Trip Start Aug 26, 2007
13Trip End Dec 16, 2007
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I am actually leaving this place on December 16th.
Time is winding down, and when I return to the familiar scenery of middle-class America, the sights and events and attitudes that have become part of my daily life here will suddenly become far-away and foreign once again -fading memories at best. I haven't lost the acute appreciation (often humorous) I have for peculiarities of this place, like herds of adorable roaming goats, or women whose highly held heads support heavy loads of food and tools with dresses that know the true meaning of color, or smiling circles of people (often young men around an attaya pot), shouting greetings to everyone that passes by. But now I do expect to see these things, and I can only imagine how bare the well-paved roads of America will seem without them. One night I had one of those dreams that just leaves you with an irrational gloom all morning; I dreamt that I was home again, but when I greeted everyone with a warm "salaam aleikum," they only looked at me strangely and coldly. It was just a little bit heartbreaking to think about. This place has, in the short time I've been here, left a mark on me,. And come December 16th, I will be leaving it in a more drastic way than I've ever left a place before. It was not just a quick vacation. I will not be returning next season. This was my first real experience abroad. This became a home for me. I have gone through so many new things here, and it left a mark on me during the short time I was here. But I will very likely never see it or experience anything quite like it again. I'm at the point bow where I feel much more comfortable and confident with really exploring the country (though I suspect I might eternally place myself at this point, no matter how long I stay). But instead I am leaving it. So, besides just wanting to express these thoughts I've been having, I'm using them as a justification for why, in these last frenzied weeks, seeing and doing things has become more of a priority for me than reflection.
But, I have also just been a little lazy, so I am going to try to sum up some of the things I've been thinking and doing over the past couple weeks.
Jennie and I left for Tungbun Art village to meet a couple other St. Mary's students (home of Etu, and the subject of previous entries) after a rather hectic meeting with the Child Protection Alliance (CPA) one Saturday afternoon. The rickety gellies (if I haven't mentioned this before, these are large, cheap forms of transportation that are very convenient, as long as they don't break down on their route) took us along the coast, away from the city and towards the beautiful, surreal world of Tungbun. We made it to the nearby fishing village of Tanji, where the horizon to open up into a long, blue shore dotted with small fishing boats, just in time to see the large, burning orange sun sink into the ocean.
It was dark when we arrived, and we passed a slow night stargazing and chatting with Etu and some passing visitors. We wanted to get a good nights sleep to prepare for an amazing favor Etu had asked of us: painting one of the new huts he had built. In a normal place this might have meant adding a smooth beige color to the walls. At Etu's it meant converging on the outside walls of the hut with unrestrained color and creativity to make it match the rest of the village. The next morning after showing us the paint, Etu left us to our own imaginations and the "work" began. Though I am fairly well practiced in doodling, especially in the margins of all my notebooks, letting my designs loose on a house was a bit of a jump. But after we'd mixed the paints, we all started to loosen up, splattering a free-flowing bule and white base around the hut. It was a beautiful sunny day (as all days are in Gambia this time of year), and we were surrounded by incredible natural and made-made beauty, and it was hard not to feel a little inspired. We all split off to different sides of the hut and became engrossed in our own spontaneous creations. It was a glorious day's work, and as it reached the time for us to leave to bike back to Kanifing before night, we all stepped back from the hut a little shocked by the way all the different colors and designs had come together to occupy their own little corner of Tungbun. Etu showed his approval with a radiant laugh and clap of the hands as he circiled the hut, promising to name it after us. It was amazing to be able to give something back to him and the village for all the enjoyment we'd had there. It was amazing to be able to leave our own little mark on the village. It was amazing just to BE there. I hope we'll have time to go back once more, but time is really running low. In the end though, even if I never get to see Tungbun again, it makes me a little happier just knowing that a place like that exists, that such an enthusiastic, creative, eager man like Etu has been able to create such a remarkable reality in this small corner of a small country.
Our group has had a lot of experience with the education system here in The Gambia. Though not a single one of us has any real plans to become a teacher, it is one of our most common topics of conversation. This may improve our fluency on the topic, or it may just increase our bias. We are all teachers or volunteers at local schools we've experienced a variety of subjects, grades, and schools, even one school for mentally retarted children. And as students of Gambian higher education, we've been able to look at how the attitude towards education and children in general influences higher education.
