Sunday, June 18, 2006

End of the School Year and More

Its been a long time since I posted so I'll try to give a basic rundown of what has happened since then.

School Finished -
After a short third trimester filled with holidays, the school year finally ended. I'm not sure whether it went fast or took forever. The third trimester was probably the most difficult because it was so hot (well over 100 every day), because the students were ready to finish, because I was ready to finish, and because I was teaching reproduction to a couple of my classes. While it can occasionaly be entertaining, for the most part it is very difficult in the upper classes because they never stop laughing and giggling or asking ridiculous questions. Keeping order in the class was just a lot more difficult. Also, I finished up with the program for my troisieme class (the highest class that has to take an national exam to continue to high school). The biology program is very long and almost no one finishes on time. I had to print out the notes for the last subject (microbes and diseases) so that I could finish. I also had to kick out about half the class because they were too disruptive. I also had one particularly dramatic encounter with one student in that class in which I took his cahier (notebook) for the class. The student (Serge - I hate that name by the way) had a watch or a calculator or a cell phone with an alarm on it that went off during the class. Normally when something like this happens, I take whatever it is that made the noise and then if they 'demande pardon' (ask for forgiveness) I give it back to them the next day. This kid didn't want to give it up. I was having a bad day so I told him to give it up or not come back to my class. He didn't want to give it up, so as he was leaving I took the print-out I had just handed out that day with the notes for the rest of the class as well as his biology notebook. A word on the notebooks - they are the textbooks for the class. Most of my students do not have a biology textbook at all. When I teach the class, what I am doing is helping these kids to write a biology textbook and to explain it at the same time. The students are very possessive, rightly so, of these notebooks. But it was the only way I could really punish the student. I can't take points away from a troisieme student because it doesn't matter if he passes the class or not. If he passes the national exam, the grades during the school year do not matter at all.
Taking the notebook shocked the class and the student. After he finally left (after telling me forcefully that he wanted his notebook), I gave the notebook to the directrice of the school, fully expecting one of the other students to tell him that she has the notebook. Then all he would have to do would be to go talk to her to get the notebook back, although he would never come into my class again (i think he was also permanently kicked out of the math and the french class as well). He refused to take his notebook back. He decided he could do without it, solely for spite I'm sure. Good luck to him.
Also in school we have been giving the BEPC Blanc (the BEPC is the national exam, the BEPC Blanc is a practice exam, kinda like the PSAT). For the first one, 3 out of 77 students passed. For the second one, 4 students passed. This seems shocking, but it turns out the numbers were about the same last year when they had about 60 kids pass on the actual BEPC (thats with the second try; if you fail the first try but almost pass you can take a second exam only on math and french to try and pass; we only tested the first try in our tests; generally the BEPC Blance is harder than the actual BEPC). By comparison, all the other volunteers I've talked to never had more than one student to pass their BEPC Blancs. But they are all en brousse (in the bush). In the cities, where there are a lot of functionnaires (rich middle class people), a much higher percentage passes. We'll see. They took the test last week, hopefully I'll see a copy of it when I get back. The results should come back in about a week.
In addition to all that jazz, I got observed by an official from the ministry of education. They sent out a guy to observe all the biology teachers in the area and as I am the only biology teacher at my school, he observed me talk about bees to my 5eme biology class. He said he enjoyed the class and that I used a more interactive method of teaching than he normally sees, but he didn't really grade me as he would a burkinabe teacher since I'm not a burkinabe teacher. He did get a little miffed that I didn't follow exactly the official program for the class (i thought learning about insects was more important than learning about ferns, which they don't have in Burkina). But it went well.
The end of the year also saw the endless task of grading and filling in the gradebooks and then a little party at the end of the year for the teachers and the staff. Overall, we had a little more than half the kids pass the 6, 5, 4eme classes. Pretty standard. The results for the 3eme are to come.

