June 26, 2011

School, First Week

The Zambian school system is not unfamiliar with decorum and procedure, but, in fact, revels in them. It is not uncommon to see a teacher arrive at school in a suit and white wingtip shoes, while many of his pupils lack uniforms and often shoes at all. This is not necessarily a sign of equality but the professional expectations of the institution. Despite lack of resources, lesson plans are strictly laid out and carefully drafted; teachers will spend their morning locating the necessary chalk and rulers to ensure their blackboards are tidy, structured, and pleasing to the eye. This infatuation with order is mimicked in the pupils' books, like echoes, and a blackboard's worth of information is copied verbatim, complete with titles and illustrations, so that the pupil can gain and retain information without having to read it, lest understand it. This is the system I operate in, seek to reform (the Ministry of Education describes my role as demonstrating and promoting learner-centered teaching), but at first I must understand it and integrate into it. So far this has meant waking up before roosters are able to disturb me, and bicycling through the dewy brush in a professional work appearance I never adopted in the States, taking copius notes, despite there being a secretary, of all meetings, and attend all of them I can; reading Ministry of Education's publications, despite much of them being dry as they are rigorous and some being printed in Comic Sans; filling out, as systematically as the morning will allow, observation forms while sitting in desks at the back of classes (or often, in a lone chair which makes me feel more the object than observer, especially when fifty first grade eyes are trained on me). This is not the image the mention of Peace Corps suggests (the intrepid American planting lima beans or digging latrines, son of the Kennedyesque era, which was before the institution dropped out of the public light); this does not bother me, nor does the title of Volunteer keep me from working, for in fact there is much to do. Attendance, particularly of girls and especially during agriculturally significant months, is low. Even when pupils pass entrance exams to the upper tiers of schooling, a limited amount of seats, particularly in high schools, means that those who have earned a place are not guaranteed it, and even if they gain entrance, their families may not be able to afford the fees. Although HIV/AIDS is on the curriculum, the official numbers of infected in Zambia only recently fell; teachers in particular, due to variety of factors, contract it more than average. These issues are not unknown to Zambians and the Ministry of Education; however, lack of resources, infrastructure, staff, and simply money keep many of the Ministry's well-intentioned and often robust policies from reaching full, or adequate, fruition. But I have few answers, and in fact have not discovered many of the questions. Instead I am working, week by week, at a Zambian Basic School (Grades 1-7 plus 8 and 9), listening to meetings bookended by opening and closing prayers, blanketed by systematic agendas; I am moving desks, some of them falling apart on setting them down, to fit an excessive amount of pupils in less classrooms with even fewer teachers; I am treating, as best I can, nosebleeds which leave in their wake a trail of crimson spots; in some cases, I am just showing up to see what I can do, or what I can see. We'll leave systematic policies and overarching solutions for another day.

About being a hero: Please don't let these rants be mistaken for a narrative, and its author a hero. I'm not particularly adventurous, as a child I would stand with a bed sheet as a cape at the end of the couch and not jump. I find comfort in the status quo while pretending not to. I am an iconoclast only on paper. If you see a picture of me with dark skinned African children, please know I am in their continent and these are probably my neighbors or students and that I am in no way saving them, giving them shoes, medicine, or adopting them. I am not Matt Damon. They are not the same children you saw on infomercials, they are just kids, full of energy and irreverent, fun on some days and annoying on others. Please don't see a picture of them as an invitation to send money, clothes, or pencils, even if they lack these: they need opportunities, not stuff. Opportunities that are not scattered, but flowing and even rampant. But don't let anyone, especially me, talk for them or put them on a billboard. Ask them for yourself. This sermon is brought to you by your American tax dollars.

1 comment:

  1. 'Hero', yes, may be condescending. It's an interesting word, in each context, because the question is always who saves who, and saves/ gives what, right? (yes, I see Foucault here, sorry)

    I know you are not being a hero, you do what you can, and less what you want, and for sure, you have to do things that you don't see the point of it. But at least you were willing to try, to dive in a context that it's not yours, and you left a bunch of stuff behind, some you miss, others, not really. I know you want to open your mind and hopefully, one day do something meaningful with all you acquired. I don't know if that makes you a hero, but for sure it makes you special, willing to try to think out of the box, and someone who is able to leave its own comfort zone. Not many of us can. And in a time where hegemony reigns, more people like you do matter.

    [pardon my 'French', and my lonnnnnnnng Portuguese writing sentences; you are used to, your readers aren't]