Hi there!Mark Whitworth I am Mark Whitworth -
writer, educator, traveller
and all round good guy.
Welcome to my website.

What's New in Marque My Words

Mark Whitworth and Andrea KiddSo, where to start? It has been over thirty-three months since my last posting on this site, and it would be true to say that life has taken a few twists and turns since February 2014.

We left Bangladesh, in June 2016, after three years at the International School of Dhaka; I will confess that we were happy to leave. The horrific hostage taking and killings at the Holey Bakery came just after we left, but it was clear that tension had been rising and security was becoming more of an issue. Dhaka had lost the appeal that it had on our arrival but additionally our jobs were becoming more difficult due to a secondary school administration whose greatest weakness was administration. 

In the above paragraph lie the two strongest reasons for not having added to the website for so long; firstly, that it would have been virtually impossible to write without criticising my management, and secondly, that any online comment on society and daily life in Dhaka risked exposing yourself to extremists, who were happy to hack to pieces several “atheist” bloggers while we were there. Being a blogger, an atheist and someone who is fervently opposed to extreme religious views, be they Christian, Islamic, Hindu, Jewish or whatever, I felt that putting my head above the parapet was simply taking too much of a risk, not only for myself, but for Andrea, my colleagues and my friends.

For a month or so we were convinced we would be going to Sri Lanka, and would have been happy to do so, but that fell through, fortuitously, when they re-shuffled their staffing, because we were over the moon to be offered positions in Malawi, at a school that had fairly recently converted to curriculum that suited our experiences, and one that we had kept our eye on over a number of years. Bishop Mackenzie International School in Lilongwe is now our employer and we are delighted, not only to be back in Africa, but also at an institution that is soundly run. (For anyone who might be taken in by the name, BMIS is an entirely secular school, Bishop Mackenzie was a Scottish C19th missionary, working with Livingstone, who actually only managed to live for nine months in Malawi before dying of malaria.)

The first instalment of my blog from Malawi, Gossip from the Gecko Ghetto, can be found on this link, and it is dedicated to all those lovely people, colleagues, friends, students and fellow tennis players, that we had to leave behind when we left Dhaka. Especially it is dedicated to Mr. Alan Clarke, with whom we played many sets at the BAGHA Club, and who also, quite remarkably, is an alumina of the school at which we now work!

Gossip from the Gecko Ghetto 1

Mark Whitworth and Andrea KiddArriving in Lilongwe was fraught with difficulties for myself and comparatively easy for Andrea! We had planned to arrive at the same time but the Emirates plane exploding in Dubai delayed my journey by two days and led to my suitcase going missing for a week. Thus, my first experiences were shivering in the depths of a southern hemisphere winter without clothes, dog-tired, and desperately trying to catch up with everything. Andrea, on the other hand, had to cope with being by herself, in a new home, with no electricity, no transport, nothing to cook on, or more importantly, no way to make a coffee. However, very quickly, and with the help of some marvellous people, we started to settle in; I say started, because the process has been ongoing, and only now, at the end of the first term, can I confidently say we are beginning to think of this as home.

New HomeWhich brings me to my first topic; our home. We were a little surprised to have been granted such an extensive estate, although the house is a pleasantly sized three-bedroomed bungalow, the garden is enormous. I haven’t measured it, but we must be sitting on an acre of land, and when we moved in, it was somewhat the worse for wear. Five months later and we have a large area turned over to vegetables, a garden off the veranda containing flowers and a small lawn, fourteen fruiting mango trees, a couple of papaya trees, a lime tree, and one large guava. Clearly the fruit plants were there before we were, but if anyone knows what to do with a couple of tonnes of nearly ripe mango, we would be very interested to hear your ideas. We’ve also planted a herb garden and a new flower bed has just been dug at the front of the house, into which we have planted roses, amongst some more local plants and ground cover.

AgamaYou will notice that I’ve been avoiding the first person pronoun here. On such a large plot is has been necessary to employ four staff, a maid, which has been normal for us over the last sixteen years, a gardener/day guard and two night guards. That adds up to quite a wodge of cash but is really unavoidable; it must be said that we do like to help the local economy and we appear to be doing just that! The maid and the gardener, a married couple, live in the staff accommodation, which is a separate, two-bedroom building, with its own shower, toilet and cooking area, and we have done our best to make this more comfortable.