My Parents Visited -
After stressing about coming here and getting sick, my parents did eventually take the plunge and visit glorious burkina faso (arguably the most unrecognized country around - burkina what?). They came for a short visit, arriving the 10th from a week in France and leaving the 14th. We spent two nights in my village and then a couple days in Ouaga before they left late the night of the 14th. As far as I can tell they really enjoyed their stay - i.e. they did not get sick. They got to meet most of the people I know in town (although they missed out on the air conditioner repair man) so that was good. Salif gave them a gift of a little wooden african man clothed in traditional fabric as well as adding a couple shirts later. We handed out photos to salif and to my colleagues at work. I got my dad a shirt made, although it didn't quite fit. Back in Ouaga, they got to meet most of the other volunteers from my group. They took them out to dinner at the hotel they were staying at - Hotel Libya, built by Qaddafi. Its the nicest hotel in the country. It was like being in america. All the volunteers were very appreciative. Then they purchased some souvenirs and antiques the last day at the artisans' village, thanks to the help of Tyeliah's expert negotiating skills. And then they left. Bonne route mom and dad and thanks for coming.

I got cleaned up -
I had my mid service medical exam after they left. I got a tuberculosis test, I got my teeth cleaned, I got checked for testicular cancer, and I gave three stool samples. So far so good, but I am still awaiting the results for my stool samples (judging by the fact that all the other volunteers have at least one type of gastr0-intestinal disease, I'll expect to hear that I have giardia or amoebas shortly). My dental cleaning was done by a burkinabe lady who had studied in Senegal and France (there are no dental schools in Burkina). She is probably the nicest dentist I have ever used. Not once did she criticize my dental hygiene or make a comment about the neccesity of flossing - a first in my dental history. It was so great to leave the office not feeling ashamed or defensive.

Anyways, thats about all for now. More to come later. I'm going to Ghana in about a week for a little over a week. It should be fun. I'll let you know. Later.


Wednesday, March 22, 2006

the year in review

at the six month point I wrote a post with a report card on my experience so far. I'm not going to do that this time. There is just no real way to quantify the experience and I'm not going to try. But before I get into my review of this most difficult and challenging year of my life, first general updates.

We just finished the second trimester at school. In general, more of the same. No big news on the teaching level. For the most part i feel like I've settled into it and it is becoming a bit routine which is both good and bad. Most of the time I feel entirely comfortable (psychologically, not physically - its ridiculously hot right now) in front of a class of 80 to a 125 kids from a vastly different culture teaching a subject I haven't studied since high school in a language I am still learning (I feel like I speak french now, although not fluently, not entirely comfortably - i compare it to trying to type with gloves on). So, not so bad for a years worth of work. The next trimester should be interesting as I will be teaching reproduction in three of the four classes and hopefully evolution in the other class. During the break I visited another volunteer - tyeliah - in bagaré (a tiny village that reminded me of my training village, bassi) and then my training group had a party in ouaga to celebrate a year in burkina (on the 16th) and then the group came down to my village for a couple nights. They got to see the pool and the monkeys in the hills so I think they were pleased. And now I am headed back into ouaga to do some work for school and then for another party celebrating the close of service for the other group of education volunteers.

So thats that.

Now, what the hell have I been doing here?

I like the blog, the idea of a blog, it gives me a good place to put up my thoughts, to organize them in some manner, more for me that for anybody else. But I procrastinate with it because it is not easy to organize anything here certainly not my thoughts and I have no easy way to put it ALL onto paper (really, a computer screen, a light matrix, or plasma for the big spenders). Anyways, enough emoting.

When I studied in China, I was walking in a park one day after having some tea (still the only place I ever drank tea) when I came around a corner and saw a little 2 year old boy pooing in the middle of the public park and then his father wiped him. And nobody seemed shocked. At that moment, I said to myself, 'nothing will ever shock me again.'

Obviously, I have had to revise that statement.

