Thursday, May 17, 2012

L'Education Mondiale - A Tale of Two Classrooms

The week I found out I was being sent to Francophone West Africa for my Peace Corps service, as opposed to Spanish-speaking Latin America for which I'd spent the previous year preparing, I freaked out and asked my friend Maryline if she would give me an afternoon refresher in French.  It had been 20 years since I’d been in a French class and since I’d been taking Spanish classes for my supposed departure to Central or South America I was a little rusty, to say the least.  Maryline is a native of France who married a friend of mine and moved the Batesville over a decade ago.  She’s the head of the French program at the Peabody School where she teaches French to elementary and middle school kids.  In looking through my pre-service paperwork,  I noticed a pamphlet explaining World Wise Schools, a correspondence match program started by former Peace Corps Director, Paul Coverdell, as a means to connect Peace Corps Volunteers with classrooms back home.  I asked Maryline if she would partner with me and she said, “Bien sûr!”, thus beginning a two year correspondence with Madame Meyer and her 6th, 7th, and 8th grade French classes.

We started writing to each other soon after I installed at my site in Diourbel.  The first letter I wrote was edited by my French tutor before I mailed it.  She red-penned it so much that I had to re-write the whole thing before sending it.  The kids wrote back with a series of questions for me to answer, which I did, one by one.  The delay in response time was quickly frustrating on both sides of the ocean.  I’d send a letter then wait 2-3 weeks for it to arrive.  Then they'd draft a response and it would take over a month to reach me.  Madame Meyer and I decided to try Skype instead.  That was much more fun, but it didn’t allow me the luxury of someone else proofreading my comments before they came tumbling, grammatically incorrect, out of my mouth.   Thankfully, our French was at a similar level, so we all stumbled along together and Madame Meyer was very patient with all of us.  Although Skype was more gratifying than waiting for international snail mail, it did pose its own problems.  The sound and/or video quality were often lacking and because I struggled with electricity problems the first year and a half I lived here, I couldn’t always guarantee I’d be at the other end of the line.  We’d schedule a call well in advance and then when the day arrived, I’d sit down at my desk, open my Skype account and the electricity would go off.  For some reason, this often happened minutes before the call and then would stay off for hours.   This was a big problem for us (and for me, in general) until about 6 months ago when the election season started and the electricity has magically stayed on for days and weeks at a time.  Regardless of our delays and interruptions, we continued to schedule and reschedule calls on a regular basis.  On occasion, we’d still send care packages or notes to one another through traditional means. I sent them Senegalese souvenirs and postcards and they sent me snacks and mementos from home.  This was surely a win-win situation.


Last October, I visited the kids at school while I was home on vacation.  We organized a school-wide assembly and I gave a presentation (decked out in traditional Senegalese garb, no less) on what it’s like to live in Africa and to be in the Peace Corps.  The 6th grade French students sang a song I taught them in French, Wolof, and English.  Everyone was so impressed.  After the assembly, Madame Meyer got the kids excused from whatever classes they had and we gathered together for a live correspondence session. I was thrilled to see the bulletin board they’d created with all of the letters, post cards, and pictures I’d sent.



This week, we had our last calls of the year.  I sent back traditional leather and cowrie shell necklaces for them, as well as a certificate for completing the correspondence program with me.  Collectively, our French has improved dramatically and because I’ve been a constant presence throughout two school years, they’re no longer shy about coming up with questions or speaking to me in French.  At the last call for each of the three classes, I asked them a few final questions, including what was the most interesting thing they learned about Senegal.  Their responses varied, but among the most common were:

  • The tale of the griots (village singers) being buried in the hollow of the baobab tree
  • The explanation of the seasons (or lack thereof) in Senegal, basically we have the Hot and Rainy Season, the Hot and Dry Season, and the REALLY HOT and Dry Season (I'm experiencing the latter right now).
  • Senegalese salutations and greeting
  • Differences in food, food etiquette, and agricultural product
  • The politics of our recent Presidential elections

I also asked them if they might consider joining the Peace Corps after they finish college.  To my surprise, most of them were pretty sure they’d look for a job right away instead.  They seemed pretty driven to start earning money, but maybe I scared them away with tales of the heat.  Regardless, I'm not sure why this was so surprising to me; finding a job straight out of college was exactly what I did.  Maybe I was just hoping I’d instilled a taste for adventure in them, or maybe I was just regretting not joining the Peace Corps earlier, myself.  The good news is that they all indicated that they planned to continue with their French studies.  I can’t emphasize enough how important it is for all of us to be able to communicate in another language.  People here in Senegal often speak 3 or 4 languages (Wolof, French, and one or two other ethnic dialects), not perfectly, but at least they can get their message across to a wide group of people.

