Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Season's greetings!

December 17, 2012

Season’s Greetings!    During this holiday time, as Americans buy gifts, decorate Christmas trees, and snuggle inside their toasty houses to watch the snow fall during beautiful blizzards, Burkina Faso is also preparing to celebrate Christmas and New Year’s!  But instead of white, shimmering snow and icicles, and tasty treats to eat while drinking a rich cup of cocoa, we folks just south of the Sahara desert are enjoying the cooler temperatures and lots of fresh produce in the marché!  Heck, who needs candy canes?  Or presents?  Or Christmas lights?  I am, at the moment (and for about the next month or two) blessed to have all I could ever need to live comfortably:  weather that’s tolerable – I even throw a long sleeve on at night, and snuggle under a thin blanket to sleep because it drops to a chilly 75 degrees! – as well as to have  several different types of vegetables to buy in the marché, like cucumbers, green beans, carrots, and fresh lettuce!    Really, life is pretty good right now … and it’s times like this when I think to myself (or aloud to my Peace Corps friends), “You know, maybe I do want to stay for a third year.  The weather’s beautiful, I’m not sweating profusely every minute, drinking a hundred gallons of water each day to prevent becoming dehydrated; I eat lots of fresh veggies and fruits every day that were grown in my village by my neighbors, I enjoy my work…”   And then something stupid/frustrating happens, and I remember exactly why I do NOT want to stay an extra year and why America is, for the most part, really really awesome.   Also, my friends and I find it helpful (and necessary) to remind ourselves that, while we are currently “living in paradise” (almost), this pleasant period in Burkina Faso will be over in just a few months, and then we will be in Hell.  Literally.  Temperatures will soar above 120 degrees F, water will boil just by being left outside, all the water sources will dry up, and all that will be left to eat is dried leaves made into a slimy sauce, onions, and bien sur (of course), boiled corn flour paste, i.e. .   YUMMY!  

So, as Christmas is soon coming, followed by the commencement of 2013, here’s a completely random ensemble of things I’d like to write about tonight!   Enjoy!

The school year is well underway (well, kinda, if you don’t count the random days we didn’t have school for no reason at all and no one told me so I still showed up to school) and the first trimester is just about over.  I have to finish correcting tests by tomorrow (ONLY about 120 left….maybe I shouldn’t be writing this blog right now?), calculate their final grades, and then write them in the CEG’s big book of grades.  I then have to meet with my “homeroom” class (each professor is assigned one class, to which we are their “principal professor” or rather, homeroom teacher), and, by hand, we will calculate each student’s trimester average for all of their classes combined, kinda of like their GPA.  THEN, again by hand of course, we will rank all of the averages in the entire class – all 120 kids! – and figure out who is the top student, the second best, who is the 10th, the 60th, last, etc.  Also, we need to determine how many boys compared to girls are passing, etc. Just basically a huge bunch of very basic statistics and data that, if we were using a computer would take just a few minutes, but because we need to do it by hand with our students, it takes hours.  Oh joy.  And this is what I get to do when I get back to village tomorrow.  I’m thinking maybe I’ll just hide out in Ouaga?....  Anyways, once grades are all finished, school is officially done until about January 4 or so (just like in America).  The teachers and I will probably go out for a beer after the last day of school, and things will probably get interesting…I’ll probably get proposed to at least twice, and also asked why American men aren’t bothered by “their” women having jobs and making more money than them, or why men in the US do laundry/cook/clean, because that’s the women’s job, duh.   And I’ll probably find all of this highly entertaining.  

