A month has passed since we returned from Senegal, and despite the end-of-school-year chaos that has ensued, I find myself thinking of Kolda and the impressive educators I met every day. I hope to start reaching out again to collaborate once these final weeks are over, but in the meantime, here are a few pictures from school visits that I either forgot to post or got lost in the Internet and power outages...including scenes from the Skype session on both sides of the Atlantic (my biology class at home and the biology class in Kolda)
The last day in Kolda was a blur of visits to private schools, technical schools for girls, the cultural center, and more observations of the biology classes at our host school. In one of these classes we got to Skype with my biology class at home, which was fun to watch; both sets of students had a lot of questions for the others, which continued after we lost the connection.
In the evening the Boiros threw us a grand farewell party, complete with two bands, Fulani dancers, what seemed like half the city, and 20 kg of mutton. Fanta had been teasing us all week that we would do the cooking, but I think I can safely say that all partygoers were relieved that didn’t happen when we took one look at the meat and suggested her teenage daughters continue with their excellent cooking.
At the party we were so touched by the many kind things people had to say about our visit, from the Colonel to Fanta’s English club students. We were presented with many gifts, once again showing us that Senegal is indeed the land of teranga.
On Friday we were ready to go to the airport as the airline suggested, two hours before departure (10 am). However, that’s just not the way things work in Kolda. Knowing this, we said we’d meet at 8am, knowing we would probably be picked up at 8:30 and be at the airport at 9. Sure enough, Fanta’s brother picked us up a little after 8:30, and got us to the airport, where of course they were not yet checking anyone in, because the plane was not there yet (it only runs twice a week from Dakar and immediately back again). We had our passports recorded and received our handwritten boarding passes. It didn’t matter that we didn’t have assigned seats; we’d learned our lesson last time and stayed at the front of the line so we could get a decent seat (and good thing too, since they overbooked the flight and one person had to get off- that would have been bad).
Fanta and her husband came to say goodbye, bringing with them certificates from both the Academic Inspection of Kolda and the town council. It was hard to say goodbye to such a generous and kind couple, who really made our stay in Kolda one of the best experiences of my life.
So in the end it was hard to say goodbye, although a little less hard to say goodbye to the oppressive heat. Dakar seems so cosmopolitan (and almost chilly!) in comparison. But I already miss the longer greetings, the conversations shared across multiple language barriers, and the teranga of our hosts. We will spend another two days in Dakar, debriefing and catching up on the adventures of the rest of the American teachers who spent the week in different parts of Senegal.
One of the topics that has come up over the last few days of teaching and observing has been class size: with the exception of the science track in lycee, most classes are 40 or more students…and far more in the elementary school. This is partially due to compulsory school attendance in the early grades, which leads to more students staying in school if they pass their elementary exams (then yearly exams in middle school and lycee).
Unlike the US, the problem isn’t a teacher shortage; Senegal trains hundreds of new teachers each year as teaching is seen as a reliable profession. The problem is a classroom shortage: in order for a school to request a new teacher from the national government, they have to have a classroom for them. (And the teacher is assigned to their post from the ministry of education). Building the classroom is the responsibility of the community. If the village or city can find the funds, I think they can do so, but frequently this is just not possible. Also, one of the teachers we met with said they were told they can only split the class (and therefore request another teacher) if there are 80 or more students in the class.
So there are many people who train as teachers who are not working in education; quite the opposite problem as the US right now. And while all the Senegalese students we have seen have been extremely well-behaved in class, those numbers restrict a lot of education reforms, such as project-based learning and other student-centered instruction. Nevertheless, each day I am amazed at the professionalism of each teacher that I meet, and the eagerness of the students to learn and answer questions in class.
We were treated to a play on the dangers of early marriage by a troisieme class (eighth grade) yesterday in a rural school. Their English was impressively good, as were their acting skills. The same school had some ancient computers that had been donated by an organization, but that no longer worked, so they sat in the unused computer room as there is no waste removal. They also had a well that had been built by World Vision that was no longer working (they had another manual one in the center of the school yard). And therein lies the difficulty in technology education: you need working equipment to train students in the technology they will use if they want to work in an office or profession. You need teachers who have been trained in technology to teach the class, and you need technicians in your community to fix machinery when they no longer work. The school had the teacher, but not the other two. Another school had a solar panel for use in the single computer in the principal’s office, and I think there are more solutions to be found in alternative energy. But it is clear that education and technical training will have to accompany any new initiatives.