Back on this side of the Atlantic, I’ve also befriended a local school, Algor Dioum Primary, affectionately referred to as “Al Gore”.  This school enrolled 10 of its students into our Eco-Ecole program last year and its Director, Moussa Diallo, is a member of Baol Environment, my partner association.  Of all of the schools we work with, this one and its students are the most engaged.  With the exception of Friday prayer and Muslim holidays, Director Diallo is almost always decked out in western clothing:  a suit or polo shirts and dress pants on weekdays and soccer jerseys and baseball caps on weekends.  His attire is indicative of his work ethic.  Moussa runs a mile-a-minute.  He’s always late to meetings, and not for the typical Senegalese reason of “just being late”, but because he’s usually just left another meeting.

Last year he approached me about helping him apply for a grant to improve the latrines at his school.  I told him I’d be happy to help and went to check out the situation.  He wanted to extend an internal wall that divided the boys’ side from the girls’ side.  When I went in the small outbuilding which housed the latrines to take some measurements and pictures, frankly, I was appalled that this was all he wanted to fix.  There were several stalls on either side of the existing divider that contained typical Turkish toilets (porcelain in-ground bowls with foot treads and a mounted tank on the wall above).  Unfortunately, all of the tanks were out of order and there was no back-up water system in the building.  Because these toilets are a little “fancier” than the standard hole in the ground that many kids may have at home, not everyone was sure how to use them, thus there was feces  piled throughout the stalls—in the bowl and out—and no means to wash it down the drain.  The closest water source was communal sink situated a few yards outside of the latrine, but it was not functioning either.  Because the school can’t afford a night guard, thieves have come repeatedly to steal the spigots off the faucets.  The whole situation was really quite dreadful.  I asked the Director if he thought fixing this bigger problem was more important that extending the wall and he agreed that it was, but felt hopeless they’d ever find the money to take it on.  Keeping the boys out of the girls’ latrine (and vice versa) seemed more pressing to him and was a manageable task to complete with the money that we had available to us.  I left with the measurements and photos I'd taken and asked that the director follow-up with me to collect demographics about his student body so I could complete the grant request.   Unfortunately, every time I've seen him since then he says, “I know, I know, I still owe you a report” and then I don’t see him again for a month or two.   Since the timeframe for applying for grants has now ended for me, I plan to tell my replacement about this project.  Hopefully, with a little more pushing, they can expand the wall and try to improve the plumbing system.  Things take a long time to come to fruition here.  Accepting that has been one of the many great challenges I've faced during my service.

This week, Ibou and I dropped by Moussa’s office because he’d failed to show up at a scheduled meeting the week before.  We needed some information from him about an Educational Fair we’ll be attending at the end of the month and thought we’d have a captured audience if we just showed up on his doorstep.  This proved to be true.  After a productive meeting, he asked if we’d like to see the interactive white boards that had just been installed in two of his classes.  “What?!”, I uttered, thinking I’d misunderstood him.  “Interactive white boards that project from a computer onto the classroom wall,” he said.  “Why, of course I would”, I answered, still in a bit of disbelief.  Sure enough, we walked across the courtyard, just steps away from the broken latrines and non-functioning sinks and found a classroom with an LCD projector mounted to the ceiling.  The teacher invited us into her classroom, propped a laptop on a lidded bucket, and fired the thing up.  She then started calibrating the touch-sensor on the rectangular “white board” painted on the wall.  With my jaw still a bit slack, I watched as she used a wand to draw pictures and type words onto the board.  Then, the kids got up and did the same.  Granted, I’ve been away from the U.S. for a couple of years and haven’t visited a classroom (aside from the aforementioned trip) since Elliott and Emily were little kids, so maybe these are in commonplace back home, but I was truly taken aback.  This is rural Africa, for God’s sake, where kids don’t even have proper toilets at school, yet here they were using a keyboard image to type out words on the wall.

This lovely world never ceases to amaze me!




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    1. MARMay 8, 2016 at 8:47 PM
      Amazing blog and great work
      As a senegalese French teacher living in New Orleans I'm very proud of your work in Diourbel

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