Things that currently make me very happy about my school: 
1.  My students.  They are so cute!  And some of my 6th and 7th graders are SO smart.  But mainly, they’re just fun.  They’re curious and excited and love doing new things, from learning “higher level” math (like material they wouldn’t normally see until high school, such as 50 = 1) to singing “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” in both French and English. 
2.  Trees.  We planted a bunch of different trees all around the new classroom building this past spring/summer, and it’s been nice to see them grow from little stems to small sticks of wood sprouting out of the ground.  And, best of all, for the most part the students (under instructions from the professors), water the trees daily.
3.  Coworkers.  Pretty much the same teachers as last year, all youngish guys.  We even got a physical education teacher this year!  Woohoo!  It’s great to see the kids do jumping jacks and run laps around the soccer field once or twice a week – it’s so good for them, and they have a lot of fun doing it.  Plus it helps them pay attention better when they’re actually in the classroom.

Things that currently make me very unhappy about my school:
1.  My students.  Urgh.  They are so frustrating.  I know it’s not really their fault, but… THEY CAN’T READ!!!  This is a serious problem.  Also, whoever thought it was “okay” to cram 120 raging hormonal 13-16 year-olds into ONE classroom with one sole teacher was an idiot.  Worst idea ever.  120 kids at any time, any age is bad enough.  But coming-of-age adolescents?   Ridiculous.  And Burkinabe wonder why their educational system isn’t working…
2.  Trees.  Pretty sure all the trees we planted are now dead.  Well, alright, the jatropha are doing okay, but the papaya are definitely dead, and the moringa scarred for life.  Why? Because no one can close the stupid gate when they enter/exit the new building, which is surrounded my grillage (metal fencing) to keep out animals and stray kids.  What’s the point of putting up grillage, if you’re not even going to make sure the door is shut, especially at the end of the day and on weekends, and then, worst of all, not blink twice when a villager leads his herd of goats to lunch on the school’s new trees?!?!??
3.  Coworkers.  Being the only female AND an American, sometimes I’m ignored  -- I’m not sure whether this is unintentional…or on purpose.  They also “forget” to tell me things, such as, “There’s no school tomorrow,” and “The director is no longer the director of our CEG, as he’s been MIA for 3 weeks.”

Not to rant or anything, but here’s a bit more on the “problems” (and joys) I’ve recently experienced at school.  Firstly, the director.  He’s a good guy and had worked as director at our CEG for about 8 years now.  That’s a LONG time in Burkina to remain at the same job/site.  Especially since the school was kinda in the middle of nowhere, as opposed to a big city with good things to eat, Internet, and reliable transport.  Well one day, the director wasn’t at school.  Not a big deal, since he is the director, after all, and he can do as he pleases.  Also, sometimes his directorial duties require him to travel and talk to higher up guys in “headquarters.”  So, the director was gone.  And a few days later, he was still gone.  Then he came back for a day.  And then was gone again.  FOR THREE WEEKS!  Not only was our school suffering from lack of a director, but because there are not nearly enough teachers (we have only 5 teachers counting me, for over 800 kids), the director was also teaching French to several of the classes.  Thus, these kids didn’t have French class for over three weeks!  Nada!  Zero!  Rien!  No wonder why kids here are stupid – they’re never in school, and even if they’re “at” school, their teachers aren’t!   I basically assumed the director had had enough of “village life” and was not coming back, but just to make sure, I finally asked the other teachers and everyone just shrugged their shoulders.  This would never happen in America.  You don’t just leave a job without warning.  And if you do, there are CONSEQUENCES, as in you won’t get hired again, bad recommendations, public shame, etc.  But those things don’t exist here, and so it’s very common for people in the public service sector – who are so vitally important to the functioning of basic services, such as schools and hospitals – to just up and leave, without a warning, without any subsequent consequences.  So, my CEG no longer has a director, we are short even more teachers, our secretary just had a baby, and we are still waiting to meet our economie (financial guy), who was supposed to arrive LAST MARCH, but still hasn’t shown up…even though everyone still says that he’s coming...though they don’t know his name.  I’m gonna go ahead and say that there’s a pretty good chance that he’s NOT ever going to show up…just takin’ a wild guess there.  We did have a fête d’aurevoir (goodbye party) for the director just a few weeks ago, when he came back to collect his stuff.  He’s now located in Ouaga, and is happy about is.  While I’m very frustrated out of concern for the school, I can’t blame him.  The entire system is messed up here, and apparently he’d been requesting for several years now to be affectated (changed to a new site).  The big dogs kept ignoring him, but finally this year (literally 5 days after school started), his wife, a primary school teacher, was affectated to halfway across the country!  Unfortunately, he wasn’t.  So for the past few months, he and his wife have been apart, and I’m sure that’s tough.  So, like I said, I can’t really blame him for pulling this little stunt of his.  He finally got what he wanted… 

