Sunday, June 29, 2008

Challenges from the last few months

I have just finished one more “chapter” in my life here in Africa. School is finished for the school year, I have finally prepared my garden and planted some of my seeds (including some of the seeds that were mailed to me from the US… lets keep our fingers crossed that they will grow here!), and I have also been coping, internally, with some serious cultural issues that have effected me on a deep emotional level (more on this later, perhaps). Between my work, extra projects, my emotional journey, and the continuous heat since February, the past few months have gone by in a blur. On Monday, I traveled from Fatoto to the Kombos to begin my training and preparation for PST (Pre-Service-Training) of the new group, who will be arriving on Thursday. It was the first time I have made the entire trip in a day, by myself. The trip took about 10 hours (which is making pretty good time for travel conditions in The Gambia, despite the fact that it’s less than 500 km), and I spent a good deal of this day reflecting on the whirlwind of events that have consumed my life recently. Since arriving, I have been caught-up in a series of training sessions, meetings, and reconnecting with friends, so today is the first opportunity that I have had to sit down and write about some of these things.

So first, some school stories....
My last trip to Kombo at the end of April for IST (In-Service-Training) took me from my classes for about a week and half. So upon returning to Fatoto, I was scrambling to make up the classes that I missed. With the limited time I have to teach, it makes it difficult to make-up for lost days (And there’s no such thing as “substitute teachers” in The Gambia). Keep in mind that the Gambian curriculum is shaped by the syllabus for the WASSCE exam. For general science, this comprises about 40 pages of science objectives that each student is “required” to learn from grade 10 thru grade 12 in preparation for the final exam. There is no division of material for each level, and the scope of material is vast. Topics range from human body systems (the skeletal system, the digestive system, the respiratory system, etc.), to basic biology (cells, biological classification, nutrition, ecology), to more advanced biology (genetics, photosynthesis, cellular respiration), to all levels of chemistry (the periodic table, chemical reactions, acids and bases, biochemistry, even organic chemistry), to all levels of physics (Newton’s laws, forces, torque, levers, electromagnetic radiation, magnetism, circuits, and much more), to geology (soil and water sciences), even nuclear fission and biotechnology. Basically, all of the topics that most high school students in the united states cover in a four year time period, while attending each class approximately five hours a week… these are expected of Gambian students to learn in three years, while attending each class for approximately 2 hours a week. Since I had little information about what each grade level learned in the prior years (teacher turn-over is high and there are no previous records to refer back to), I ended up developing my own list of topics, based on the syllabus, for each of the three grade levels, that I hoped would expand on the few things I was sure they had covered in previous years, after looking at old notebooks that students allowed me to borrow.
The most difficult class for me to teach this year was my grade 11 class. For this class, I decided to focus on basic Chemistry and Physics, since it seemed that none of the students in prior years had seemed to cover any of these things, and after looking at some copies of old WASSCE exams, I realized that at least 2/3 of the questions related to these branches of science. So I’ve found myself trying to teach topics that I learned years ago myself, with limited laboratory resources, and a classroom of students who’s math skills are at least 5 levels below their grade level, and who have little to no experience in abstract thinking skills. Needless to say, this adventure was a continuous learning process for my students, as well as for myself. At one point, I realized that we needed to stop and just practice math. We spent about three weeks on basic mathematics skills that are absolutely necessary to understand and complete basic science problems. For example, adding and subtracting negative numbers (My students told me that -3 plus 2 is 5), or simply dividing numbers like 25 into 100. Once you add a second digit onto a number, they loose any interest in trying to multiply or divide with that number. Even if it’s just a zero. Most students can’t tell me that 60 divided by 30 is 2. And don’t get me started on decimal points. I hate giving them any problem that involves numbers with decimal points. A few of them have calculators, but most cannot afford them, so I try my best to keep the math as simple as I can, just to get the basic scientific ideas across to them. Some of my students have been working very hard. I spend a lot of time after-school or in my compound with students that come for extra help. And fortunately, these students are excelling. I am very proud of them. But without the extra help, it would have been hopeless. I have experimented with different group-activities that divide my 4 or 5 exceptional students up into separate groups to work on problems with their classmates. We’ve turned them into friendly competitions between “teams,” and this has been somewhat successful. I’ve found that when a peer is available to explain a difficult concept, it can be immensely helpful for the struggling students. This is why I’m working on developing a peer tutoring program at Fatoto SSS, which I hope to implement next year. I’m also toying with the idea of starting a “Math club,” but I have few ideas of what I could do with a club like that, since my background is not in Math. So if anyone has any suggestions, I would definitely welcome them.
