because we were invited to a wedding in his village. We did not know the couple very well but I find it hard to believe that most of the other 3000 guests who were present were all close friends and family and we were very curious. The wedding was nothing like I expected but very entertaining nonetheless. The only comparison with any of the weddings that I had been to was the white dress of the bride but otherwise it was all different. The entire party was basically a big fundraiser to fund the party and all that happened was people comitting to give money in many different money games and money dances. Some where about counting steps where each step was worth a certain amount, others about dancing around the happy couple and literally showering them with notes of 50 and 100 kwatcha and even gifts in envelopes (like ours) were publicly opened and the amount were read out, together with the name of the giver. It seemed to be much more about showing of the generosity of the guests (the more generous, the more celebration) than the guests and people who gave most got a ticket to eat at the table where meat was served where others who gave less got a slip for table 2 where you got fed but not with meat and cooldrinks. The most entertaining part was the master of ceremony who tirelessly spurred people on to give more money. I have never seen anyone dance, act, sing amf motivate the way he did. After the wedding I learned that he would receive a percentage of the proceeds and I understood his fanatism a little better. The whole event took place on a big sport field where most people were sitting in the hot sun. We were settling for a place like that too but as soon as the mc discovered us in the crowd he stopped the gift-giving and ushered us to a place under the canopy next to the bridal party. It also did not really seem to matter how much money we gave because we got a place at the meat table anyway and when the bridal party got served drinks we got them too while everybody else had to buy them themselves.  We left when the sun started to set but from we were staying we could still hear the money giving going on for hours. The days after that 'wedding' was a favourite game; Doris would sit down with a veil on her head while Sophie danced around chanting the amounts that she would give to the bride. I wonder if they will be dissapointed if the next wedding that we go to (a Ugandan wedding in December) is going to be very different.
6. Besides getting immersed in the local culture, one of the most interesting things of living here is the kind of guests that comes here. It's almost as if we travel but instead of going to see the world, the world comes to us. We have lately shared supper with a Malawian crocodile hunter, a Swedish farmer, a French actress and an Australian doctor and many many more interesting people. However, we are getting a rather skew picture of what the adult population of the world looks like as most of our guestsb no matter where they are from, are highly educated, open minded left thinkers who rather invest their time and money in travel and experiences than in material things. They are mostly people who love discussing the state of the world and have informed opinions about it. It will be weird when we go back to the 'real world' where the population is much more diverse.
7. The wind is picking up, the sun is starting to set and it's time to start cooking. The kitchen is a bit empty as our supplies are only coming in on the boat again tomorrow but I am excited about our food anyway. We will be eating "mujadara stuffed cabbage with minted tomato sauce'.  It's a recipe from my Smitten Kitchen cookbook and I am yet to find a recipe from her that will disappoint me. Yesterday the food was great too. We made a big fire on the rocks, prepared soup in a South African potjie and roasted stick bread in the fire while listening to the waves and watching the lights if the fishermen in the distance. Aren't we lucky?!

vrijdag 19 oktober 2018

How we do school.

We dried flowers, a few weeks later we turned it into a reading-biology class.

Sophie is very much into dressmaking these days.

Sophie and Doris made this dungaree out of plain white paper. We didn't even suggest it or give them any help.

Learning about the veins in leaves through a fun craft.

In my last blog about why we do school the way we do I promised that I would write another blog about how we do it. And that's where I got stuck because not one day looks the same and writing down what we do in blog-length is seemingly impossible. The one day we sit down on the mat, learn letters and make worksheets while a next day the girls play all day in their own imaginary world where princesses, birthday parties and an owl who bring presents (her name is Ghaniya) are the key players in elaborate adventures. Although these two days look very different, both days are 'school days', packed with learning and valuable for the future. Why? Because kids know (subconsciously) very well what they need to learn and what their brain is 'ripe' for. Kids will not learn anything if you try to feed them information which their brain is not ready to receive. If you ignore this you will end up with endless repetition, wasted time and frustration. But... Believing that is one thing, putting it in action is different and much scarier.