Other school issues include the fact we are short desks in our classrooms.  Not just as in “I have 120 kids, thus we need more desks, but sadly, there’s not another square inch to squeeze in an extra desk” but as in “There are spots where desks used to be up until they became too unusable and were removed at the beginning of the year, and so, we do actually have the SPACE to put a few more desks…”  The problem is that all the desks are sitting outside the mayor’s office.  They’ve been there since September.  Beautiful, new, shiny wood desks, perfect for seating about 3 or 4 students (or 5, if you have 120 kids in your class).  There are about 50 of them!  But they’re all just sitting outside, stacked up ever so neatly, right next to the mayor’s office.  Lovely.   Sure getting a lot of use out of them desks located NOT AT A SCHOOL.  Rumor has it that the school won’t be receiving the desks until after the mayor has been re-elected…. Perfect.  And now we’re into public corruption and bribery…. Just great.

We’re also still waiting on electricity, which was “coming” 2 years ago already.  It didn’t make its appearance last year, and so this year was bound to be the year.  The school’s all ready for it and had it wiring put into place over the summer.  What we’re waiting for is the actual connection between the electricity lines and our school’s fuse box.  First they said September.  Then October.  Then “maybe after January.”  I’m thinkin’ possibly next year.  Or the year after that…  And to think, I told them last year that if they would get their electrify situation figured out and up and running, I’d look into getting them some computers and start a small IT club to learn how to use computers with the teachers and older students.  Whelp.  Guess that’s not happening during my two years of service….

