Five blogs in one: apprenticeship updates

Last Saturday, the 15th of January, marked the halfway point of our seven-month stay in Senegal. Three and a half months down, three and a half to go. I find it hard to believe that we are already on the downward slope, when so many things are only just beginning.

In my apprenticeship at l’Ecole Sebiroute for example, I have suddenly found myself launched into a whole new array of exciting activities: introducing students to the computer lab and the library, starting an english club at the high school, and sitting in on women’s alphabetization classes (see previous blog…). I feel as though my first two months here were but a gradual preparation for being able to do what I do today; and I feel as though I’ve had to travel miles to get to this point of actually starting to work. Its like when you’re hiking in Maine and for the first good portion of the journey you’re under tree cover and you can’t be entirely sure of where you are or where you’re headed, or if you’ll ever break through. And then suddenly you break through the tree line and you can see all around you, and ahead of you – the fruits of your current and past labors. The path isn’t any easier, and often times it gets rockier and steeper. But still, its definitely the best part of the climb.

I’d like to dedicate this blog post to retracing the various steps I’ve been through in my apprenticeship, in order for any subsequent stories I’d like to tell to make any sense. I apologize in advance for the length of this blog, which probably should have been staggered in four or five previous others. But I decided it was needed, to give a more realistic picture of what its really like to be a volunteer. I stopped writing blogs about my apprenticehip for a while because nothing significant was happening. There have always been lots of exciting possibilities, but nothing was concrete enough to write about. Often, a day’s worth of ‘progress’ would consist of merely managing to have a casual conversation with a certain someone; although I rarely failed to find some way to occupy myself for the remaining five hours I would spend at the school.

For my main task over the past few months has been to determine my role within the school community, a challenging, delicate process considering what I had to work from. For the teachers at the school, I arrived on day one as nothing more than a nineteen year-old white girl who looked even younger, who had no teaching experience whatsoever, and who could barely speak French. No one was openly skeptical (the Senegalese are incapable of being anything but welcoming) but the obvious question hovering in the air, that even I began to ask myself, and that I sometimes still ask, was: what right on earth do I have to claim any role of significance within this school? Even if that role was going to consist merely of sitting around and watching?

I spent the first month, November, basically getting oriented – sitting in on classes, talking to teachers and observing the general goings on within and without the school walls. During this time I also started tutoring the teachers in their computer lab, which had basically been untouched until my arrival. Even though this might not have been my job of choice, I was glad and lucky to have found some way to have been of use so early on; to temporarily validate my presence. Also significant of my first month in my apprenticeship were the few times when, while sitting in on classes, the teachers would suddenly hand me the ruler and the rubber whip and send me to stand at the front of the class while they ‘went to toilet’ for sometimes up to a half hour. These first few failed attempts to control boisterous classes of forty to fifty little Wolof-speaking kids were a little discouraging to say the least. After having my fill of ‘observation’ I gradually retreated from the classrooms, thinking to myself that if I ever wanted to have a role teaching in this school, the typical classroom setting was not going to be the place for me. Teachers need to be loud and fierce, and to have a strong command of the local native language, Wolof, in order to have any authority. Loud and fierce would probably be the last words I would have used to describe myself, and I barely spoke a word of Wolof. To have proposed alternative methods would have just confused the kids and frustrated the teachers.

So I spent more and more time in the computer lab and in the library, and as time went on, especially in the library. This space, like the computer lab, had been out of use until one day, as though on a whim, the school director decided to let me peak inside. The library consisted basically of a roomful of dusty books all donated from France, stacked in what seemed like random piles on tables and shelves. Put a hand down on any flat surface and it would be covered in a reddish brown dust. There were ant hills clumping in the cracks of the floor, cobwebs dangling from the ceiling and the windows, and the skeletons of lizards and other crawly things lurking in corners. Many of the books were crawling with insects, the edges of their pages already eaten away.

Discovering the old registries of take-outs I saw that the library had indeed been in use for several years, from 2004 to 2007. Only a few take-outs in 2008 and I was literally the first for 2009. Apparently the story was that there used to be a librarian, but that two years ago she had been summoned to supervise the high school students, who had come to occupy the first two rows of classrooms belonging to this elementary school, when they ran out of space up at the middle school. (Sebikotane doesn’t have a high school, although according to my host mother they have already received a grant to build one and are merely in the process of choosing a site). Besides the strain imposed by the invasion of the high school students taking their classrooms and their librarian, the past two years were particularly hard on l’Ecole Sebiroute due to all the teacher strikes. Their salaries must have truly been abysmal, for the teachers to have justified abandoning their students for as long as they did. For although this school year has been relatively steady so far, the consequences of the past two are still felt. Students in the higher grades (4th -5th graders) are weak in essential skills they need to proceed in their education, and most evident among these, the ability to read.

