Friday, September 30, 2011

My First Day of School

7:00 a.m.  My un-needed alarm goes off.  The 5 o’clock call for prayer from the blaring speakers attached to the mosque directly behind my compound had already done the trick; that and the screaming donkeys, crowing roosters, and women pounding.  Good morning, Africa.

7:10 a.m.  I fire up my gas stovetop to make my daily cup of oatmeal.  After reaching the perfect consistency, I add a little peanut butter and honey, and think to myself that I can happily eat this for two years.  It’s heavenly.

7:40 a.m.  Time for my first day of school outfit.  It’s nothing too fancy, just a flowered wrap skirt I had made in training village with a matching tika (head wrap).  I put on my new necklace that was sent from my cousin.  It’s leather braided adorned with a globe next to a peace sign.  World Peace.  I love it.  I’m ready.
"World Peace"  Thank you, Lauren!
8:00 a.m.  I make my way outside for my morning greetings turning more heads than usual in my yirame (wrap skirt).  “An wujam.  Hotora ma wuyi?”  Here we go…

8:10 a.m. I notice Bintu, my 16-year-old host sister, pounding and wonder what the deal is.  Just yesterday she had told me she was going to school, and that she was going to be in grade 5.

“Bintu, I thought you were going to school,” I say with a puzzled look on my face.
“I have no uniform.”
“You can’t go to school without a uniform?”
“I don’t go.  I have no uniform,” she repeats.
“Why don’t you have a uniform?”
“Money.  The money is no good.”

Hmm… I know this isn’t the case.  I see Bintu get dolled up on a nightly basis to make her appearance at the football games.  Then they serve free juice with condensed milk to the football players at half time.  They certainly have enough money for a uniform, and Bintu is always the one coming to me with a notebook asking me to teach her, so I know she wants to be there.  I need to get to the bottom of this.

8:15 a.m. Those in uniform gather around me. ONLY FOUR OF YOU!?!?!  What?!?!  There are a bizillion kids in my compound and only four are going to school???  
Nyima, Binta, Mo Mo, and Hawa, my siblings
8:20 a.m. We arrive at school and the kids take off in different directions as I go to greet the 3 out of 12 teachers that have reported for duty.  I’m informed the head master has not arrived.  This has been an on-going issue. 

The headmaster, who I met at the supervisor workshop and who I’ve been in touch with the most has been moved from Demba Kunda to another school by the ministry of education.  He doesn’t want to go, nor does the community want him to leave so he is trying to fight it.  However, in the meantime, this means that no one is in charge at the school.  I’m not sure where the headmaster that was assigned to our school is, but he’s not here, so that means it’s more like a zoo than a school.

8:25 a.m. I unlock the library to retrieve a chair to sit down next to a second year teacher who is finishing his credential so he can become a qualified teacher.  As I’m exiting the library another teacher makes his way over to peak in, and then says, “Isa, come.”  He wants me to know that I should keep the windows locked when I’m not there or else kids will reach in and tamper or possibly steal the books.  Something about the way he states it makes me become a bit defensive.  As I look over to the currently locked windows I tell him, “Yes, I know that’s why I have them locked right now.”  He responds, “Yes, but you being a woman, you might forget.” 

8:35 a.m. Students form lines in their grade levels from shortest to tallest and the morning assembly begins.  Most of the children are glancing at the strange toubab in the back rather than listening to the facts that there is no headmaster, and that there are only 3 teachers.  After they briefly introduce me, the strange toubab, the students are instructed to make their way to their classrooms and help clean up the filth that has collected over the summer.  I watch kids take off in all directions, and can’t imagine that this going to go well.

8:45 a.m.  I peak into the ECD (Early Childhood Development) classroom to find 30 plus 4 year olds unattended.  Holy chaos.  Some are crying, probably because of previously being whacked by another, while others climb on the limited furniture in the room.

