June 26, 2011

A portrait, briefly, of the school

As much as any description is layered, to degrees of thickness, with one's perceptions and values, I offer this portrait of the Zambian school, colored by the paints of my own thoughts and preconceptions.

The walls are often bare; the blackboard more often than not is painted in the front of the class, with black drips permanently splashed on the space between the board and the floor, as if the wall is melting in the heat of the dry season. The desks, normally arranged to face the front, are divided into groups to adhere to standards of a new curriculum development by an NGO. In fact, the school building itself, too nice in comparison to others, is the product of funding from JICA, a Japanese Peace Corps-esque aid organization. Posters sourced from Scandinavian NGOs and textbooks sponsored by USAID are constant reminders of the interconnectedness, what others would term dependence, of the developing African public school system. I am the only human sign of this foreign aid, other reforms have been already carried out or dropped from above: their authors having spent a few moments on the ground before returning to their countries, or sending funds and paperwork from abroad, satellite technicians of development.

The chalk powdered footprints of pupils lead outside, where they disappear where the concrete gives way quickly to dirt. The campus of the school and its gardens are neat, and pupils can be seen sweeping with bundles of branches and slashing grass with moderately sharpened curved metal rods. The classroom block which stands out from the others was one of the original buildings left after the new blocks were completed two years ago. Its ceiling beams are logs, rather than metal, the doorways are not encumbered by doors. Its middle classroom has holes in the floor large enough to swallow pencils and notebooks; the only room with a door, but no lock, is an office, also unused. The classes which are used have glassless windows which frame the bustle of women and children fetching watcher from a nearby bore hole. The walls are scrawled with incorrectly spelled messages in English advocating the smoking of weed and mourning the loss of dead friends and former lovers. The desks are a physical phenomenon in themselves. Often missing essential components such as nuts and bolts to hold them together, they can be precarious to sit on, and fall apart when moved. When functioning, they often hold more than their shape would allow; in fact, the presence of a visitor such as myself in an already overfull classroom sends ripples which moves students to four or five per desk, adolescent legs splayed as shoulders tightly touch. The edges of the desks, particle board with a slight bevel, wear significant signs of wear as they are moved from classrooms by the students themselves, shifting around to accommodate for fluctuating attendance.

The Head Teacher's office, immaculate, with piles of reports and letters stamped into officiality with the proper Ministry of Education stamps and signatures. And endless progression of parents, pupils, and community members come through, requesting transfers to and from other schools, bringing school purchased brooms and produce, and getting documentation of school fees paid for by NGOs. The library, so-called, is a locked cabinet with books cared for since their deployment, since it is not known when more will arrive.

The trees in front of the school are tall, some of them fir trees despite the climate, and I search for a metaphor to relate them to. If the Bemba proverb is true, and young trees make the forest, what happens if they aren't taken care of, or are overrun by weeds?

The pupils, with their pencils as nubs so small they look as if they are writing with nothing. A single razor blade, bent in half, is passed around the children and they slice slowly, in violation of nearly every American safety principle, in order to have them just sharp enough to write. They wet the graphite with their tongues and continue writing. A plastic bag plays the role of a pupil's backpack, and an empty liquor packet his or her pencil case.

And I will end here, and continue later.

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