Friday, February 12, 2010

School Days in Togo, West Africa

The morning starts with a classroom filled to the brim. They place 63 students aged 6, 7 & 8 all together in their classroom.  There is one teacher!  There are no parent volunteers, because the parents are all working to literally put food on the table. 

Chalk dust is everywhere.  If you have such an allergy, school is no place for you.  There are rags to wipe clean the chalk boards, and there are many chalk boards.  The front of the classroom is lined in large black slate chalk boards, covered with words or numbers or whatever the lesson of the day happens to be.  The desks are covered with individual slates boards, the types we would by our children as a toy.  There are no pens and papers for this class right now.  It is better to write your answer on the slate and wipe it away prior to the next question.  This reminds me of class only imagined in Laura Ingles Little House on the Prairie.  But it is reality, here in Togo.

Uniforms?  Sure each child has at least one.  If they get it dirty, I was told the teacher tells them to turn it inside out for the rest of the day.  I personally find that to be a convenient way of stalling on the laundry.  I wonder if I could do that with Margo at school, or would I start seeing notes sent home about the appearance of my daughter. 

What else do I notice about both classrooms we visit?  There is order...yes order I say.  One teacher has been at her profession for three years, since she graduated from college herself.  I inquired as to issues of discipline in the classroom, her response.  "I have no problems."  I believe her.  The kids here seem to want to learn.  Yes it is crowded, yes it is hot, and I am guessing many have not eaten breakfast, But, their hands go up to get a chance to answer the question.  Or their hands go up to be chosen to review the French grammar on the front board.  There they go, holding a small plank of sorts as their pointer.  That chosen child is now directing the class for that moment, with their pointer and their answer.  With the correct answer, the teacher instructs the kids to give themselves a cheer.  It is a cheer of specific rhythmic clapping.  It is performed in unison with much vigor.  And its sound is beautiful to me.  Here in Lome, Togo, children enjoying learning even though they do not have the best of anything.
This is the successful story of one young teacher, dressed in a white blouse and long black skirt.  She is committed to these children, and they in kind respond back to her.

I was telling the social workers how impressed I was with this class.  And she quietly responded, it is possible this teacher is here just for today, because the government knew we would be coming.  I was a little doubtful, but when we entered the next classroom I found myself believing the story a little more.

This room still had order, but it seemed a little tighter.  The kids seemed more afraid than happy and joyful.  The teacher was male; he wore a Hawaian type shirt and a baseball cap.  He carried a piece of orange hose with him, anywhere he walked in the classroom.  He did not smile, not even once.  Yes this class room had order, but I wonder if it was missing the wonder in discovery?

Next Monsieur le teacher barked out his order for dictation.  "√©crivez, le numero dix," he said.  The children bent over their slates and wrote the answer.  Each would lift it up high over his head to show the answer.  Mister teacher would tap each slate and pronounce, "correct, or Pas correct".  By the way he was holding the piece of orange hose above his shoulder on the right and point to the child to answer the question with his left hand.  Yes if you are imagining a lion tamer that would be an apt description.
Moving on from the math lesson he went on to French grammar.  Again dictations would be pronounced and each child would diligently write the answer on the slate and raise it for their teacher's approval or disapproval.  He never smiled.  I was not sure if he was glad we were there.
We decided to sing a silly song to the kids, just as we had done in the classroom before.  It took a while before they started to laugh at our ridiculous gesturs.  Even the teacher lightened up for a minute or two.

Children in Togo do not speak French at home, but as soon as they enter kindergarten, their classes are taught in only French.  French becomes a language used to provide some sense of unity among a country with at least 32 different tribal peoples and distinct languages.  The problem is more children drop out of school before they have a chance to complete the course. Why?  Some need to work, others don't like it.  Would you like it if your teacher was the gardener? 

You see, the last teacher we saw, was the gardener for the school.  I applaud him for stepping up to the plate to give teaching a try.  I give thumbs down to the government for not paying its teachers, so the school had to hire the gardener.  I can understand why he had the piece of hose in his hand during the day.  It surely was an item of familiarity to him as much as a stick to the children.  And yes, I was told, he most likely hit a few of the kids with that hose upon occasion.  But this was not the case today. 

I reviewed some of the course work materials provided to the students.  They were little paper booklets with exercise sheets in them.  They looked similar to those my daughter gets in her school.  There were simple posters on the wall, describing the germination of a seed, and all its parts.  So yes there was a sense science was taught.  But in the end there were no brightly colored papers hanging on the walls, no letters of the alphabet or number lines hanging on the walls.  They were just walls.  Yet in at least one of the classrooms, there were children eager to learn.  These are children who laugh and enjoy the moment of silliness we provide.

These two classrooms are found in government schools.  Currently serious parents who appreciate education send their kids to private schools.  And if I understand correctly, there is a small voucher from the government of sorts to help with the cost.  Our kids are also provided funds through our giving with Compassion International, to help with attending a private school if that is the desire of the parent.  You never know what kind of education you will get at the public school.  A teacher or a gardener, it could be either one.

In some ways the public versus private school education discussion sounds all too familiar over here.  Over there the difference can be between a teacher and a gardener.  I wonder if our children like their schools?   I wonder if I will need to send Margo to a private school one day with all the cuts and politicking going on in our part of the world.  Will we see vouchers?  Would that mean our public schools would be abandoned?  I don't know the answers to any of these questions.  But I did just tell you what I observed in Togo.  I am just glad we have a school down the block to send little Margo.