On Being Shocked:
I have been shocked in so many ways since I stepped off that plane a year ago. Here are just a few examples.
- the first entry on my ill-used diary - 'on my first night in burkina, the temperature is 100. Its midnight. This is just stupid.'
- my first taste of toh with my host family - imagine eating a crappy version of grits with your hands. You dip it into a sauce that usually has the consistency of snot. Its made of okra.
- I once asked my host family brother what his favorite food was, he said toh. I didn't know whether to be happy for him - he gets to eat his favorite food every night! - or incredibly sad - he has no idea about all the deliciousness out there. He's never eaten pizza! or tacos! or a hamburger!
- Bats flying out of latrine holes while you pee.
- Bulletproof potion. Everyone believes in it. The burkina army takes it. During the last training group, a villager was killed in one of the training villages because he drank a faulty potion and his friend shot him in the face. They went after the witch doctor. I know what your thinking, if the army is bulletproof, why aren't they the most powerful army ever. The response of a villager - 'they're not bombproof, stupid.'
- Daily seeing kids poo and pee on the side of the road . . . and having them wave at you while they do it.
- Being asked whether it is possible to sleep more than 8 hours a day (it just never would have occured to me to even think of that question)
- Holding down my best friend's wife for 45 minutes with 4 other grown men as she thrashed about and screamed in Moore. Medical explanation - meningytis. Real explanation - genies. I understand why.
- having a kid tell me that he is going to cry if I give him a zero on his test (he cheated). What really shocked me, my response - 'Start crying.'
- My best friend beginning a sentence, 'for exemple, when a man beats his wife . . .'
- a villager responding to my question about what happens in the next election when the president can't run again - 'Oh, he'll just change the law.'
- Seeing the driver of my bus replace the transmission on the side of the road
- Seeing the driver of my bus replace the drive shaft on the side of the road
- Osama shirts
- Faceless, veiled, women (its scary)
- Wallets with the american flag on one side and a bob marley symbol and a picture of saddam hussein on the other side (put in orders now)
- my neighbor, an educated, wealthy man using the teapot method
- Another teacher making the kids write 50 times: I am stupid. it was a volunteer!!!
- Being cold in 80 degree weather
- Burkinabes wearing parkas in 100 degree weather
- Being comfortable in 120 degree weather

Alright, thats all for that category, although I assure you there are more.

So I've been shocked. Is that what defines my experience? No, but it makes for a good story. So what is it then? How have I changed.
non serious ways
- I'm extremely well read: Tolstoy (War and Peace), Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse 5, Cats Cradle), Heller (Catch 22), Faulkner (Sound and the Fury, Light in August, As I lay Dying), Shakespeare ( more than halfway through the complete works), the Bible (almost a fourth of the way through), Dostoyevsky (The Brothers Karamozov), Nabokov (Pale Fire), Melville (Moby Dick - pretentiously enough, my new favorite book), Plato (i'm working on the Republic), a college biology textbook, Joyce (Ulysses), Camus (The Stranger, in french no less) and many more.
- I have probably lost several years from my life span
- I'm tanner
- I have a beard
- when I see a child peeing, I wave back
- I can type on a french keyboard
- I play spades
- I watch soccer
- I can make some killer banana bread
serious ways
- I'm more confident. I just travelled to a tiny african village i had never been to before, by myself with very little direction from anybody just to surprise someone who I wasn't even sure would be there. I feel like I can go anywhere now.
- I'm more patient. You have to be here where 'tout de suite' means in 45 minutes (in french it means right away. you always here a collective groan among the volunteers when the waiter says tout de suite)
- I'm more away of my skin color. In america it was not a part of my identity at all and I didn't understand why it had to be a part of the identity of black people. Now I understand that you don't have a choice. Someday, there will be a longer post on that.
- I'm more understanding of africa. We always hear about poverty and misery in america, but I can assure you, for the most part, the burkinabes (third least developed country in the world) are not miserable. In many ways, they are happier, more content, more accepting of their place in life than most people in america. It makes you wonder, would they say they were poor if we hadn't told them they were a hundred times?

How have I not changed?
I'm still tyler. I still like the cardinals. I'm still somewhat of a smartass. I'm still stubborn. I still like to laugh. I'm still competitive.
I knew there was a lot about me that would stay the same. But, there was one thing I was worried I would lose.


From one of the many books I have read since I came here there was a quote about hope being the last, best thing to whisper out of pandora's box after all the plagues and chaos and misery. RFK has a quote about ripples of hope combining together to tear down the mightiest walls of oppression. Its something I take seriously and something that I had heard people who come face to face with Africa often lose.

Its still there. I can't tell you why. Whether its the faces of the few students who actually understand instead of memorize, or whether its the joyful cries of Too-Bah-Bou (dioula for whitey) I get from two little kids on my way to school (it feels like a cheer to me) or whether its my best friend, Salif, messaging me on his new cell phone (although the message was only this - ':' - he needs more practice) and inviting me to eat with him on holidays or for that matter any complete stranger on the bus inviting me to eat the little they have or whether its my french teacher at school inviting me to go to Niger with her or whether its just listening to the sounds of my town.

I don't know. But its still there. And for that I am grateful.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

this is just too ridiculous

Alright, sorry i haven't been posting much lately. I've become detached from the internet so that even when I go into town I hardly spend any time online.