Four posterWe have turned one of the bedrooms into an office, bought a huge, modern four-poster bed for ourselves, and spent several days putting our artwork and various items collected from our travels into the place to make it feel more at homely. Purchases such as a lawnmower and washing machine have also been essential. Andrea turned out to have something like twenty South American cushion covers, for some reason, so one of the jobs was to have them all stuffed, giving our abode something of the appearance of a Bogota favela. This is an ongoing process and we do have to be cautious as the housing contract only runs until the end of this year; we’ll be desperately keen to have it renewed, but nothing can be guaranteed.

We really are very happy at this house. There are a few issues, but most of them are slowly being solved. The electrical supply has been dire, particularly in the last two months, when it was down to an average of six hours in each twenty-four and most of that was during the night. You learn to cope, but by the time that we were provided with a generator by the school, we were starting to crawl up the walls in frustration; it came just in time. 

The chefIronically, back in October, I had been about to take my own steps to solve the problem, by purchasing a high-powered inverter and an array of solar panels. This is an expensive option, but one I will almost certainly pursue, as they have a high re-sale value; there is one fly in the ointment. Apparently, there is a local bylaw that bans the use of rooftop solar arrays, a law enacted at the behest of Escom, the state monopoly that provides all electricity in the country. It has to be the most ridiculous law that has ever been passed in any country at any time, and is totally inappropriate in a country that has screaming near-overhead sunshine for more than ten months of the year. However, with such a big garden, I’m 99% certain I can get away with installing a “moveable” solar array on the ground, which has the added benefit that it is easier to clean!

If there is one thing I think we should have been advised to bring, in our shipping, it would have been an inverter. It would have been so simple, and much cheaper, to purchase one in the UK, and from day one we could have avoided some of the major problems we have faced. Admittedly we would have had to purchase deep cycle batteries, once here, to store the power but if we had brought an inverter with us we would have done that automatically.

We have used the generator since it arrived and it has been a life changer. Food from the fridge is now usually safe, it is possible to cook or watch TV, if we had one, and our candle bill has been slashed. However, since the rainy season has commenced, we have been getting a much better supply of mains power, which almost coincided with the arrival of the generator! This newfound optimism was banged on the head a bit on New Year’s Eve, when the power was off from 06.00-22.00 hrs. So far, today, New Year’s Day, we have had uninterrupted supply.

Hopefully things will improve and our optimism caused us to go out and buy a satellite dish and decoder. The decoder is an attractive piece of kit, which is handy, because it gives you something nice to look at when there’s no picture on the telly! Seriously, having not had a TV for six months hasn’t been bad, but it does leave you a little detached from the news and for me sport. DSTV is the provider and, being South African, you can watch as much cricket, rugby and football as you could possibly desire. For Andrea, there is junk TV aplenty and for us both the occasional good movie with a decent record function.

One of the huge ironies is that you receive adverts telling you that the electricity grid is now stable; clearly this refers to the South African grid, because the Malawian grid could only be described as random!

Rain at last!Malawi has been in a state of drought for some time now, created by El Nino. It was preceded by some unseasonal flooding, which washed out the newly planted crops, and then hardly a drop. The relief that the first rains brought was palpable. There was then a pause of a couple of weeks and we are now receiving a downpour two days out of every three; the country is turning green again. Ironically, the onset of the rains has led to a mains water shortage, as apparently too much silt has been sucked into the filtration systems; the water pressure has been very low. Apparently, we are now due for 50% heavier than usual rains, due to La Nina; flooding is forecast.

Due to the pressures of sorting out our home (and our jobs, of which more later) we have only got out of Lilongwe three times. We had school trips, Andrea to Kuti, a National Park, and mine to Nkhotakhota, which is halfway up Lake Malawi, a diving/snorkelling trip based in Cape Maclear, it was interesting to pursue these activities in freshwater, and a get away from it weekend to Senga Bay, where we tested out our newly acquired tent and air mattress. In the first ten days of the Xmas holiday we are departed for our first longer distance trip, up North, visiting Luwawa, the Nyika Plateau and a spot on the Northern part of Lake Malawi that we first visited in 2002. In fact, we plan to spend our tenth wedding anniversary at a hotel that we stayed in on our last visit here. (I’ll outline this trip in a separate posting.)