In all, we've found that education, as an idea, is highly valued in The Gambia. Children are very aware of how important school is to a successful lifestyle, and the government itself understands that education is important for development of the nation as a whole. But between the idea and the reality, something seems to have been lost. New schools are being built, but what goes on inside that building has enjoyed less improvement. There are not enough teachers, it is not uncommon for students to sit in a classroom without a teacher. (Hence why we were quickly signed up to fill spots). Those teachers who are there may not even be trained, and those who are might only be teaching to save up some money to pursue a more lucrative career (teachers' salaries are very low), and thus often won't be very committed to their job.
What students do in these classrooms can be just as discouraging. The bulk of a student's day is spent sitting silently in their chair copying notes from a blackboard. Participation means regurgitating information just given by the teacher and it requires an absolute minimum of actual thought. If an assignment is actually given, very few of the 40 to 50 students who may or may not have their books and supplies actually understand as the teacher calls off the right answer during the 30 minute class. More than anything, these students seem to learn copying, and this "skill" seems to pervade everything they do. In art class, when told to use their imaginations to draw anything, the students tend copy one or two other people, who may also just be copying a picture out of a book. During tests or on homework, coping is rampant in our experiences. And during other classes, students are often so busy finishing copying notes from the previous class that they won't even listen to the teacher. (but according to them, this is not a problem, as all the necessary information should be on the board, and they can just copy that from someone else who was able to copy it off of the blackboard.) Something interesting happens when students reach higher levels of education, especially those who score high enough on standardized tests to go on to senior secondary school,(10th to 12th grade) and maybe even (though rarely) have the test scores and money to attend college (which focuses more on practical training for select professions) or university. Students are at this point encouraged to begin to speak with the same confidence and authority as their teachers do with them. Just listening to the way these students talk you can begin to see traces of this training. They tend to speak in a formal, structured format: addressing their audience, introducing themselves, listing their topics , and ending with a very general, prescriptive statement. In many ways these ca be very valuable, and there have been many times that I've been quite impressed by the presence some Gambian students have when they talk. But at the same time, I've seen plenty of examples of how this well-formed frame is just a diversion for the largely empty words inside of it. Or, continuing that ever-entrenched skill, it is just a slightly altered copy of someone else's words. This is by no means always the case, it is at best a tendency, but I do see it as evidence of something that is very troubling about Gambian education and the way it approaches learning and children. Students are in not sufficiently encouraged to think critically or to hold intellectual discussion, and the styles of student participation often only further entrench the authoritarian form of "learning."
In some of our university classes this pattern continues.
Discussion occurs rarely; if the teacher does provide time for discussion they may interrupt or even correct students' about their opinions, or do not seem to take students seriously. Also, other students often interrupt each other and listen so little to other students' opinions that discussion may be pointless. This is made worse when statements are so general and not based in fact that it is impossible to debate them. I'm not in the position to assess just how typical this situation is, and I definitely do not have the expertise to judge why it occurs, but from my perspective it is a dangerous and overly-common trend.
All of this was basically a very long introduction to an organization that is struggling - at some times more actively than others - to challenge these tendencies. The Child Protection Alliance is a UNICEF-sponsored organization promoting child rights in different countries through improved government policies and educational programs. There is one very interesting part of this organization - Voice of the Young - which has emphasized that it is the children themselves who should be empowered to speak for themselves against child rights violations. I was immediately attracted to this concept, it seemed like a great way to encourage leadership and positive, sustainable progress in child rights. But I have to acknowledge that this approval comes from my decidedly Western perspective, and that it is attracted to an idea that came from other Westerners and was then transplanted to the Gambia. On top of this, we also observed that it was Western volunteers (one from Canada, another from Britain) who were taking charge of the activities of the group, "training" the Gambian staff (often with a decidedly patronizing tone) who were not as familiar with the way such a program would be run.
