Going to school

From Estero to Africa

Sunday, July 19, 2009
By Kathryn Taubert
Tall, well-dressed and skeptical, I could see it in his eyes the moment I stepped beneath the thatched canopy of the outdoor classroom: this man was going to challenge me with questions I was hoping someone would ask.
It’s not always good to have unquestioned support from the get-go. People need to ask hard questions too, and when they don’t, I start wondering who’s really thinking. Tough questions always result in better outcomes if one learns from them.
“The first thing I want to know,” he asked, “is why did you come here, and what do you hope to do?”
The look in his eyes told me that truth and pragmatism were his watchwords. He’d been mislead before.
So I gave him an abbreviated version of what I’ve written in this blog. (Yes, I am capable of brevity under duress).
“And what have you learned by being here so far?” was his next great question.
The man was a born teacher.
“You are teaching your children with few to no supplies,” I said. “You are trying your best to educate your youth in an environment which fosters learning but has no money for it. You need virtually everything from basic supplies to computers and recreational equipment. And you are very, very tired.”
His suddenly softening eyes told me I’d hit the nail on the head. This dedicated man was exhausted, and yet, in some small way, still hopeful. Had he not been, he wouldn’t have even shown up for the meeting that CBO Chairman Sem had arranged.
“You are in Obama-land here,” he stated, and I took it as a subtle test of how I felt about our president, and perhaps even him.
“I am proud of my country,” I said, “and a majority of Americans are also in that ‘land,’ having voted for this man who seems to be a peacemaker. I’m glad to represent my country in this day and age.”
Many questions and answers later, we parted. I don’t know if I changed his mind about anything, but I do know that the look in his eyes was less hard than when I arrived. My heart ached for him because I saw what I have seen in other educators, even in the U.S. They have the hardest job in the world. While in Kloe they have the emotional support of parents, disciplined children and a culture of learning, they have no money or basic supplies.
How do you, as an educator, resolve your obligation to prepare your students for the world, without paper and pencils or computers, or athletic equipment to stimulate play and incentive to study? The kids in my neighborhood here are fabulous “futbol” (soccer) players. Their ball is about five inches in diameter and made out of bent reeds. They have no other games except the hopscotch “board” they scratch in the dirt under the big Acacia tree. No tennis, badminton, volleyball, regulation soccer balls, building blocks, puzzles, jump ropes, nothing.
The kindergarten children can’t even make cutouts. They have no construction paper, scissors. They write with chalk on small slates because they have no paper or pencils. They make music with old buckets and gas cans and sing.
And still, they hope.
One teacher said they need things to help the littlest ones develop fine motor skills. Computers help do that too, if funding for them can be obtained.
Another well-intentioned organization gave them 12 computer desks which they put in an empty, nearly-electrified building — another failed project due to lack of proper long-term planning). Lots of organizations help construct buildings, then leave. I understand why.
They are tangible evidence of having been here. But if there is no plan for managing or maintaining them, replenishing supplies, the long-term result is an unused building collecting dust and serving only as a monument to false hopes and broken dreams.
The empty desks in the “computer-classroom” sit dust-covered, while children and teachers are starved for opportunity to practice the computer technology about which they can only read. The Ewe have enough exposure now to know what they are missing. They see it on the one or two televisions in the village. The few students who do get to college bring the knowledge back. It’s everywhere except here. The hunger is deep because the appetite has been whetted, without the possibility of dining at the table.
Of the 2,500 or so people in “metro-Kloe,“ 654 are school-aged children. Twenty of them have been classified as “brilliant“ with no money to finish high school, much less college or trade school. (There is no “official” census. The CBO has acquired these numbers through their efforts on our project.)
I don’t know why there isn’t more cynicism among these people. I’ve seen some of it, and will write about that later. But like the Headmaster, these people still hope. They see their country growing, they see the president of the greatest country in the world visiting theirs first. They know the carrot is just out of reach.
But how long can hope last without sustenance? And at what point does a child, or a dedicated teacher, just walk away?

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