Sunday, 2 March 2008


So another week has gone by, and I thought a new blog was in order. Kept quite busy this week so I think I should have lots to say, but we'll see. I may just waffle into oblivion...

The week started with, as usual, me going to school for 8am on Monday, ready and willing to shape young minds. Unfortunately I turned up to find about 20 pupils, no teachers, and all the classrooms locked...

I discovered it was on account of a pilgrimage to a town called Touba, just under 200km East of Dakar. As mentioned previously, Senegal is predominantly an Islamic country and within this, there are different brotherhoods where the faith is channelled through certain saintly intermediaries (marabouts). They hold a kind of divine position within the country's religious sphere and on the anniversary of Cheikh Amadou Bamba's return from exile (one of said spiritual leaders), the Senegalese flock to Touba to celebrate the day. It's apparently quite impressive to observe, with all the permanent residents of Touba opening their doors for people to stay the night. However, relative to me and my placement here, the value of this random piece of information is that school wouldn't commence until Thursday and so I essentially had 3 days off! I somehow managed to bare this prospect of no work quite well, and busied myself with various activities (see below). However, my first day back on thursday was less than great.

I said in another one of my blogs that the teachers here hit children should they need to discipline them. Thursday in particular, Monsieur rounded up a handful of pupils who hadn't done the work (or had, but not to his satisfaction), and began beating them with his riding crop (like a whip but a long strip of leather). To be fair, despite my objections, most of the kids don't complain. They may yelp a bit whilst it's happening, but generally, they take it as a normal part of their schooling and sit back down quietly afterwards. However, today one girl in particular was so scared of being hit that she ran away from the teacher and was crying her eyes out in fear - it was horrible. Did Monsieur take pity on a crying 11 year old, clearly frightened out of her mind? No - he simply got 4 older boys to hold her down whilst he proceeded to beat her ignoring her crying screams. It was really was unbearable to watch, and so I got up, said "Pardon Monsieur, je dois quitter la salle" and left. This was about 11 o'clock, so there was still 2 hours left of class, but I walked right out of the school, straight home.

It's really hard to explain how much it upset me, but it was honestly so distressing to watch - like watching someone get beaten up in front of you and being expected not to care. Safe to say, I did calm down a bit and went back to school for the afternoon session where nothing was said, but I really don't know how I'm going to handle it next time he does it. I understand that when in another country you have to respect their culture and way of doing things, but at what point do you draw the line between culture and outright abuse? Obviously it's a slippery slope that I am less than keen to get into debate over with the school, but I really don't know whether I should be more understanding of the way they teach here, or if it's my 'moral obligation' to be more forceful (or at least vocal) in my objections.

The teaching conditions here are hard - education isn't compulsory, resources are minimal, and the average class size is 60 - very different from the education I'm used to, and perhaps merits making an allowance for slightly harsher methods. However, when a country has a literacy rate of less than 50%, I'm inclined to argue that perhaps we've got the right idea and they haven't... But again, it's a slippery slope and a potentially inflamatory opinion to hold whilst I'm here. And I must admit, pupils defintiely respect their teachers here more. But anyway, we'll see what happens over the next few weeks.

In other teaching news, the pupils are still struggling with atrocious pronunciation in my English classes! I'm even resorting to transcribing some popular songs they know (Umbrella - Rhianna, is a favourite here!) to try and show them how the words are supposed to sound! In less amusing news, the teacher whose class I'm working with (Monsieur something) is getting a little too creepy for my liking, and I'm fairly sure was coming on to me. He wanted me to write down my address for him (this was before the barbaric child beating incident), and I did so, on the basis that if I said I didn't know it, he would simply walk me home to work it out! However I did write it down wrong deliberately and when he further asked for my number later in the week, I said I didn't have one. But yeah, that's a bit uncomfortable.

I was also paid a visit this week by a guy from the organisation who set up my placement, who wants me to help out with his after school club - ATPE (Association Tout Pour les Enfants). Aside from being less than impressed at him turning up in only my 4th week, with not much time to go (he said sorry, he'd been too busy to come and see me), I went along on Wednesday and it was actually really fun. The kids are lovely and Moise (pronounced like Morris but without the 'r's), the leader, is so good with the kids. He feels really strongly about children's rights as well and a good hour was spent making the kids memorise the 10 principle rights of the Convention on the Rights of the Child - a subject clearly totally up my street! So I'm hoping to at least make a bit of an impact there since I don't feel I'm making much of one at school.