The one thing that I needed to do when I started this unschooling journey was to let go. I had to let go of preconceived ideas about how learning should happen and when it should happen, let go of time tables and work plans and let go of the need to be in charge of the learning. We just came back from a trip with a lot of new experiences and right now the need to play is much bigger than the need for new information. On the trip much was learned that needs to be processed and I notice that the girls slow down their need for new information to make time to process what's learned. And that is good. Kids learn best when they are intrinsically motivated and not pushed.

It is encouraging to see that letting go leads to beautiful, self motivated learning. A few months ago all Sophie and Doris wanted to do was cut. Our house looked as if a paper bomb had exploded and small snippets of paper where everywhere. One evening I was again cleaning snippets and I started wondering if we were really doing the right thing and if we should really leave them in charge of their own learning. Weren't they just making a big mess that would not lead to anything. But then, short after that, Doris had drawn a stick man version of her father and Sophie had made a beautiful fish, and both of them had cut it out, in a neat and skillful way that really impressed me. All those snippets had taught them how to use a pair of scissors the way one should.

Most mornings I ask the girls what they want to learn that day and the answer often surprises me. It leads us into a time of learning that might take anything from 5 minutes to 5 hours. This morning Sophie wanted to learn the word 'tree'. We spelled it out, wrote it in the air and on the sand, thought about words that start with the same letter and words that rhyme and suddenly we landed in a long conversation about trees and global warming. Then Doris pointed out a monkey in the tree. Sophie saw that the monkey was carrying a mango and said that the monkeys should not eat all of them because she wanted one too which lead us into a rather philosophical discussion about our relationship with nature and whether humans or monkeys have more right to eat the mangoes. The girls both contributed to the discussion and we concluded that we need to learn to share the world with the animals. You see? No curriculum but lots of learning, for all of us.

Sometimes they request 'real school'. Real school means that we sit on the mat, start the class in a circle where we sing about the days of the week and the weather, talk about how we feel and what we did and learn to listen when the other speaks and indicate when you want to say something. We make worksheets or play educational games, make a craft and we all feel very productive.

When we started out here I was a bit overwhelmed by the fact that I was all on my own,  without other moms, forums and especially without all the inspiration that you can find on Pinterest. But that has changed. Pinterest is beautiful and can be very helpful but some days (most days) I am really happy that I don't have access to pinterest for inspiration for educational games and crafts as it sets the bar higher. An evening of scrolling through it during our stay in Mzuzu left me feeling discouraged instead of empowered, inadequate instead of capable because there is always a mom who has done it better. (However, I still miss the community of encouraging like minded moms that I had in Cape Town and I am forever grateful for whatsapp and voicenotes.)

If you google for home school tips you don't only find tons of print out curricula and craft ideas but you also come accross the most beautiful toys and supplies and it is easy to lose yourself in all the nice things that you 'absolutely need'.  Minimalism is a trend that is hard to miss and I firmly believe in a minimalist approach to the amount of toys and tools that a child needs.  We don't have many supplies but watching the girls learn and get creative with the few things they have makes me convinced that less truly is more. Less toys is more creativity, more invention and more concentration.

When we moved here we could only take very little and I often get asked what our kids have to learn and play with. So here is a list of the things we use and love for playing and learning.

The world around us: having less means that kids learn to do more with what is available. Sticks become fishing rods, old bottles balloons and stones are tasty cakes. I would go so far to say that if kids have a specific toy for each situation and each kind of play you deprive them of opportunities to become truly creative and inventive. Kids who haven't learned to be creative with what's at hand will be bored a lot and need to be constantly entertained. Fostering resourcefulness in kids doesn't only help them for the rest of their lives, it also makes your job as a parent so much easier.

Crafts: Our craft cupboard is packed with white paper, pencils, crayons, paint, glue and pairs of scissors. At first I felt sad that the girls don't have nicely coloured paper, cardboard or any of the other beautiful things one can get but their creativity blows me away. They make clothes for the doll and each other, books, and 3d constructions and don't even seem to miss other things. When they make crafts I always remind myself that it's all about the process and never about the product. What the girls make may look nothing like that perfectly imperfect folded flower, stamped penguin and cars-from-milk-carton that they would have made in school but it is their own crativity and not the exact same  flowers/penguin/car as that of the 24 other classmates. The identical flowers may teach the children about following instructions and will teach them fine motor skills but hinders the development of creativity and initiative, two skills that we find very important. The crafts the girls make at home are their own initiative because they feel like experimenting with printing, stamping, cutting and glue and they can do so for as long as they want until their need for learning about it is satisfied.