In distance terms, and trying to equate this to being based in Birmingham in the UK, we have travelled as far as London, Manchester and Leeds so far, the next trip takes us as far as the equivalent of John O’Groats. The roads have been surprisingly good so far, although we expect much worse on this next trip, as the rains will have started to destroy the sides of the roads and to eat out the potholes. So far the impression of the Malawian countryside has been that of extensive parched fields, some pretty impressive craggy hills, the enormity of Lake Malawi, which, apart from the taste, always seems more like an ocean, massive blue skies and then, recently, towering thunder clouds.

Malawi VillageMalawi is surprisingly densely populated for an African state, even when you think you’ve got into real countryside you run across surprisingly big towns; however, 80% of Malawi’s population is rural. The large villages and smaller towns have seemed dry and fairly uninviting but the people are exceptionally polite, conservative, yet friendly when engaged, and helpful. We’ve only really visited one larger settlement, other than Lilongwe, and that was only in passing; it seems a little more caution is worthwhile here, as thefts from cars and bag snatching are quite commonplace. We’ve already lost a 50-metre hose and a pair of binoculars to someone who must have had a key to our car; we’ve been more cautious since and try to keep a guard on the vehicle.

Rav4Which brings me to the beast that has just clocked 200,000 kilometres; the Bullshit Boeing, so named because of the number plate: BS 9777! I bought the car, sight unseen, back in March, for a reasonable price. Unfortunately, in the intervening months it was neglected somewhat, and it cost quite a bit of money and time to make it roadworthy again. However, since the middle of September it has run like a dream, only one fault worth noting, that being that the driver’s window has some trouble closing. I’ve attended to that problem today, my first venture into mechanics in many a year, and whilst the problem is not solved, it does seem to be much better. Thank you WD40!

Clearly a twenty-year old Toyota Rav4, with 200,000Ks on the clock, is not going to bring the girls flocking, but it is functional, big enough for the pair of us to sleep in, if necessary, surprisingly fuel efficient and quite adept off-road. I’ve never been a fan of the Rav4 but this one is doing the job very well; they’re surprisingly popular in this neck of the woods, so re-sale should not be a problem unless the engine or gear box blows! We’re actually fully equipped for a long off road safari, although this next trip will mostly be on tarmac, much better equipped than back in those far off days when we were with the Suzuki in Tanzania.

Unfortunately, the Rav has developed a little tinkling sound, a bit like a bell, when pulling away after a gear change. Methinks there may be some broken bearings somewhere, but for the life of me I couldn’t identify quite where. Another trip to the car doctors seems on the cards.

Prisca Samuel WizJust prior to Xmas, our cleaner, Prisca, gave birth to a very healthy, although slightly premature, baby son. Both she and her husband, Samuel, who is the day guard and gardener, are over the moon, and have named him “Wisdom Honour”. We’re not entirely convinced about such a handle and “Wiz” seems a much more appropriate moniker for a youngster who slipped out after Prisca having been in labour for only 90 minutes, which must be some sort of record for a first born! Currently she has gone off to her village in the North and we are now blessed with Innocent, the three-year old offspring of Prisca’s temporary replacement, Sylvia. He seems to be a lovely child, although again, Innocent is maybe not a name that will be appropriate through his childhood and youth.

Xmas DinnerFor Christmas, we “entertained” our staff and partners to a semi-traditional Xmas lunch, it’s hard to describe barbequed whole chickens as traditional, followed by the chance to watch a film. The food went down pretty well, although clearly it was not quite what would have been the norm; particularly they appeared to dislike my vegetable soup, which seemed quite innocuous and I found very, very tasty.

After eating we settled down in front of Braveheart, who I compared with the Reverend John Chilembwe, a Malawian national hero. This went down exceedingly well and they were very impressed by whole thing!

The Constant GardenerIn the dog days of 2016 we have been catching up on home administration, gardening, purchasing, sorting out banks, computers, pensions and of course, trying to work out how to post this blog. Things are good, very good, but there’s going to be a lot more hard work ahead; for me this starts tomorrow, with marking, reports and planning schemes of work; five days should do it and then we’re back to work!

