School Strikes

Trip Start Jun 02, 2003
Trip End Dec 31, 2006

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Flag of Benin  ,
Monday, November 22, 2004

The school year is well underway in N'Dali...or at least, it should be. Normally, we would be gearing up for our first exams of the semester next week, reviewing with our students and preparing the exam schedule. This year, however, I wonder whether the exams will ever take place.

Since the beginning of the year, the "fonctionnaires" (A.K.A. government employees) have been on strike. What does this mean? It means that they have not been teaching. At the beginning of the year, some of these professors taught maybe a couple of days out of the week; others haven't taught a single class. Not ALL of the professors are fonctionnaires; in fact, the majority of the professors are "vacataires," which means that they have been hired by the school to teach a certain number of classes per year. They are paid by a sum of money that the government sends to employ these professors and also by the money that the students must pay to go to school (even though school is supposed to be free to all children in Benin). The vacataires have taught classes this year. However, as of last week, the vacataires of N'Dali decided to go on strike as well. As a result, I was the ONLY teacher holding classes last week, a very depressing experience. Many of my students, thinking that I would be on strike as well, did not even show up, and those who did were not motivated to work, knowing that their fellow classmates were out gallavanting or helping their parents on the farm. I had to explain to them that I am not allowed to strike and that a strike does not benefit me anyway, as I am a volunteer.

This situation is quite scary, actually. Many people wonder whether the year will turn into an "année blanche." An "année blanche" is a "white year," basically a year that has been whited out. If the authorities and the syndicates cannot come to an agreement and this happens, there will be no school and also no exams for an entire year. Vacataires will have to find another way to employ themselves for the year. Students will have to start over again next year in the same grade they began this year. Students who are in the exam years (taking the BAC or BEPC to receive diplomas) will not be able to do so and will have to wait till next year. This happened to my friend Ibourahima back in 1989. Normally, he would have been able to take the BAC exam and therefore graduate, but because of a "white year," he couldn't take the exam and graduate on time and had to repeat the year.

I am not sure when they will make this kind of decision (perhaps December), but until then, things are hanging in imbalance. In some ways, it feels as though the year hasn't quite begun. Our youth club, for example, hasn't quite begun yet because Cécile has not always been there to lead it with me. She is a government contracted professor and is therefore on strike, which means she hasn't even been coming to N'Dali lately.

Oh, the joys of living in a country that doesn't have enough money to educate their youth, or rather, that has corruption on such a high level that the money doesn't go where it should go! What will happen for me if there is a "white year?" That is a question I still do not have the answer to!

Otherwise, things have been VERY busy, in fact so busy, that I am in the process of making some tough decisions as to what work I can manage to do while still maintaining my health. This past weekend, I decided being Gender and Development Coordinator and still fulfilling my commitments at school in N'Dali in addition to doing my moringa project and simply spending time with my friends in my community is simply too much and is affecting my health. I decided to let go of being Gender and Development Coordinator, as much as that pains me because it is the one project that I enjoy the most. Unfortunately, though, Peace Corps volunteers cannot always make the decisions that we want to because we are expected to fulfill our obligations for our primary projects (which, for me, is teaching). My Peace Corps supervisor still wants to discuss this a bit to see if there is not something we can do to avoid my dropping GAD, so who knows.... maybe things will work out in the end. But, until then, this is the way it must be.

In fact, life in Benin has been going well. In N'Dali, I have been enjoying my neighbors and my colleagues. In Parakou, I have really been enjoying spending time with my friends. Yesterday, Julie, the volunteer in Parakou, and I had a luncheon party at her house with Alice, Diane, and Nadege, three girls who used to live in my concession in N'Dali, Moussilima, a young girl who was good friends with Beth, a Parakou volunteer who just left last week, and two young guys, both named Hakibou, who were also friends of Beth. We made frittatta, risotto with real pumpkin, and crepes for dessert, and then we turned it into an afternoon dance party in Julie's living room. Quite fun!

I have also been spending time visiting with Mouda, Ibourahima and Ibourahima's wife. Mouda and Ibourahima are the two guys with whom I do the moringa project. They are both very intelligent and interesting to talk to. Ibourahima's wife is also fun! One day when we were on the way to one of the villages to work with women on the moringa project, I asked Ibourahima how it was that he met and decided to marry his wife. He said that he knew that he wanted a woman who talked a lot because he doesn't and he thought it would be good for him to have someone who forces him to come out of his shell a little bit more. Ibourahima, by nature, is a very quiet guy, kind of introverted, but very kind and with a good sense of humor. He also wanted someone kind because he said the girl he had dated before was sometimes mean. He met his wife at the NGO where they worked together and decided she was the one. I can see why. The word that comes to mind when I think about her is boisterous! She is a large woman (Ibourahima, by contrast, is very tall and thin) with big eyes. She is also very smart and dynamic. It has been good to get to know them better. I haven't met Mouda's girlfriend, yet, but I wonder if she may be a bit more like Ibourahima because Mouda is quite like Ibourahima's wife, someone who can certainly energize the conversation.

I have been realizing more and more how important it is to spend time with people during my Peace Corps experience, that it is THIS that MAKES the experience, more so than the work accomplished and the number of grants you write and receive. Integration is the catch word in Peace Corps, but it is not an easy thing to do. It is easy to spend time in your house, or to concentrate so much on work that you forget how important greeting people is in this culture. But those things do not always bring as much pleasure - or as much peace - as dancing around your friend's living room with a bunch of young Beninese kids to music that, although you may not understand the lyrics, has a rhythm that is universal.
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