9:00 a.m.  Children are littered all over the place.  One teacher sits as another directs the older schoolgirls to start sweeping the courtyard. 

9:15 a.m.  The second year teacher walks over to me and says, “Isa, let’s have breakfast.”  I politely decline his offer.  I already ate breakfast.  In America, we generally do that before we come to school, unless our school is on a special program where the students eat breakfast in school, but that’s not the case here. 

9:20 a.m.  With children still wandering all over the place, I glance down to the world peace necklace my cousin sent and sigh.  There sure is a lot of work to be done in this world.

9:35 a.m.  Boys start joining in on the cleaning by weeding the garden beds.

9:45 a.m.  I’m elated to see Amara and Fatoumata, two more children from my compound, show up.  I ask Amara to show me his classroom by reaching for his little hand and showing him I want him to lead me.  He takes me to the ECD classroom, and I have to fight every urge in my body to get the class together and start teaching them.  I’m here to observe.  I don’t want to step on any toes, and I need to talk to the headmaster about my role in the school before getting down to business.  If only we had a headmaster…
9:48 a.m.  It sounds like someone is tearing something down in the grade 2 room.  I hear loud banging noises coming from that direction.  I’m afraid to go see what’s happening.  I see the second year teacher walk back onto school grounds.  He must be done with his breakfast.

9:52 a.m.  The teacher that led the morning assembly rings the school bell and orders the students to return to their classrooms.  A mad rush is made by some, while others take their time making their way back to their room where no one awaits them. 

10:00 a.m.  The second year teacher and the other 2 teachers that have reported to school begin their classes.   Grade 5 and 6 are combined into one classroom since the grade 6 teacher isn’t there.  The two rooms of ECD students, grade 1B, and grade 2 and 3 are still unattended. 

10:20 a.m.  Maha, Amara’s father, shows up on his motorbike and decides to take Amara home since school isn’t really going on.  He doesn’t seem surprised or upset by this.  He is certain that tomorrow there will be school.  I inquire about Bintu and it seems as though not having a uniform is not the problem.  From my conversation with Maha, I gather that Bintu’s role in the compound is to work, so although she has the desire to learn, she is stuck pounding, sweeping, and cooking.  

10:30 a.m.  I decide that I’ve seen enough.  I head home contemplating my next steps.  I’ve certainly got some adjusting to do, but can clearly see that I can be used here.  Up next... choosing battles.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Desire to Understand

     My curtains are up, my mat is on the floor, and my pictures of the home people (meaning you all in the good ol’ U.S. of A.) are hung.  I’m all settled into my thatch roof hut, and oddly enough, it feels like home.  With only a little over a week under my belt, I’ve already made a few trips to the school, visited the hospital, attended 4 football matches, traveled to Basse multiple times, and done my best to become a part of the Sahoneh family.

     In attempt to understand my overwhelmingly large family better, I started to create a family tree.  I know that I still have family members missing from my tree, because I’ll see someone and have no idea who they are, but from the 60 that are accounted for I have found out many interesting things.  For instance, my host mother, Chao has 8 children, 5 whom live in the compound.  I also was informed that she and her co-wife, Binta, are widows.  When I asked the name of their husband, I was barked at by a 20 some year old boy in the compound who told me not to write down his name.  With my head nearly bitten off, I didn’t ask any more questions about their deceased husband, so I have no idea how he passed, and I imagine it will remain that way for a while because my Sarahule is fairly limited.

     I also learned that many family members, at least 18 that I know of, live outside of the compound, which is relayed with a pointing finger and a word that starts with s.  These members range from husbands to wives to children.  Again, with limited Sarahule I’m not sure if this means they live around the corner, in another village, or another country. 

     For the most part, I take the language barrier with a grain of salt.  I’m able to express my basic needs such as n laahi jii, translated I need water, and I can tell my family where I’m going and when I’ll be back, but there was one day that I found it particularly frustrating that I couldn’t understand.