So, to conclude, let me leave you with some handy links, which might explain some of the characters mentioned, and a gratuitous photo of an agama, which is probably my favourite shot of the year. My apologies but I enhanced the photo somewhat with the help of a filter!

AgamaMalawi country facts can be found at the CIA website.

Malawi news can be accessed at the Nyasa Times or the Nation websites.

Details about Bishop Mackenzie International School are on this website

Information about Bishop Mackenzie himself, without using Wikipedia, are a little tougher to glean, but this link to a Google book will suffice. 

The Malawian hero, John Chilembwe, who features on the brand new 2000 Kwacha bank note can be found on the Africa is a Country website

An explanation of the El Niño and La Niña events can be found at the Australian Bureau of Meteorology


Creating a Climate Graph Using Microsoft Excel

Instructions for Making a Climate Graph Using Microsoft Office Excel

climate, graph, temperature, rainfall, Microsoft, Excel, Office, 2010These instructions are intended to enable school students to create a climate graph, climatograph, or temperature and rainfall chart, using Microsoft Office 2007 Excel. I will not claim it is the slickest method but it is simple and it does work. There are other versions of these instructions out there so you can pick and chose as to which one suits you. Click on this link to find the instructions for creating a population pyramid in Microsoft Office Excel. Please feel free to post comments; I will use them to make improvements.

Click on "read more" to find out how to produce this Excel climate graph!

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Creating a Population Pyramid in Microsoft Excel

population, pyramid, excel, Microsoft, Office, 2007, 2010Creating a Population Pyramid in Microsoft Excel

These instructions are intended to enable school students to construct a population pyramid using Microsoft Office Excel 2007 or 2010. There are alternative methods out there on the Internet, which might suit some students better, but this step-by-step guide is intended to be foolproof.

If you are only interested in copying and pasting someone else’s population pyramid then there are plenty of sources, however doing so will almost certainly not earn marks for the skills involved; the only credit would come from any commentary upon it. MAKE YOUR OWN; IT’S EASY!

Click on this link to find the instructions for creating a climate graph in Microsoft Office Excel.

The first section deals with finding the data, so if you already have this information please click here and you’ll be taken directly to the relevant page and will start at instruction number 10.


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The Curious History of the Hakka and the Tulou

Tulou, Hakka, FujianThe Curious History of the Hakka and the Tulou

If you are interested in the Hakka and the tulous you may also be interested in my selection of photos from Fujian or the blog I wrote on our trip to Fujian. Please click these links to enter either piece.

Much of the content of this article, on the Hakka and the Tulous, can be regarded as a hypothesis rather than an entirely factual piece. There is far too much contradictory information, of variable quality, to form many concrete conclusions. It has been written with reference to papers that would probably be best read in Chinese, by someone with a better grasp of Chinese history than I, and a couple of days field work. However, it would be interesting to have a series of unbiased people research sections of this work, to draw their own conclusions and to present their agreement or disagreement. I had hoped that the National Geographic/IBM Genographic Project would shed some more conclusive light on the subject of Hakka migration and origins, but as far as I can see it does not. At the end of the article are my private conclusions, made quite subjectively, I hope no one finds offence in them.

You can hover your pointer over the pictures and diagram in this article and it will show a full description and details.

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The Curious History of Taosi, the Longshan and the Xia

Burial, Taosi, Shanxi, Museum, Longshan,The Curious History of Taosi, the Longshan and the Xia

Many in the west have never heard of the Longshan Culture, the Xia Dynasty, Taosi, Erlitou or Yu the Great and would certainly be hard pressed to differentiate between Shanxi and Shaanxi. At best they could identify the Yellow River or Huang He as Chinese but would then promptly confuse it with the Chang Jiang, a name unknown to them as they would know it only as the Yangtze, not even the Yangzi! If Chinese history and geography are impenetrable enough then Chinese pre-history is even tougher! I can state this with some certainty for, before residing in China and beginning to learn about some of these mysteries, I was as ignorant myself.

Researching Taosi, a major Neolithic settlement in Shanxi, northern China, was an opportunity for me to learn more about Chinese pre-history and I hope, with this short article, for me to share this knowledge and my thoughts with you.

If you enjoy this article you may well enjoy The Curious History of the Hakka and the Tulou.

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