Elections.  This is a mix between school, and (obviously) the recent presidential elections that occurred the first week of December.   This one really makes me mad.  Naturally most everyone knew about the elections for several months now, and like in America, some political party campaigns were held, with representatives traveling from village to village, dancing in a circle, eating oily rice, and then leading a cheer or pep rally to tell people to vote for their party.  For anyone who knows anything about Burkina Faso politics, you’re probably aware that the President, Blaise Compare, has been president for a LONG time.  While BF does a have rule that states only 2 terms or something like that, Blaise’s argument is that it doesn’t apply to him, since the rule was created during his reign, and thus, the restriction on number of years served will start AFTER he is no longer “elected” president, for whoever follows him.  So the elections in Burkina are kinda a big deal…or maybe not a big deal at all?  Since who knows what’s really going on behind the scenes for “counting” the election results.  Anyways, Monday, November 26, my homologue calls me at about 9pm while I was in the midst of planning my next day’s lesson by candlelight, and says, “There’s no school tomorrow.”  I say, “Ok?”  and he hangs up.  Typical Burkinabe phone call: really short and to the point, lacking any explanation at all.  Although the call was really random, I knew it was for real when another volunteer texted me a few minutes later to say that she didn’t have school the next day.  The next morning, I still got up in time to get ready for my 7am class, but didn’t get dressed.  I watched and waited to see if kids would be going by on their way to school, and sure enough, just like normal, hundreds of kids made their way toward the CEG.  I debated going to school myself, just in case there really was school, but it didn’t take long before some students stopped by my house and asked me when we were going to take our test, etc.  It was then that I found out that we wouldn’t be having school ALL WEEK.  Until next Tuesday.  Talk about short notice.  And really messing things up.  I’m an American.  I have a schedule.  The government canceling school for the week threw off my whole plan.  I was supposed to give my tests, grade them, calculate trimester averages, and more, all that week, all before leaving to head to Ouaga December 8.  But no, now I had a week full of “nothing” – I couldn’t work on grading tests little by little, like an hour or two a day, as I had hoped – and would be forced to give my tests literally the day before I left for Ouaga, following my students’ week of “vacation” and forgetting everything we had learned that chapter, and worst of all, I would have to bring all 250 tests with me to Ouaga and grade them!   Urgh.  There are plenty of other things I need/want to do when in Ouaga: take a real shower, go to Marina Market and eat cheese, eat ice cream and pizza, go on the internet, email people, skype with family/friends, research project information and grant opportunities, catch-up with other volunteer friends, go swimming, etc.  Correcting tests does not fit into this scheme of events or my time frame!  But alas, here I am, in Ouaga, having giving up much valuable time to only sit inside the Transit House at a table for hours straight, grading middle school math tests while surrounded by people playing Scrabble, watching movies, eating cheese, napping under a fan… not fun.  And very distracting/discouraging.  Right now I hate all the volunteers who are NOT formal educators, since they don’t have classrooms of their own and they never have to do things like grade tests for hours on end.  This whole dilemma was not a result of me failing at life and personal time management, but rather the effect of the government officially closing ALL schools (elementary, middle, and high schools) for the week, so that they could train the teachers on how to work the voting booths and count ballots.  I’m not sure why this took a week of school time, considering that all my coworkers said their formation only lasted 2 hours…..not 5 days. And that the voting was held on a Sunday.  But whatever.  I just love how no one even knew until the night before when some official sent the announcement over the radio… you would’ve thought that perhaps the government knew at least a few days in advance that they were going to disrupt the entire school system, but naturally, they were too above us to let us know, and so they kept it to themselves until the very last minute.
my students as they walked back from school the morning they found out that school was canceled for the week!
neighbor kids in my garden!  they're all dressed up for the fete of Tabaski!

my students (boys) doing math exercises at my house

Moving into the joyful side of things…. Based on the results of the pretest my homologue and I gave our math classes at the very beginning of the year, the kids that I taught last year are smarter (in math) than the kids my homologue taught, despite the fact that I can’t speak French!   It wasn’t that big of a difference between the two classes, but even so, my class from last year scored, on average, a whole 2 points higher than my homologue’s class.  And when you have over 240 kids to collect data from, that 2 point difference is quite significant.  So now we’ll just wait until the end of the year and see how the posttest goes….  As already mentioned, my school now has a phy. Ed. teacher…but unfortunately he still hasn’t put up the volleyball net, despite my persist asking at least once a week.    

Also, you might be interested to know that I recently performed the Star-Spangled Banner with 2 other volunteers (like me, also music majors in college, but unlike me, they play viola, not clarinet) at the U.S. Ambassador's house for an important ceremony that was held.  We arranged the piece ourselves, and after the ceremony everyone kept thanking us and telling us how nice it was -- some were even brought to tears.  

Our music trio at the Ambassador's house!
We were invited to play again in the future (with additional pieces besides the national anthem) for the Embassy Christmas Party and 4th of July Party.  It's great to still have the opportunity to perform, even in Africa.   I also recently acquired a set of recorders (about 50), Yamaha instruments typical for elementary school use in America.  So I'm hoping to start an actual music class/club, and give kids the opportunity to learn about music and play instruments.  We'll probably also make some percussion out of empty pop bottles filled with rice, etc.   It should be fun!   I love sharing music with them (we sing all the time in math class), especially since they really don't get anything like this at home or school.  The educational system here is very....sad...to say the least.  But, despite everything I've complained about in this blog post, it IS getting better and it's exciting to be a part of it and make a difference in my community.  My french and local language skills are coming along nicely, but as always, still could use much improvement -- I'm far from fluent.   I'm also in the process of starting a library and doing a literacy campaign in my village -- most people, adults and kids, can not read.    On the other hand, I of course can read, and so I always have a few books on hand to keep me occupied --- naturally, village life can get boring now and then --- and reading also helps to keep my English vocabulary fresh.  I'm working on my Great Books list given to me during my senior year of college at CSBSJU, with the goal of having all 100 read by the time I finish my service, but sadly I'm behind on my reading and only have about 50 of the 100 books read as of now.