A dress up basket: I firmly believe that dressing up is an essential part of childhood development and we made sure that we brought hats, glasses, dresses and accessories. It helps kids to assume different roles and to see the world through another persons eyes and it is just great fun.

Tiptoi books: We absolutely love books and know that kids learn lots from books but we don't always have time to read them to the girls when they want it (who does?) . With the tiptoi books the girls can take ownership over their learning and they are chockful with age appropriate information. And it is still a book that they are interacting with, not a screen. Sophie's two favourite tiptoi books at the moment are one with maps and one about knights. Doris loves the one that is all about counting, finding patterns and solving riddles. An added benefit for us as a multilingual family is that it helps the girls with their German and Dutch vocabularies and pronounciation which is awesome!

Our (schleich) animal collection: The animals are not only great for playing (the girls have given each animal a name and a character) but also for learning about grouping and size. 'Can you put all the aninals who live in the sea together? Which animals can fly? Can you place them in a line from big to small?' Etc.

To conclude, I don't think that what we do is anything special and any parent can do it. Even when kids are in formal school there are still many moments and daily life activities where you can foster a love for learning and while you do so, spend precious time making memories and creating a bond that will hopefully last a life time.

vrijdag 28 september 2018

Unschooling? As in, they don't go to school?

I have loved all the 'back to school' pictures that  have dominated my social media feed the past weeks. Eager children with shiny new backpacks filled with healthy snacks, brand new pencils and lots of motivation. Happy smiles and new beginnings everywhere. Most of the kids who were born around the time Sophie was born featured too and are in school now. Seeing that definitely made me re-evaluate the choices that we have made around her and her sister's education. In this blog I will talk about education and what we have decided on. The next blog is more practical as I will explain how we do 'school'.

"The life that you have must be so nice for kids, but where do they go to school?"
One of the most common questions that I need to answer both on social media as well as to people that we meet is the one about the education of our children. "The freedom to play all day is so nice, but how do you make sure that they will be at the right level once they go to school?"

The more I observe Sophie and Doris and watch them learn and grow, the more I am convinced that we don't need a special curriculum, many educational toys or a trained teacher to prepare them for 'real school'. What we do need is time, an inquisitive mind and Hartmut and me being available to answer and ask questions that will guide them through the process of learning.

One of the things we had to make a decision about when we decided to move here was about education. There is a small nursery school here in the village but, unfortunately, the main thing that the kids learn there is sitting still and parroting the teacher. I looked up different curriculums for preschools to start formal home schooling but for most of them you needed many materials that I knew would be unavailable for us or access to internet which was another problem. In my search I read about many theories for education and what that appealed a lot to me was the one called 'unschooling'. I don't like the name because it sounds as if you don't do school but all it really means is that our girls don't learn through school but from their own interests and daily life. Some days that means that all the girls do is cutting, drawing and glueing -practicing their fine motor skills because that's what they want to learn- while on other days we make worksheets for letters or talk about snakes, dinosaurs, building bridges or our solar system. It's usually something that happened that sparks their curiosity and out of that we all learn.

Kids are naturally inquisitive and will learn if they are put in the right environment. We really believe that, for now, it's more important how they learn than what they learn. We want to foster a love for learning, grow curious minds and equip them with strategies that will help the girls to find, assess and apply information and for that to work best you don't force feed them the information that a curriculum prescribes for that day, but go with the things they are naturally interested in.
With learning through life and the things they want to know about, they experience that learning is relevant and meaningful and it is amazing to see how many learning moments we can have in a day if you start to be aware about it.

School often teaches things that a child can do already or is not quite ready for as it is impossible to have 25 kids that are ripe for the exact same information at the exact same time. This sends a signal that learning is either unnessecary and boring or too difficult and really hard, either way it's not fun.

My favourite thing about unschooling is that we can tailor learning to the exact needs, likes and interests of our girls as they are the directors of learning. However, it doesn't mean that their wants and interests are at the centre of our universe and that we will drop whatever we are doing to cater to their needs. The learning and playing (which is actually the same thing if you ask me) still have to fit in our daily life and all the things we need to do to manage the lodge. And that is not a bad thing as it teaches the girls patience, and the fact that not everything revolves around them. Making learning happen requires creativity and patience from us and from them.