On my days off from school, aside from catching up on sleep, laundry and room cleaning(!), I went to visit my friend Helena at her volunteer placement, a place called Empire des Enfants. It's a place for street children to sleep, learn, and pretty much have fun. It's a really great place that does a lot of good, and I have to say, it's somewhere I'd much rather be working. Street children is a real problem here, with the streets littered with children begging for money (which also links back to education not being compulsory here) and so there's a lot of scope to really make a difference.

Then on Wednesday, after studying the online bus timetable and asking the nice bus conductor to tell me when to get off, I went to visit the British Council office in Dakar. Having worked in the London office for 5 months before coming here, it really was so nice to be in a familiar environment. Unfortunately, the scope of the BC's programmes isn't as wide as I'd hoped here, and so I couldn't get some literature on international links for my school here. However, after mentioning to the assistant there that I used to work for BC London, he sent me through to the offices to speak with one of the project managers. She was so nice and when it turned out that she lives near me, gave me her home number and said I could call anytime whilst I'm here. And she told me of an event happening at one of the high schools in the suburbs celebrating their Connecting Classrooms link with Malawi and Leeds. She said I could go along, and, going on a whim, said I would! I went on Saturday and aside from confusing the BC Director of the Dakar office, who had no idea who I was and why I was there (she warmed up later though and was v nice!), I had a really good time. The school were so welcoming and happy that I wanted to see their displays, that I felt quite ashamed for writing off much of Senegal's population on the basis of the people you can encounter in Dakar - it's nice to be reminded that not everyone is trying to get into your purse/pants!

The journey there also involved a 30 minute comedy journey in a taxi, with a guy who insisted that even though I had a husband, I still needed a Senegalese husband as well, as to "coucher tout seul" is not good. This kind of joking I could handle, but you will have noticed that I've this week upgraded my fiancé to my husband. Whilst it's not an entirely convincing lie, I've decided that if I'm going to have to lie, I might as well go the whole hog!

Nightlife this week has been pretty fun. Helena and I, and some other volunteers, went to a bar called Just 4 U a few times this week. It's pricey for Dakar but nothing compared to London prices, so we had a nice time. It was so good to have a glass of wine having not drunk anything for a month! Then last night (Saturday), we went on to a beach party happening at the diving centre in town (Oceanium) that had a really good international crowd. It's crazy, sometimes you can feel like the only foreigner in Dakar, and yet here there were hundreds of French/Belgian/Canadian/Moroccan/American people there - I think they must all hide during the week. It was really fun though. Nightlife here doesn't really get going until 1-2am and unfortunately I only lasted until 3:30. Still, was good to go out, speak english (woo!) and drink/dance for a night.

Today, after sleeping off last night, Helena and I ventured to Ile de Madeleine, an island/national park off the coast. We had a great day, clambering over rocks, seeing random birds (birdspotting is a big thing in Senegal!) and generally chilling at the beautiful lagoon there. I hopefully topped up my tan a bit as well :) Unfortunately, whilst wading through the lagoon to get to a nice looking spot of beach across the way, one of my flip flop straps broke. Having nothing to keep the shoe in place, I had to resort to sporting a rather fetching freezer bag/hairclip arrangement on my foot on the way home, but I don't think too many people noticed. Still, a good day!

Next weekend is Helena and I's trip down the coast to see some lovely beaches, and generally have a 'proper holiday weekend', so I'm quite excited about that. In the mean time though I'll be teaching Senegalese children how to conjugate english verbs - fun fun fun.

More soon...!

1 comment:

Mitchell said...

Just about the whole beating incident - they can't expect for you to stay and watch something that you obviosuly object to. However, you don't have a moral obligation to mention anything. One of the things I was warned against was going to a country and wanting to change it. As much as I disagree with things that happen here, there's nothing I can do. It's futile to think that you'll have the power to make them 'see the error of their ways'. As you said, the students generally deal with it and accept that if the work isn't up to standard then they're objected to this punishment. It isn't nice and it certainly isn't how it's done in England. But it used to be and the government changed it - I doubt it was a foreigner who helped change legislation. I realise I've just sounded like a condescending arsehole, but I started out in Germany expecting it to be like "Dangerous Minds" or "To Sir With Love", where I changed these kids lives for the better and came away having learned something new about myself. I may just be an embittered cynic, but it doesn't happen very often. Just enjoy the experience for the new thigns you get to witness and be part of (not the beatings, mind you. I'm not sure I'd want to watch it).

Anyhoo - keep having fun and be safe!