What Colors Were Your Classroom Walls?

Local Classroom Before MuralsI remember mine…they were white but there was hardly any white showing. One wall was entirely huge glass windows that looked outside to a nice lawn with beautiful trees and bushes, the other had miles and miles of chalk board, the third was a wall of cabinets covered in paintings from art class, reports and pictures from class, and the last was covered in bulletin boards with a rainbow of colors, words, shapes and themes of all sorts. On top of that we had carpet with beanbags for reading time, a game corner, a mini-library, a fish tank, personalized desks, and large tables for projects. That’s what you call a learning environment. A space that is comfortable, inviting and inspiring. Surrounded by words, colors and pictures a child can learn on his own.

All School Cleaning DayA kid at Zolozolo Primary School in Mzuzu might say that her walls are white as well. But her walls have chipped paint and the white hardly shows through the layers of red dust and grime that have built up over the past 14 years when it was painted for the first and last time. Two of the walls have windows with glass panes, a luxury here, but the window frames are jagged with broken pieces of glass and the crystal clear panes are a distant memory, pre-dating the children behind these walls. On another wall there is a chalkboard and on the back wall there are six spaces which once held cork for bulletin boards but nothing remains. With no glass in the windows and no door for security everything goes missing, even cork and even home-made teaching aids from old boxes and sticks. There are no desks, no tables and no chairs…not even for the teacher…just a gray, dusty concrete floor. About 80-150 kids pack into this 20’ X20’ classroom at any time. The conditions are anything but inspiring or inviting.

Painting AnimalsOne classroom at a time, I am collaborating with teachers and students at a local primary school, making an effort to transform the drab and dreary into something inviting, inspiring and engaging. Jon and I are both blessed to have mothers who are teachers, and both mothers came to visit us in Malawi this year. When Jon’s mother came in June she brought a suitcase full of teaching aids, posters and books. We delivered some of the materials to Zolozolo Primary School during her visit. Mrs. Kachali, the head teacher, was very touched by the thoughtfulness that went into the gift, and explained to us that the materials would be stored safely in her office. The teachers would be able to check out the alphabet chart for the day and pass it along to another teacher next. We were a bit disappointed that the maps and charts couldn’t be hung on classroom walls to brighten the place up and give the kids a chance to teach themselves, but theft is such a big problem.

Mom visitsWith my mom’s visit approaching in September, the idea dawned on me. Why not paint the teaching aids directly on the walls so they can’t be stolen? I remembered the time when someone pointed out to me that there is NO graffiti in Mzuzu…not at the university, the public schools, the bus depot, nor in the poorest neighborhoods. Graffiti was our only concern, but people are so poor that they don't have enough money to buy spray paint or a permanent marker, therefore eliminating our one and only concern.

GilbertThis is how I've ended up at elementary schools is Mzuzu trying to supervise 20+ kids and 10+ teachers who have never held a paintbrush or had any art instruction in their lives, and how I ran my Mom ragged during her visit. Painting the walls with educational murals has absolutely transformed the classrooms. Kids are excited to come to school, they are teaching themselves be reading the walls, and they are proud of their work and their school.

Depending on how the next month goes, I may consider formalizing this project and taking donations for future schools. We have budgeted that it only costs around $100 to paint a classroom used by 200 children each day. The supplies are all sources locally (paint, The Verb To Bebrushes, varnish, etc.) and it’s the children and teachers that do nearly all of the painting, I only supervise. We painted a fresh base coat, then used acrylic paint for the pictures, and a clear varnish to finish. The walls can be washed with soap and water which is good because it gets very dusty and kiddos have dirty hands. All in all, I expect that the pictures will last a good 10+ years…think how many kids that’s touching!