Children learn most, and best, when they can learn at their own pace. In school there are many set blocks of time for each activity and it is very possible that a child has done all the learning that that activity had for that child after 5 minutes or, that the real learning would only happen after an hour, long after the activity was forcefully finished and packed up to move on to the next. The first child will be very bored (I remember many hours of staring out of the window or tending to my woodlouse that I secretly kept in the drawer of my desk because I was done but the rest of the class wasn't) while for the second child the activity was just that; an activity to keep him busy but not one to learn from. We don't have time tables or schedules, the girls can take as long or as short as they need to learn which sometimes means that a worksheet that took an hour to draw (no electricity=no printer) is finished in two minutes while other days they (especially Sophie) is engrossed for hours with a map book and her compass.

What it all boils down to is that a love for learning is at the heart. I believe that it is much more important to know how to learn and derive information from a source and to know how to filter and assess corectness than what you learn. You can look up when Napoleon died and what the capital of Japan is but if you have never learned to love learning, you might never ask yourself that question.

One of the things that kids enjoy in a (pre)school is interacting with other children and sometimes I wonder if our kids are missing out on that front. I am so grateful that the girls have each other. They are absolutely inseparable, stick up for each other, finish each other's sentences and giggle about their own inside jokes. We would have never moved this remote if we only had one child. But do kids really learn that much from other children? Somewhere (I wish I could quote the source but it was a good one) I read that kids up to the age of five learn more about social interaction from watching and interacting with adults than from each other and that makes complete sense to me. My friend told me a heartbreaking story about her three year old child who was being teased about her healthy lunch box by other kids in her class. The result of this was that her daughter felt insecure about herself and did not want to eat at school anymore unless her mother gave her the same things as the other kids had. It made my friend doubt if school was the right place for her child or if teasing like that is just part of growing up. I am happy that my girls don't get all those social pressures yet, that they can explore who they are and what they want to do without all those voices telling them how they should dress, what they should eat and how they must behave. They will have the rest of their lifes to conform the social and cultural expectations and worry about their image. For now I don't think they miss out on interacting with other kids but that will probably change in the future which is one of the reasons that we won't live here forever.

Unschooling is certainly not the only way to learn, or even the best way to learn. There is no school or method that can cater for every child and the lifestyle of every family during all the stages of a childhood. At some point our girls will go to a formal school. What they want to learn now is still within the realm of what I know but guiding the girls through gaining knowledge about mathematics or grammer feels overwhelming and I don't think I am up for that. But for now it works. It teaches us all an attitude towards learning that we will carry with us for the rest of our lives.

In the next blog I will write more practically about what we learn, what we use to learn and how it works. If you want to learn more, I can recommend the following article: "Wheatley, K. F. (2009). Unschooling: A growing oasis for development and democracy". Please Google it, internet is too slow for me to post a link.)

maandag 24 september 2018

33 reasons to love you...

Dear Hartmut,

When I saw you that first time, in that queue at the conference, I immediately knew that I had laid eyes on a a treasure, but I had no idea yet how rich that treasure would make me. Life with you is the most beautiful adventure.  I you  love you but I hope that I don't need to say it for you to know it. I hope that you feel it every day. But I am saying it anyway, so that you can carry these words with you as a reminder when you need one. Here are 33 reasons why I love you for the 33 years you are in this world. Happy birthday 'Schatz'