We have been busy coteaching, observing, and interacting with many teachers and students over the past few days, which has been wonderful. We visited four schools today, three of which were out of Kolda to compare urban and rural school resources. (We were also supposed to visit a fifth, but the visit was cancelled due to snakes invading the walls of their makeshift classrooms. Seriously. Tons of black and red snakes. No picture because we weren't going near the place. I will write more about the classroom visits shortly, but I wanted to post some of the pictures from our afternoon at the market.
Today was our first day at our host school, which serves 2300 students. We started our day by greeting the headmaster, who was also a biology teacher, and sharing a little information about the exchange and what we hoped to accomplish. He shared some general information about the school, such as the disparity of students in studies: 80% take the “general studies” track, which is basically the humanities, and 20% study science and math.
After leaving the principal’s office, we met the other administrative staff, then headed out to the courtyard. High school in Senegal is a lot like college in the States; students and teachers have larger blocks of class on varying days, so there were a lot of students just hanging around or studying until their first class began. We walked by the physical education class, which a large number of students in Fanta’s English club were taking, and we succeeding in completely disrupting the class as the students tried out their English greetings and asked questions. Teenagers are the same everywhere; they relish the opportunity to get out of class and were very adept at prolonging their time away from instruction!
We then headed to a Terminale (final year) biology class on the human reproductive system and observed the last forty minutes of class. Of the 26 students in class, 9 were female. The teacher showed remarkable patience in first dictating the new material, then asking students to compare to their diagrams on the handout, then having them essentially “Think-Pair-Share,” then concluding with whole class discussion. He was very encouraging to the students and seemed completely unfazed by the increasing volume of students outside who were talking during their break. Afterwards we returned to the teachers’ lounge where we shared difficulties with covering the biology content prior to the exam but in a deep enough way that students can master the concepts. I broke out the Foldscopes (paper microscopes from Prakesh Labs at Stanford University) and as a group we assembled a few together. Now we just need to find something to examine under them!
We then drove a few blocks to an elementary school, which I promise you had the cutest kids ever. We arrived at recess to find some boys throwing rocks at the mangos hanging from the tree in the hopes they could knock them down. They quickly abandoned that entertainment to join the rest at following us until they were shooed away. We met with the headmistress, who has worked with Fanta on keeping girls in school. At this school of about 940 students, half the students are girls (you can see the statistics by grade in the background. One of the solutions they came up with is to feed all the children a meal at school. That way, parents are motivated to send their children so that they will at least get something to eat. So when does girls’ education become a problem? The answer could be found at our next visit.
We drove out to a rural secondary school, which is another place that Fanta has worked with on preventing girls from leaving school. At this school, they lack even enough classrooms for all the students, so they make temporary ones from woven walls. (Actually, it was a LOT cooler in the temporary classrooms than the concrete ones- but they would be no good whatsoever when the rains come). And here is where you start to see a marked gender gap: over 700 students go to this school, but only about 200 are female…and that’s an improvement over prior years. In the sixieme class (first year of middle school), the genders were about equal. But their teacher said that even some of these girls would be getting married that year. As the girls get married young, it either becomes too difficult to take care of their home and continue studying, or they get pregnant and have to leave school. Even if they don’t get married, their families may need their help at home. So by the lycee classes, there was only one girl (out of 4) in the English class we visited.
After another fantastic lunch made by Kolda’s daughters, we took a brief repose and then went to greet the mayor. Somehow we ended up in the vice-mayor’s office telling the craziest stories about inspections of schools gone wrong, the relative power of mayors, and other random stories that probably got lost in translation. We then stopped at the virtual university in Kolda, which is allowing more students to get a university education in English, mathematics, and computer science.
We then stopped to do some power shopping, then at the Moussa molo tree, which legend has it that if you walk around it seven times, you will never leave Kolda. Tempting, but given the temperature has been around 108 in the afternoon, I politely demurred.
Today was relaxing, which was welcome from all the wonderful but exhausting activities in our schedule over the past few days. Fanta told us we were going to go camping by the Casamance River, and I will admit to being somewhat wary of this, not knowing exactly what to expect. But, everything Fanta has planned has been just fantastic, so I left curious to see what we were doing. It turned out to be my type of camping: scenic views with an outstanding meal in a restaurant! The Casamance River turns out to be quite large, which I was not expecting, as we are at the end of the dry season, and the Kolda river here in town is pretty much dried up. We also rented a pirogue (dug out canoe- this one with a motor attached) for a boat ride on the river, where we met up with fishermen, wild boar, pelicans, and other birds. We also saw a lot of mangrove, which was intentionally planted to help prevent erosion near the river. The biodiversity in this region is just astounding- palm trees side by side with baobab, cashews, mangoes, and a score of other trees that I have no idea what they are.