I don't have much time now but I do feel like i can tell one story that is pretty ridiculous.

During our second week of school we celebrated martin luther king day - and by celebrated I mean i went to school and taught while the people at the peace corps office in ouaga had the day off.

Anyways, every once and a while i just don't feel like teaching at all, and if I have my quatrieme class (they're my favorite) that day I don't teach but instead have an 'america day.' Basically, I talk a little bit about american history or culture. So on martin luther king day I thought I would talk about martin luther king and give a short history of black people in america. The class loved it. They always love america days. But what made this lesson particularly interesting was that they had just gotten english textbooks (no biology books yet) and in these textbooks there was a page about martin luther king and it had part of his famous dream speech on the page.

-monsieur, is this who you're talking about?
- yeah that's him. Thats the text of the speech he made in washington, one of the greatest speeches ever made.
- can you read it for us.

I decided to see if one of the kids would give it a shot first. my favorite student tried. I don't want to say that king would have been offended to hear his speech being delivered by this student, but I will say that his pronunciation was not quite up to the eloquent standard of the right reverend. I took over and read the speech, in dramatic fashion, to the kids. Its martin luther king day, I'm in the third poorest country in the world reading the I have a Dream speech to my class of african kids. And even though they don't understand what I am saying, they are rapt and they are cheering at all the right spots.

This is just too ridiculous.

