I had never even visited Africa before I committed myself to two years' teaching at Chipata Day, a large rural secondary school near the Malawi Border. We arrived on a Sunday during rainy season when there were few people on the streets, the sky was grey, and I was depressed by the sight of women breaking stones to make a few bucks.
Sixteen years later, I am still in Africa, though now in Kenya. Why? Once I got over the initial culture shock and began to form relationships with students and staff,I found a whole new world, with its own unfamiliar ways of thinking and being. The town was small and limited so you were thrown back on your own resources and your ability to connect with others. At first students were too shy to speak to me; some had never seen a white person before. But gradually, by getting to know them and encouraging them to learn by expressing themselves, I earned their respect. We would go on many school outings to festivals, debates - or funerals. Huge trucks would carry us and when I appeared the students would say: "Move over. There's a European here!" They took me to local ceremonies like the drinking of the bull's blood or to small performances where a shaman would do his magic and perform for us. I had been used to London theatres; here I was seeing theatre in its original communal form.
When I first went to the supermarket I wanted to cry; there were tinned sardines, white bread and a few other equally unappealing items. But on Saturdays I would go to the market and buy vegetables - tomatoes, peppers, sweet potatoes mostly. At weekends I began cooking and just opening my doors to the students who would come and chat, play Scrabble, make tapes and inform me of all the gossip. A big issue was sexual harassment of girl students by male teachers: it was so widespread and accepted that the girls had no notion that they had a right to say no. But then, refusing could lead to punishment and neglect by the teacher concerned. It was hard to know what to do as this was part of the culture, but I had a chance to teach girls on their own and explore these issues privately.
I cried when I saw my accommodation; I had left a lovely 2-bedroom apartment in London for a single damp bare room in a house that smelled of cat's piss. It took me six months to get my own house and then life really began.
At weekends we would go to one of the two clubs - both equally rough, with a lot of drunken fights but also marvelous dancing. All Africans dance, especially the men, and as I love nothing more, I was in heaven. We would go with locals for moral support and security.
The few white volunteers stuck out like sore thumbs; I would meet people on buses who would come and visit me, thinking I must be lonely living on my own.
Teaching became a real pleasure in spite of the lack of resources; the kids were so delighted to be given a chance to air their views that we had spirited arguments and debates. Our African colleagues were mystified by us and couldn't for the life of them understand why we should leave the very countries they wished to emigrate to in order to teach under such conditions. It was hard to explain the excitement we felt at experiencing something so different.
I cried when it was time to go but I knew I would be back. Within 10 months of returning to the UK, I had a job in Kenya and have been there ever since. So in spite of all the material hardships, the heat, the strangeness, it was life-changing experience.