This morning we visited the forest around Kolda to see the practices that the chief inspector of the forestry service described to us yesterday. In Senegal, there are strict regulations on deforestation that still take into account the need for many people to survive from the food and commerce associated with it. So what happens is that each region is divided into different sections, where each year one or two sections are permitted to harvest wood for making charcoal. There are also regulations on how the tree has to be cut, in order to allow for beneficial growth of the new seedlings. Once that year has passed, that area is off-limits for harvesting until eight years have passed, allowing the area to rejuvenate. There are also size restrictions to allow the larger trees to sustain the wildlife in the area, and further restrictions on how many trees within an area can be culled.
In the forest we visited, hunting is forbidden, but all the products of the forest are available to those that live there for their own personal use and for commerce as long as they follow the regulations. The World Bank has assisted the local government in providing education for women to create small businesses to do so. What impressed me as we drove through the forest and passed several villages along the way was just how well their regulations worked, and while life is certainly very difficult in the village, we have a lot to learn from the Senegalese about sustainability. It has to be profitable for the persons who are most affected, and at least from what we’ve seen, it certainly is a win-win for improving living conditions and protecting the environment.
This evening our hosts arranged a traditional Fulani evening of musicians and dinner- the entire neighborhood was invited, as well as teachers from Fanta’s school, students from her English club, and Peace Corps volunteers in the region. It was a fantastic night of dancing and enjoying the musicians. I am once again just overwhelmed by the hospitality (teranga) shown to us.
At the Forestry service, lunch at our host teacher's house, donkey carts are a common mode of transportation here, a mystery fruit that we are trying to determine the English name of, and trypansome (African sleeping sickness)-resistant cows. My post describing our adventures is below the pictures of Goree Island...
Yesterday we visited the US Embassy in Dakar where we had the privilege of meeting Ambassador Zumwalt and some of the other diplomatic staff. We then visited Goree Island and the African Renaissance monument. While there are many things I could say about these experiences, I think pictures might be better in this case. (And I have more to add...Internet- and electricity- have been rather unreliable this evening!)
We woke up at a ridiculously early hour this morning to get to the airport for our flight to Kolda, due to several uncertainties in our travel. Like if it mattered that I had the wrong return date on my handwritten ticket. Or if we could in fact take our excess luggage for a fee (we could- they were very gracious and reduced the fee with some successful navigating from our assistant since it was school supplies for students).
The plane held 21 passengers, and despite assigned seating it was first come, first served, which was fine. Once we landed in Kolda, the plane drove right up to the airport (a three-room building) and we disembarked and waited for our luggage to be taken from the plane by ladder. So getting there was half the fun today.
Our gracious hosts, Mme Fanta Boiro and her husband met us at the airport, took us to the hotel, and then we began the series of meetings of important persons in Kolda. We first met with the adjunct Inspector General of the schools, as the chief inspector was out of town. As he was a former biology teacher, we had a good conversation about what is taught in biology classes, what we hope to learn from our experience, and our first impressions of Kolda and Senegal.
Our next stop was the Forestry Service, in which we learned a great deal about the roles and responsibilities of the forest service in Kolda. They have three: to maintain the protected forest areas and animals within, to promote responsible and sustainable economic development of forestry products (charcoal, mahogany, and fruits as some examples), and to regulate hunting. This was a very long but meaningful conversation about challenges particular to the Casamance region in forestry. Senegal and the Gambia share a considerably lengthy border, and their forestry practices and regulations are not the same. For instance, Senegal has restrictions on how much wood for charcoal and mahogany can be harvested, in order to promote responsible use of the forest and help people earn a living, but in a way that maintains the forest ecosystems. I agree with the director, who emphasized that protecting the forests had to be economically beneficial for the people who live in and around it, which of course requires education. We visited the tree nursery and the forestry service’s store, where women sell sustainable food products that were harvested from the local area.
We then went to our host’s house, where we met their charming children, and were served a wonderful lunch that was made by the oldest daughter. After resting for an hour or so, we went back out to meet the Colonel of the army who is stationed in Kolda, who was very welcoming and shared with us some of the citizenship activities that he has implemented in the schools.
Finally we visited the Zoological Research Center, which is devoted to the preservation and research of local flora and fauna, including cattle, which are an essential component of life here. We learned that the rice grown in the Casamance region is distinct from the rice grown along the coast; the rice here is dependent on the rainy season, whereas the rice on the coast is irrigated. Both types are threatened by climate change in some way- the coastal rice by salinization with the rising sea levels, and the Casamance rice if the rainy season is altered too much. We also learned about their breeding and research program to promote cattle that are resistant to the trypanosome parasite that causes African sleeping sickness- any guesses what makes the cows in the picture resistant?
I teach science, engineering, and computer science at W.J. Keenan High School in Columbia, SC