Convincing the director to one day let me ‘move things around a little’ I soon set to the task of transforming the room full of dust and books into a library. This task occupied me for most of December and was very satisfying: both the physical labor of scrubbing and dusting and lifting, and the intellectual one of sorting each book into its appropriate section: reference, novels, classics and children’s sections. The children’s books interested me most, and I put a little extra care into the creation of a sort of ‘children’s corner,’ le coin des enfants, and from this you might be able to guess where my thoughts were headed, right from the very start. I have always been fond of children’s literature, and unlike all my friends who always changed their minds, when I was young (up until about high school when things got more complicated) I would tell anyone who asked me that my dream profession was to become an author and illustrator of children’s books. This is probably because the books and stories of my child hood, which my parents would read to me every night before bed, certainly had a profound impact on me – on the development of my imagination, my character, my ability to discern right from wrong.

And so as I scrubbed, dusted and sorted, sifting through what felt like a mysterious treasure vault of precious materials that I felt strangely fortunate to have stumbled upon (I mean really, how many volunteers are lucky enough to have a whole, untouched roomful of books at their disposal?), I had a lot of time to think – about the ability of books to expand one’s perspective on life, and about reading as the essential basis of a young person’s education. About my own personal experiences with books, and about the scarcity/nonexistence of books in Senegalese households. And then finally, about the widespread difficulties teachers were having with teaching kids how to read. Gradually each of these pieces slid into place, and by mid December seemed to fit together and solidify into one, simple, beautiful idea: why not introduce library activities?

A wonderful idea, yes, but the difficult part was of course going to be realizing it: all the practical details of precisely who, what, when, where, why and how. I started mentioning the idea to a few teachers here and there, and most responses were vaguely encouraging. Although, I realize now, most of them probably didn’t quite understand what I was talking about, or didn’t expect me to actually pursue the idea. For the teachers of l’Ecole Sebiroute have no shortage of good intentions; its just the step of actually starting things that is so easily pushed away, especially by people who are already ‘exhausted’ with their work and who frankly care more about their personal lives beyond school. How else could one explain how they managed to leave both a computer lab and a library locked up for over a year?

So I think it took everyone a little bit by surprise, when, one day in early January, I showed up at the doorstep of each classroom with a five page long letter and project proposal. I had spent a few days during the December vacation preparing this letter, in the wonderfully quiet, deserted computer lab. After spending a week gently pestering a bed-ridden M. Faye (the school director had fallen ill) to give his approval, we had the letter sent to Rufisque to have copies made. In the letter, I thanked the teachers for having welcomed me so graciously among them and then went on to explain that I had some ideas of projects that I would like to try with them, but that I needed their input, feedback and support in order to proceed. The two projects that I outlined were to a) start the computer classes for the students and b) to introduce the students to the freshly opened library with reading activities, ‘à la modele of what ‘we do in school libraries in the United States.’ I explained why these activities could be of value to them and their students and also to me personally. They’re not going to read your letter, M. Faye had warned me, trust me, I know them… But I had insisted that this was the best way I could think of to proceed.

The computer classes were relatively easy to get started considering everyone knew that these had been, after all, the whole purpose of the lab ever since the day it had been installed. The director himself made a schedule and all I had to do was hand it out and tell the teachers who had sent it. And then one day, one of the teachers decided to send all the girls in his class, into the lab to clean (boys never partake in ‘feminine’ tasks such as cleaning). Huge piles of dust were swept out the door, table tops were wiped down, and the plastic was finally removed from the fancy, extra-comfy black chairs. It was like a present finally unwrapped, and I felt that the day was a significant beginning. During the three weeks since, by following the schedule and dividing each class into groups, I have managed to teach six classes of forty to fifty kids the first most essential step in computering: how to use the mouse.

The library activities on the other hand, I knew, were going to be more difficult to get started. To hand out another schedule to ensure each class a slot during the week would have been too much, not just for the teachers, but for me as well. The idea, as outlined in my letter, was that those teachers who thought the activities I had described could be beneficial for their students, would approach me individually, to organize a specific time. Almost a week went by, and having yet to receive a single response or comment, I was starting to feel a little stupid, and to think I should have listened more carefully to M. Faye’s advice. The news from the other fellows, related to me through Victoria, the master-texter, was that we were all facing similar frustrations at this particular stage in our bridge years. The halfway point was approaching and we were each struggling with the same transition in our apprenticeships: the transition from passive observers to active members of our work-places, pursuing individually crafted projects.

And then suddenly, one day as I was preparing to leave for Dakar for our monthly meeting, a teacher called me over to her classroom as I passed. It was, I dare to say, the most unlikely teacher of all – Mme Lo, a young teacher who, after her first two years in the profession, visibly despises her job. ‘So when are you going to start the activities in the library?’ she asked me. ‘Well how about next Monday?’ I asked. ‘I’ll spend some time observing your class and then I’ll take the first small group out whenever it won’t be too disruptive.’

And, simple as cake, that was how my ‘idea’ finally, miraculously, two and a half months since my arrival in Sebikotane, came to life. I hope to write more about this soon – about collecting hay, sticks and bricks, and learning how to say ‘who’s afraid of the big bad wolf’ in Wolof – but that will have to wait until after I have sufficiently recovered from this epic post. I hope at the very least, this clears things up a little bit.