I could dance back and forth with cultural relativity and generalizations trying to diagnose the problems with Voice, but no matter how you look at it, there is something remarkable about this organization where intelligent, motivated students came together by their own will to seek greater responsibility and knowledge of a complex, controversial issue. Regardless of the nuances, these kids are impressive. And it was this that made Jennie and I so determined to help there, even though we quickly noticed that this organization, struggling just to run smoothly, did not have many organized opportunities for impermanent student volunteers. So we decided to create our own forum to help - we proposed the idea of a weekend leadership and educational program that we organized, funded, and led by ourselves. Over the course of the next month or so we learned more about Voice and CPA, and received somewhat hesitant support for our idea - they seemed very used to foreign volunteers who were eager to help, but maybe not too committed in the long run.
For our own part, Jennie and I realized that even if we had some experience with similar activities in the past, organizing them in a developing country is entirely different. The CPA office didn't have internet or a copier, for example. Contacting the students is near-impossible. Students, especially girls don't have the kind of free afternoons that we do. And if you're hoping to run to a store for a last minute errand, expect everything to go wrong just as quickly. The fact that the day of our event was at 1:30 on a sort of national cleaning holiday, called Setsital, where the whole country shuts down and people stay inside until 1pm added plenty of difficulties for us. To account for these things we didn't have activities actually starting until 2pm on the schedule. This schedule became little more than a rough suggestion when the CPA representative didn't even show up to let us into the building until a little past 2pm. But perhaps this and organizing a day-long workshop for 30 kids in a foreign country would have been more stressful had we not adopted some of the "Gambia, no problem!" attitude over the past 3 months. It was fairly clear that something good would come out of the day, and we hardly knew what to expect anyway. And so we just let things happen. The day had our clear American mark on it; from our neatly designed brochure, to our art activities, to our group discussions, to the salad we served with lunch (mixed fresh vegetables is a strange idea for Gambians). But our expectations were flexible, and the children were remarkably open enough that, besides the salad that largely ended up in the trash, the Gambian and the American seemed to mix quite well. I'd been a little terrified that we would be left with a small, blank faced, silent crowd for the whole day, but almost every students who signed up arrived, despite the problems with transportation, and got involved in the activities. And thought there was the occasional amused look about some of our strange ideas, like arranging the chairs in a circle instead of a classroom format, the students went along enthusiastically and even participated.
It was good, very good, but by the lunch break I was a little frustrated by the way everyone tended to look to Jennie or me for approval, and the way the same couple kids would adopt that practiced presenter's posture and speak for the group when we asked questions. The next thing on the agenda was small group discussions leading into a big group discussion about different news articles we'd provided and the complex ways they were all woven together in the problem of child rights. It was not like the "draw a leader" kind of activities we'd had earlier. If people weren't actually thinking critically and discussing as a group it was going to crash and burn. Jennie and I decided to gamble and give more time to this and take out the next activity, hoping that it would make the discussion more productive and not just more painful. After some words about the importance of probing questions and open discussion we let them take charge of the activity. I can't say it went perfectly, there were definitely some bumpy parts, and the format was a little awkward for some of them, but at one point when new voices were popping up in the circle giving their own thoughts about the benefits and consequences of industrialization and especially its effects on children, I had to stop myself from laughing aloud with excitement. Without a word from Jennie or I they were pushing the discussion further, keeping it on topic, building on each other's comments, and making summative conclusions. College classrooms full of American kids who've had the Socratic style drilled into them since middle school, who've expressed their views to the point of arrogance for years couldn't do what these students were doing. It was an inspiring moment, just the kind that I really needed after weeks of work and uncertainty. Taken as a whole the process of organizing the workshop was a complicated one, it taught me intricacies of NGOs and cultural interaction and was often quite frustrating and even discouraging. But After that discussion and as the day wrapped up, I decided to take my happy ending. Maybe it was the overly simplistic conclusion, but I liked to think that over the course of our workshop and its planning we'd really shared substantial, real benefits with the students in Voice. Our experiences in The Gambia are often frustrating and confusing, and in the often overwhelming swarm of evidence of poverty and lacking public services and infrastructure, it does not really seem that we can have any real positive impact here. But it was hard not to feel hopeful after that afternoon, and I embraced the idealism after the cynicism that comes from so many of my daily experiences here.