While I’m still on the topic of school, I would like to describe what I privately call the "final exam fiasco". Because the school does not have computers, typewriters, copy machines, or even electricity, it is impossible to type and print exams or tests. When we give tests to the students, the questions are written on the blackboard, and the students copy them down on a piece of paper, then answer the questions. This limits the amount of questions you can give on a test, and increases the opportunities for cheating, which is very common here, since most students just memorize sections of their notes and write them as answers on tests, whether they understand the words they are memorizing or not. For final exams, however, each student is supposed to have their own test copy for each subject. In order to accomplish this, all of us teachers had to type our final exam questions back in April and mail them (when I say “mail”, I mean pass them to someone who is traveling that way) 450 km to Kombo, where the school hires someone to type and copy each of the exams… then sends them back up-country, hopefully in time for the final exams. We received our exams in time, but when we opened them, we found terrible mistakes made by the typist, and they copying job was absurd. You couldn’t read most of the questions on some of the exams, which meant that before the exam, the teacher had to read each of the questions out-loud for the students to fill-in the missing portions on their exams. The Math exams were the worst, with numbers super-imposed on other numbers, and tons of mistakes in the problems which would change the entire outcome of the students’ answers unless corrected. On top of it all, I had gone through the trouble to type my own copy of the grade 11 exam because I wanted to include diagrams that I could not expect the typist to reproduce. I had done this on my last trip to Kombo in April, then met with someone who passed my exams along to the typist/copier. However, instead of simply copying my exam, which was already typed nicely with no mistakes, they re-typed it, with many mistakes, and excluded the diagrams completely. Those were the copies sent. We discovered this on a Monday, and they would be taking the exams on the following Tuesday. The principal decided to bring the original copy with him to Basse the next day, where he was traveling for a meeting, and make copies at the REO (Regional Education Office) there. When he returned to school on Thursday, I asked him if he was able to get the copies made. He said the REO was too busy to do it on Wednesday, but they said they would copy it and try to send it with someone heading to Fatoto before Tuesday. I was traveling to Basse on Saturday and returning on Sunday, so I told him that if they could give the copies to my friend who works at the REO, I could pick them up from her (the REO is closed on week-ends). He said he would call them and tell them. Then Fatoto lost all cell-phone service from Wednesday evening until Friday afternoon. No one was able to make or receive calls, so we could not get through to Basse until the REO was already closed for the day, and the papers were locked inside of it. After several phone calls, we still could not reach someone to get the papers for us. I traveled to Basse on Saturday to buy some fencing material for my backyard (which has fallen down four times now). I tried several times that weekend to reach someone who could help, but it was useless. On Sunday, I got onto a gile gile going back to Fatoto, just hoping that we could work it out in the next day. My gile gile stopped to get gas before leaving Basse, and as we were sitting there waiting, a motorcycle pulled up beside the vehicle and the man on the bike said “Are you Maimuna? These are for you.” and handed me the test papers. It was like some strange scene in a movie. I’m still not sure how he knew where to find me, but I’m happy he did!
Now allow me to describe the testing situation. The school moved all of the students’ desks into the rooms that would be the designated exam-taking rooms. The 7th and 8th graders were put together in the large assembly hall, and the 10th and 11th graders were put together in the library. (the 9th and 12th graders already took their exams). In the library, the students were seated, 2 to a desk… one tenth grader and one 11th grader together. Because of all the corrections that needed to be made on the exam, the teachers had to spend a significant amount of time reading the questions out-loud (for the 10th grade science exam, I spent an hour on this). Since there were two different grades taking exams in the same room, the teachers had to take turns correcting the mistakes with the class, since they could not both talk at the same time. There was a flip-chart at the front of the room for us to write on, but only about half of students were close enough to read it, which is why we had to read the corrections out-loud. So we probably wasted a good hour or more before each exam just making sure the students made all of the necessary corrections. Then, since each teacher set different time-limits on their exams, and all exams had two parts (objective and theory), there were constant interruptions when one group finished and left while the other group was still working, or when one group began the next portion of the test and the teacher had to make more corrections. Then the students were trying to share things like calculators and pencils, which caused even more interruptions (Since materials are scare, students are accustomed to sharing in class, but they don’t understand why you cannot do this on a final exam). The whole process was disorganized and disruptive. And I’m not convinced all students were able to make all of their necessary corrections, so they probably answered incorrectly on many questions, just because the questions contained mistakes, (or in some cases, weren’t supposed to be there at all).
These are just a few of the things that have happened lately in school… I could tell more, but just writing about it is making me tired! So now onto the rest of my life….