Friday, December 30, 2005

the end of the trimester and the end of the plateau

i have now been in burkina for more than nine months, which is the longest I've ever spent out of america (this actually might not be true but its close enough). I can only describe the experience as surreal. America just seems too far away to exist and burkina generally does not make enough sense for me to believe in its physical reality either.
I have a few very good examples from my christmas trip to mali and from teaching and transport to show the surrealness of burkina in specific and africa in general. To get to mali (there were 4 of us going - Adam, adam's friend from college, malcolm and myself) we decided to take a bus that goes straight from ouaga to koro (a small malian town near the border where you get your guide). I had heard about the bus from another volunteer and I had read about it in the guidebook but just to be sure we of course called the bus station. 3 times. this is roughly how the calls went
- caller (myself twice, malcolm once): hi, do you guys have a bus that goes to koro?
- bus station guy: yes
- caller: what time does it leave?
- bsg: 10
We called twice the day before and then once the morning of our departure. To be extra sure, i arrived at the station 45 minutes early. The conversation went something like this:
- me: i'd like a ticket to koro.
- bus station women: the bus left at 6.
- me : §#£$¤!!!
Although I have to say that I was not very surprised. One must expect things like this in africa. Eventually we did make it onto a bus for mali, if only a day late - something which worked out to our benefit in the end as we ran into a couple of other volunteers who were heading to mali as well so we saved some money on the guide. But getting into (and out of) mali raises the second problem: do we need a visa?
Apparently the answer to this question is no. We had heard that you could get a visa at the border and that is what we planned to do as it would save us from hanging around ouaga a couple of days while they processed the visas which is what the other two volunteers we ran into had done. they also paid 40 bucks for the visas as well. But we had also heard that a lot of times peace corps volunteers do not even need visas. Functionnaires (government employees and other salaried workers) in west africa don't use visas to travel around west africa. They just hand over their identity card and that is enough. Many volunteers think that our status as pseudo-functionnaires should entitle us to the same privileges as well. We didn't plan on it, but we were at least willing to give it a shot. At every checkpoint we just handed over our peace corps ids. It worked. They said nothing about visas on the trip there or on the trip back. In itself, not very surprising. What was surprising was that the same thing happened for adam’s friend from the states who was not able to hand over a peace corps id but had to hand over his visa-less passport. As Malcolm said, worst border security ever. Not that I’m complaining.
Anyways, before I continue with my examples of the unreality of Burkina I feel I should say a few words about what I was doing in mali. Right now we are on our Christmas/winter break so pretty much all of the teachers are travelling. Of my stage, 6 people went to Ghana, 1 person met her family in paris, another person went all the way to the states, one brave soldier stayed in village, and then the other three (my group) went to mali, specifically to a place in mali called Dogon Country. Dogon Country is the home of the Dogon people. What makes them really interesting to go see is that in the past, they lived on the side of a long cliff (the bandiagara escarpment as the guidebooks like to say). Think mesa verde in arizona (or maybe its new mexico, I don’t really know). Anyways, its supposed to be one of the top ten sites to see in west Africa but it is not an easy place to see especially for those of Limited Financial Means. The transport there is quite frustrating (the roads are no better in mali – mali ranks one spot ahead of Burkina on the UN human development index at 174 out of 177. Kudos to those of you who can guess the two countries behind Burkina. Here’s a hint, they’re both in west Africa). Once you arrive, you have to get a guide (conceivably, you could do the trek without a guide, but you would almost certainly get lost once you got on top of the plateau) and then at dogon country itself you have to hike with your bags between all the villages (again, if you are not Financially Challenged, you can get SUVs to do all the manual labor). In keeping with my desire to go more than a year without wearing shoes or socks, I hiked in flip-flops.
Really though, the hiking is not that bad and the scenery, especially once you get on top of the escarpment is amazing. That’s where I was for Christmas. I recommend it and I had no major complaints. Check out adam’s blog for pictures –
Alright, now for my third tale surreality. For my highest level class, the troisieme class, they learn about the human body and all the systems within. We had just finished going over the nervous system when I got a question I just never ever would have thought to ask. Never. I can honestly say it never once occurred to me in my life. And the question is not so crazy or out of this world like questions about dragons or bullet-proof potions. It was about something as simple as sleep. I had just finished telling the class that the average person needs 8 hours of sleep to function normally. Right after I said this, one of my students raised his hand and asked – Is it possible for a person to sleep more than 8 hours? I didn’t know how to respond. The question isn’t so weird but it just never would have occurred to me or anyone I know. Luckily, other people in the class reacted to the question as though it were ridiculous. Somebody commented on how babies sleep a lot and sick people. But then I got the question again, but slightly different – Monsieur, is it possible for a healthy adult to sleep more than eight hours? The question made me realize how wonderful air-conditioning is.
Further notes on the end of the trimester. Again, there are no computers at the school. We have to do all the grading and all the calculating by hand and then we have to manually enter the grades into a grade book. For 370 students. It is not an entertaining aspect of my job here. That’s all I’ll say about that.
My fourth and final anecdote is something that simply astounded me. When I was heading to ouaga, the bus from fada broke down about 15 minutes after we took off. This is run of the mill. I’d say that on at least a third of my trips, the bus/taxi brousse breaks down or experiences some other major delay. Usually the chauffeur (driver) and the other workers get off the bus with various Hammers and Wrenches and bang away until it starts to ‘work’ again. This time was no different than any other except that it seemed to be taking a little longer than normal and then they just stopped banging. I had seen this happen before when they had to take a moto into town to get another part to fix the transmission (something which really impressed me with their mechanical ability). This time however, after almost two hours, I saw a guy biking down the road with a drive shaft strapped onto the end of his bike. My immediate reaction, and I quote – ‘You have got to be joking!’ But they did it. They replaced the entire drive shaft on a greyhound size bus on the side of the road in under three hours. What most impressed me was not that they did it; but that they even tried it. I’ve worked at a mechanics shop before. This just does not get attempted in America. But it worked and we got to Ouaga. As my friend corey would say - mad props to bush mechanics (that means good job).
Anyways, I'm heading back to village for new years eve. Its Salif's birthday today and I got him a Ronaldo jersey (however I think the jersey has the wrong number on it; salif will still appreciate it). Then I am preparing for the new trimester which begins on the 5th although the other teachers won't arrive until after Tabasci (a muslim holiday on the 11th - the burkinabés celebrate all religious holidays). What will I be teaching next trimester? Plant growth, insects, metamorphic rocks, volcanoes and earthquakes, and the digestive, circulatory, respiratory, and excretory systems. Wish me luck.
Happy holidays.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Salif and the school of hard knocks

Coming on the tales of my latest post about salif i don't want to continue with criticism so i'll start with a good story about him