Oh yeah!  I recently acquired a new kitty.  My first one randomly disappeared --- or was eaten?   But my new kitty is much more active and aggressive than the first.  So I think he’ll do better, especially defending himself again my dog Sabari, who sometimes gets jealous.  I named my kitten “Kamikaze” since he’s always flying (jumping) from various furniture items to me; he has no fear.   Hopefully this will help with the rat problem in my house....

Speaking of babies, my homologue’s wife recently had a baby (in October).  Her name is Beatrice, and she’s my age.  I had suspected she was pregnant, but of course didn’t want to say anything.  So one day at school, in the middle of a group conversation, my homologue turns to me and say, “My wife had a baby yesterday.”   I was shocked and didn’t know how to respond… then I thought, perhaps I just misheard him; what he really said was, "My wife's GOING to have a baby" ....so then I really wasn't sure how to respond because I had no idea whether or not there was a baby that was born already.   But then he clarified: my wife had a baby yesterday afternoon, a boy, and immediately went back to talking about beer or motorcycles or whatever the male teachers had been talking about up to that point.  Uh huh!  If he knew it was a boy, then clearly it was already born.  Well, I guess that means that his wife had indeed been pregnant (very pregnant!) in fact, the last few months when I started having my suspicions.  I’ve now seen the baby a few times, and he’s a cutie!

The new baby!!  (African babies look a lot like white babies at first -- then their skin darkens after a while.)

The happy parents, on their wedding day a few months back in August.

 It's their first child, so that's exciting for them.  Especially since they're "old" compared to most Burkinabe who have children.  My homoluge is 31, and Beatrice is 24. Most women have 3 or 4 or 7 kids by age 24.  His name’s Wilfried, I think.  I should probably find out what his actual name is (they game him like 3 names, and I’m not sure which is the one they’ll actually call him by and which are like his middle names).  I also had asked my homologue the day he informed me about his new arrival why he was at school instead of the CSPS (hospital).  And he just gave me a funny look and said, "What else would I be doing?  It's my wife who gave birth, not me.  I don't need to be at the CSPS."  I responded with that he could just be there to provide Beatrice support, hold her hand, hold the baby, etc.  And all the male teaches just laughed.... Oh Burkina and your gender defined roles. Of course!  How could I forget!  Babies are only for women, because babies physically come out of women (and clearly there is no man involved in causing/maintaining a pregnancy), so why would men take any interest whatsoever in their own wives/babies?!?  No, he's not that bad -- he does help, probably more than most men in this country -- but he's still just a typical guy who doesn't give all that is due towards women.

As always, time is running short and I still have way too much to finish before I catch my bus back to village, but here’s what coming up in my future:

Tomorrow: take a 10-12 hour bus ride back to Lanfiera
Wednesday: finish tests/grades for CEG
Thursday-Saturday:  VSA Day Camp for CM2 (5th grade) elementary kids in my village, teaching about health, hygiene, protecting the environment, etc)
Tuesday: Christmas celebrations and probably a 4 hour Mass service in local language
Thursday-Saturday:  VSA Day Camp for CM2 elementary kids in Molly’s village
Tuesday: New Year’s Party

Then school starts again….yay?

Me in my classroom!  

my classroom: two students presenting themselves -- "My name is..... I live in the village of ....."
my neighbors getting their hair done.  the boy on the bottem right is the cutest ever!  but he's kinda afraid of me....even though he's seen me almost every day since he was born a year ago.

Joyeux Noel et Bonne Année 2013!!!

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