Planting a Garden
Anyone who has kept in touch with me knows that I have been trying to plant a garden since… well, October or November, at least. I have finally started the process, but here’s why it has taken so long…
In the dry season (November thru July), the animals roam freely and eat anything in their paths, so if you want to plant a garden, the first thing you need is a good fence. When I told my family that I wanted to plant a garden in the compound, they said “Sure! We will help you build a fence first.” This was a relief to me, since I had no idea how I would get the materials myself to begin building a fence. This kind of work is typically left to any teenage boys in the compound. In my compound, this is Abdoulie (my brother), and a Musa (the grandson of my siblings’ half-sister, who stays with us). They go into the bush, cut wood, carry it back, then use it to build a local-style fence. The whole process began back in November. We designated a space for the garden, and they began gathering wood and putting up the fence. When it was about one-third finished, the work stopped. My family began building a new hut in the compound, which required the help of Abdoulie and Musa, so the garden fence project was put aside for a while. The new house was made of mud, which required digging a huge hole in the ground to get the mud from. This large hole was dug right next to my garden-plot (I didn’t think about it at the time, but this would end up being a big problem for the garden). After the house was completed, I mentioned the fence to my family, and they told me that the boys would resume work on it soon, but then nothing happened. For the next few months, I struggled with how to deal with the situation. I didn’t mind helping to get materials for the fence, because now that I had seen how much work was involved with just gathering wood, I felt guilty about asking them to do this for me. When I would mention something to my family about buying material for the fence, or asking for help from someone else, they would tell me that I did not need to do that. Sometimes, it’s difficult to know whether I am crossing a cultural boundary… is it disrespectful to seek help elsewhere after my family assured me they would take care of it? I did not want to seem ungrateful or impatient, so I just waited. In the meantime, my sister, Amie, got married. Her new husband has money, and he gave her money to build a large new house in the compound. For this job, men were hired to build the house, but my family was constantly busy helping in various ways. And one day, I noticed that all of the wood from my garden fence was gone. I think they used it to build the fence for the back-yard of the new house. So now, we had to start from scratch. I began to feel guilty about asking anymore, and I was very busy with school, so the whole thing was forgotten about for a while.
Then, rice prices began to rise, and I began reading about the food-shortage crisis that is happening world-wide. I knew that having a family garden would be a good way to deal with some of these problems, so I sat down with my family and talked to them again. We worked out a time-table. I told them that if we wanted vegetables by the time hungry season comes, I should sow seeds very soon, but I would be leaving for a while in June and July, so I would like to get it started on it soon. We agreed on a time-table… they told me they would have the fence up in two weeks, and I could start sowing my seeds. I had already started composting, and I knew the compost should be ready by then as well. Everyone was motivated by the talk of a food shortage, and work resumed quickly.
One day, Abdoulie and Musa went out to the bush and cut a lot of wood, but it was too much to carry back on their heads at once. They decided to hire a donkey cart to go collect the wood all at once, but when they finally arranged it a few days later, the wood was gone. Someone had come and taken it. So they had to begin again. In the meantime, the fence in my backyard fell down (for the fourth time) from the wind and the animals eating parts of it. Since my back yard is essentially my “bathroom” and where I sleep at night, this fence had to take priority over the garden. I had to take several trips to Basse to buy good fencing materials for my backyard, since the old materials were obviously not working anymore. So we had to put aside the garden fence, once again, to complete this task.
With two weeks left before I would be leaving for Kombo, I started to wonder if I should just wait until after I returned. But at this point, the fence was almost completely done, my compost was ready to go, and I was worried that I would return to find the wood torn down and used, once again, for something else. And I really didn’t want to keep hounding my family for help with the fence.
We finally finished the fence, and I began to prepare my garden beds. I’m new to gardening, so I spent a lot of time reading the “Gambian Gardening Manual” and texting questions to the agriculture volunteers that I know. I finished preparing the beds 3 days before I left for Kombo and decided to wait to sow my seeds the next day. That night, there was a huge rain and thunderstorm. The next day, four of my eight garden beds had been washed away. Remember the hole next to my garden I mentioned? The beds on that side of the garen eroded into the hole, creating a downward slope. Now I cannot plant anything in those four beds until I figure out a way to fix it. However, I'm working on ideas for this, and I think I will be able to repair the damage. I feel fortunate that the rains came when they did, because it has shown me exactly where the path of water will flow. Now, I can dig trenches to divert the water or find a way to block it from flowing through my garden. And I didn't loose any seeds because I had decided to wait that extra day. I did end up sowing two small nursery beds, using some Gambian seeds and some American seeds that were sent to me. I built a small shade structure above them, to protect them from the heavy rains and too much sun. My family has agreed to water them for me on days that it doesn't rain. By the time I return to Fatoto, I should be able to transplant them to new beds. This has certainly been a learning experience for me, but I'll be excited to see what will grow... and I will be thrilled to have fresh vegetables for myself and my family. It seems like most things take about twice as much work to accomplish here. For example, composting is absolutely necessary because the soil quality is very poor. But it is quite labor intensive and time-consuming. In addition, frustrating situations (like my soil eroding into a large hole that was recently dug next the garden) often occur, which can be very discouraging. A common saying in the Gambia is "It's not easy!" Despite the roadblocks, it still feels good to do the work. My muscles are sore and I'm exhausted by the end of the day, but it's a good kind of exhaustion. I think I'll like gardening once I get into it a little.

I was going to talk a little on my emotional state, but I think I will save that story for another day. My life is a progression of ups and downs when it comes to my mind and my emotions. But when I'm having a really rough day, I have two things to fall back on. First of all, I seldom ever have more than two really bad days in a row. I can usually look forward to something good happening on that second or third day to cheer me up. Also, I have Liza in Basse when I really need to talk about something or just get away for a day or two. She's been a good friend in so many ways!

So that's it for now. I'll be in Kombo for another two weeks, so I'll have more to write later.

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