- the most popular sport in the world -
Coming here, my sporting options have been quite limited. There is no basketball, baseball, hockey, and quite regrettably no american football. I have been forced to endure that sport that we americans have been religiously avoiding for the past century. My foray into what the rest of the world refers to as football (a blasphemous insult on the far more entertaining american version) began with the Europe champions league final last may which I miraculously watched in Bassi during my training. During the game Liverpool came back from a 3-0 deficit (virtually insurmountable, in real football terms think buffalo bills comeback versus the houston oilers only in a championship game) to beat AC Milan on penalty kicks in overtime. I talked to one of the other volunteers about it the next day and he said it was the greatest game of soccer he had ever seen, which was kind of upsetting because it would mean that it was all downhill from here. The first game I ever watched would be the best.
Nonetheless I continued to follow the sport especially since we were at the exciting time of world cup qualifications and I watched burkina play a few times as well (the locals got really excited when I cheered after burkina scored). And occasionally I would read up on the latest soccer news and inform salif about it which he seemed to appreciate.
Just during this past couple of weeks I arbitrarily chose a favorite player - Herman Crespo. He's an argentinian who plays for Chelsea (the best team in the English Premiership League) and who scored 2 goals for milan during that first game of soccer I watched. This pleased Salif to no end and now we constantly talk about the merits of crespo and ronaldo (salif's favorite player who is often regarded as the best player in the world). I generally make stuff up for these conversations as I know very little about it.

Now for something completely different. Salif has only one son who lives with him (the other lives with his old girlfriend far away) and that son is barely a year old. However, there are a group of little kids who hang around salif's shop (mostly other family members, probably relatives of salif's uncle who owns the place) and run errands for him (and occasionally me) and generally work at the shop as well. They all go to primary school but salif takes his own time to instill some education into them as well: mostly french and math. Here are his reasons. There are too many kids at the school. He wants them to get jobs that require an education (he once told me that he wanted his son to be a doctor or a teacher). He thinks that they are far behind. He thinks that it is wrong that they don't get hit in school anymore.
Back in the day, apparently primary school students were relentlessly beaten if they did poorly in school and salif and his friends have recounted to me tales of beatings. Salif thinks its impossible for the kids to learn if they don't get beaten. So he hits.
I had heard him talking about it before but I had never seen it till last week (i actually went to see him at the beginning of my sadly unsuccessful quest to find a turkey). The kids, boys and girls, were doing work on math and french on tiny little chalkboards made of wood. Salif would write a problem or a phrase or word in french and they would have to fill in the answer, the blank, or just read alound the words. He also has a big wooden chalkboard that he uses for bigger problems and for conjugation of verbs. Everytime they made a mistake he would give them a hard knock on the head and it clearly hurt. They're are strong believers in negative reinforcement in burkina. Some teachers read off the scores on all the tests when they hand them back just to embarrass the kids. And then they ridicule them. Which brings me to another topic.

- the perils of grading 500 papers
I just recently finished grading 500 papers for my classes (4 tests and 1 homework for the sixieme) and it is a hellish experience. What makes it so frustrating is that they don't read what they write down, especially in the lower grades. They try to regurgitate whatever I put on the board, and if they can't remember all the little connecting words they just leave them out or sometimes they use a word that sort of sounds like the other word but means something completely different. They don't read over their response and think about it and notice that it is utterly ridiculous. Which is why I get answers that define a cell as a petite sac that contains (contient) all other living organisms instead of constructs (construit) all other living organisms. Things like that are a huge problem in the lower 2 classes. The quatrieme and the troisieme however generally know french but they suffer from their own problems. The quatrieme refused to ask for explication of a confusingly worded problem with the result that only one person out of 80 got the questions from that section right. They told me later that it was forbidden for students to ask a question about the test in the burkinabe system. To which i quickly replied that I was not a burkinabe (they all laughed at that) and that they know what its like to have an american teacher as they already had one for 2 years. For the troisieme, a significant portion of the class makes no effort for the test because they know that their grade does not matter, only their grade on the BEPC (a test they have to pass to go on to the next level). Nothing I can do about that but I did tell them that if they didn't care to tell me and i would give them a 5 on the test (out of 20. they get grades out of 20 here and passing is 10) for saving me the trouble of grading their test. Anyways,
Nothing else major to report. I've done some more reading lately and I highly recommend the book Pale Fire by Nabokov. Thanksgiving was good. A lot of hanging out with other volunteers, watching movies and just relaxing. No turkey though.
Happy thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

rote repitition, elbow throwing, and the jamais phase

I’ve finished my first month of school. Yayy…

I now am firmly convinced that 80 to 125 kids is too many. Who knew. Other than that, I really don’t have too much to report about teaching, but in the burkinabé tradition of coming up with something to say, even if you don’t need to, I have a few short anecdotes.