     After I had made my round of morning greetings to all 60 some members saying, “An wujam (Good morning). Hotora ma wuyi (How did you sleep)? Hotora sun tiya (Hope there is no trouble). Maajam (Peace only),” repetitively, my host-mother and sister, Fatoumata came to my door to say they were going to the hospital.  As they stood there, I realized this meant I was going too.  Locking up, I didn’t know if we were just going to see the hospital, but noticing Fatoumata was carrying a bowl of food on her head, I could only assume we were going to visit someone.

     The hospital was like many depicted on tv… crowded rooms, flies buzzing all over, no doctors to be seen.  As my heart started to sink, it full on plummeted when we made our way to the back room to find a 10 month old baby boy, the reason for our visit.  His eyes were sunken in, the skin was sagging off his tiny legs, and his spine jetted out from his back.  His baby belly poked out displaying his malnutrition, as I read the doctor’s chart, “Severe anorexia, high fever, lesions in mouth.”  It was followed by a list of medical terms, foreign to me, and that’s when the wish to understand washed over me.  I sat quietly for most of our hour visit, taking in as much as I could.  Chao made an attempt to explain to me what had happened to the child.  I heard the words “kombo,” meaning breast, and “suggu” meaning to suck, so I inferred that for one reason or another the little guy was suffering because his mother was unable to breast feed him.  BUT WHY!?!?!

     I asked Hawa, a 16 year old identical twin who was moved from the Bronx by her parents when she was 14 (their story is a blog post in itself that I will have to okay with them first), if she could ask Fatoumata about the boy, but she was unable to relay any new information to me.

     The desire to understand is what drives me each day.  From education, to the dynamics of the family, to football, to the language, to the American girls, to the health care, I want to understand!!!  As I learn more, I will be sure to share my findings.  If there is anything you are interested in learning, please don’t hesitate to ask.  After all, we're in this together.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Phase One is Done

The 13aker's Dozen and our PCVL, Jen, at the swearing-in ceremony.
     The babying and hand holding is over!  As of September 2nd, the 13aker’s Dozen may no longer be considered trainees.  We’ve become true, legit VOLUNTEERS!  (Yeeaaaaah Buddy!)  So what happens next?  Here’s the answer:

     On the 5th, we will again take the bumpy ride in the land cruiser across the country, and we’ll be dropped off at our permanent sites to fend for ourselves.  We have been assigned a 3-month challenge to stay at our site as much as possible and have been given various tasks for each month. 

     In September, we are expected to turn our houses into homes.  This has different meanings for each of us considering some are placed in city houses with electricity, and others (like myself) are out in the middle of nowhere living in round mud huts.  So while Eduardo is hooking up his refrigerator in Brikama, and others are plugging in their fans, I’ll be trying to figure out how to hang a mosquito net from a tree to create an outdoor sleeping area.

     After making our homes livable, our next step is to venture out and get to know our communities, meet the leaders, and find our go-to’s.  The Peace Corps has stressed time and time again the importance of building relationships.  If we want to create sustainable projects, we must become one with our communities, make friends, gain trust, show them we care and that we are here to help. 

     With the community on our side, we then get to the good stuff… SCHOOL!  During the months of October and November, we are asked to take in as much as we can, observe everything and access the school’s needs while we search out our future counterparts.  The Peace Corps doesn’t want us to start any projects during this time, because history has shown those who do don’t end up carrying out their plans.  It makes sense… the more thought you put into something, the more likely it is to succeed.

     I can admit that I am nervous about all that is to come, and the pressure I put on myself to succeed does give me spells of anxiety here and there, but I’m excited too because I finally get to see things for myself.  For the past two months, we’ve been told many things about culture, education, and the way things are done in The Gambia, but I’ve held off sharing those facts because the majority of them have been second-hand.  Now, I can tell it like it is, and you can hear it straight from the horse’s mouth!  My hopes are that this blog can be less about me, and more about Africa.  May we all learn together.  J