1.  Your big sense of responsibility; when you say yes to something you will carry it through.
2. Your ingenuity, I love your creative solutions, especially here where we have to make do with little.
3. Your looks.. (Especially now that you are stronger and more tan than ever after all those months spend outdoors)
4. Your eye for details where I often only see the big picture
5. Your ability to encourage me always and everywhere
6. Your ability to be my anchor when I start to drift away on dreams too big and unrealistic
7. Your love for our daughters
8. Your intentionality in everything you do
9. Your smile. It still melts my heart and makes my knees weak.
10. I would not want to do this life in Malawi with anyone but you.
11. Your newfound love for reading. I love discussing the books we read with you.
12. Your dedication to the things you find important.
13. Your love for God and His word.
14. Your commitment to help me with the big project I have started.
15. All the time you spend with the girls and how you involve them in the diy work that you do.
16. You always seek to act just and wise, no shortcuts.
17. How much you love teasing all of us (eventhough we all act as if we hate it.)
18. Your appetite because no food goes to waste (but seriously, how can you eat THAT much without gaining a gram?)
19. Your family (I could not have asked for better in laws).
20. Your loyalty to the things you commit to.
21. Your dreams for a better world and how we can help to achieve that.
22. Your contiguous excitement about food. (Two more weeks until we can finally have an ice cream again!)
23. You help my disorganised mind to be tidier and more organised.
24. Your dedication to admin helps us to do what we do. (I so happily leave that to you, if it were up to me it would be a disaster.)
25. Your love for maintenance, you are so talented!
26. I love watching you work now that we get to work together every day. Your people management skills and passion for them to grow and thrive are phenomenal.
27. Your patience is admirable.
28. When you brush the girls hair, paint their nails or dress them I just melt.
29. Your continuous reminders that we should wear our hats and sun protection. (I guess it's becoming clear who is the responsible between us two.)
30. You ask questions, make me talk and really listen.
31. Your ability to make me feel loved even when I am angry by taking the sting out of my anger.
32. Your humility about your achievements (and they are massive!) Is admirable.
33. You! The amazing, loyal, reliable, loving, wise, sincere you.

With love,

zaterdag 8 september 2018

7 quick takes of happiness

Sometimes I am so happy that it feels as if my heart will burst. Other days I could do with a dose of happiness and I wish that I could have captured the overflow from other days to give a boost on the harder ones. If anyone knows how to do that, let me know. For now I have tried to capture a few of those very happy moments in writing, the closest I can get to capturing them.

1.  We sit at one of the tables in the open restaurant at our lodge. The girls 'help' me while I sew some bunting. Next to us are palm trees and a perfectly still blue lake. A fish eagle is soaring over the water, not very succesful in its attempts to catch something. My phone plays the soundtrack of the Sound of Music and the girls and I sing along on the top of our voices, giggling and perfectly happy.
2. We are in church, which is not more than a room because the actual church in under construction. There are no musical instruments but a choir of enthousiastic voices sing a song. I don't know the words but the tune is familiar and I hum along with tears in my eyes. It is so great to serve a God who connects people accross languages and cultures.
3. 6 am on the ferry. Sophie and I are awake and walk from the stuffy and packed lower deck where we slept in a windowless cabin to the near empty top deck where we walk in the first morning light. Mountains glide past and we are on our way to a place that we had never heard about a year ago but now feels like home. Next to the boat glide three kingfishers who scan the lake for some breakfast, in the distance are some fishermen in dug outs with the same goal in mind. Sophie's hand finds mine while we admire the view and share a moment of quiet happiness.
4. The kitchen is empty, we are awaiting a veg delivery but I manage to get all my creativity together. Evenings where much creativity is needed usually end with a curry meal. Curries are very forgiving when ingredients are missing and you can make it work with what you is available. The meal puts a smile on the customers faces; they tell me it's one of the best meals they had in a long time.
5. After arriving on our signal hill I connect my ohone to the internet. Messages stream in. One of them is a long voicenote from a friend. We have mostly done away with emails and the post is so slow that snail mail isn't really an option but voice notes are amazing. When I close my eyes I can image myself sitting at my friend's kitchen table, sharing life over a cup of tea. I love listening to the familiar voices while in the background I hear their kids play, their dog bark or their kettle whistle.
6. One of my favourite things here is snorkling in the dazzling blue water. We live at the deepest part of the lake and the drop in the water is very steep. I like to swim out a little and submerge myself. When you then turn around all you can see is blue water, rays of sunshine and schools of fish swiming past you. It's magical.
7. New guests walk in. We introduce ourselves and learn their names and where they are from. The guests tell they are from Finland/Italy/Chile/France/USA/New Zealand or any other country in the world. Sophie looks it up in her mapbook and during our communual dinner we learn about their country, culture and language. They tell stories about their travels and adventures and the girls soak it all up. We don't need to visit the world because the world comes to us!