- perils of the rote learning system 1 – after I did a lesson on malaria I had my students in
my cinqieme class ask their parents how they thought you get malaria and what they do to manage it, what medicines if any they take. When the responses came back, they all said that malaria comes from the anopheles female mosquito and that you can take drugs like quinine and flouroquine to cure it. They had all wrote down exactly what I had written on the board. I don’t think one person wrote about the traditional medicine that they always use for the palu (French for malaria), which is boiled bark juice. Nor did anyone write about the dangers of overactive yam and milk consumption or evil spirits or the evils of itching which are the responses I usually get from the villagers when I ask about malaria. I chewed them out for it. I’m going try and do something like it again for aids in the hopes that it will turn out better. We’ll see.
- Perils of the rote learning system 2 – for my sixieme class (the lowest level I teach) we are studying flowering plants so for one class I told them all to bring in flowers and then I told them to draw a picture of their flower and identify all the parts that we had already been over. Almost all of them proceeded to draw the flower that I had put on the blackboard during class and then identify it. I went around class asking to see their flowers and when they pointed to their picture I explained that that was not a flower, that was a drawing of a flower. Where’s the flower. This happened at least 6 or 7 times. So instead they have it for homework now.
- Perils of games with 80 students – after finishing with the chapter on muscles for my troisieme class I decided to do a day of review with games and I put all the rows against each other. I had each team send a person to the board and then I would ask a question and then they had to return the chalk to me to signify that they were done. To make matters more difficult, I would hide around the room. Happily, they did become interested in the game, a little too interested and elbows were being thrown to prevent the return of chalk. I’ll have to come up with a new game soon, something less active perhaps.

In other news, this past week we had 2 holidays – All Saints Day and the end of Ramadan – the month of Muslim fasting. Burkina likes to celebrate the holidays of all religions. Ramadan was fun. Most days I would go over to Salif’s place to break the fast with a dried out date and several watermelons (my village is now loaded with watermelons. The first time I saw watermelon here, in july sometime, it was 500 cfa for a watermelon, roughly a dollar. Now they go for 50 cfa, ten cents). This past thursday was the fete (holiday) celebrating the end of Ramadan. I made some banana bread for salif and his friends to help celebrate and then headed over there with cary who was in town visiting for a couple days (she finds the pool to be good for her mental health). While there we had quite the conversation with salif about womens rights. It was very disheartening.

- Perils in womens rights – The discussion got started when I was describing what we in the west do during big holidays – namely big meals with all the family together. Salif explained that they do somewhat the same thing, except that the men eat in one group, the women in another group, and the kids in another. I asked why men and women don’t eat together. Salif told me it was against islam to do that. I remarked that it probably caused problems with the advancement of women’s rights if the dominate religion decrees the men and women must rest apart. Salif noted that men and women are not the same and I agreed but I said that did not mean that they did not deserve the same rights. Salif said that would be impossible and went on to explain the proper role of men and women. The conversation was frustrating to say the least, but more so because salif is my best burkinabé friend. I know I shouldn’t hold him to a higher standard but I do. We got on the subject of women making money and the horrors that come if a women were to make more money than men. He said that women lose their respect for men when they make money. I remarked that perhaps the problem is that the men do not respect the women and when the women attain some success they probably develop more respect for themselves which scares the men (I was even able to use rhyming words in my French discourse on this which made me very happy). Shortly after this, Salif began to dig himself quite the hole. He began, and I quote, “for example, when a man hits his wife …” I tried to stop him at this point but cary insisted that he go on as she was very curious how he was going to justify this. He went on to describe how if the women doesn’t respect her husband she will leave him after he beats her and then who is going to feed the kids. I entered ‘jamais’ phase simply repeating that it would never be justified to hit your wife and then quickly ended the conversation before salif could dig any deeper.

I try not to hold it against him because it is so ingrained into his culture and his religion. But it is disheartening, because it makes you realize how far away from the west you are, and how far Burkina has to go. And it is disheartening that this man, this friend who has helped me so much, who has been so understanding, who stopped wearing his osama bin laden shirt after I commented on it, who just minutes before had promised cary and I that he would get us blaise pagnes (presidential campaign goodies), holds opinions that I find appalling.
But at least we had a conversation. Who knows, maybe my presence and maybe conversations like these will slowly work on his prejudice until one day he has a family dinner with his wife.

Friday, November 04, 2005


if it works,
the first is of me and my host family in bassi, the second of my smallest class.