Thursday, October 22, 2009

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Pictures!: (I know it has been awhile since i posted any) The first 2 are of the brand new CEG that they built near my house, and the third is Maman, their trainee from this summer, me and all the kids at this years swearing in ceremony for new volunteers.

So the 2009-2010 academic year is FINALLY really getting underway here in Benin. Every year the Beninese government sets a date for school to start and then inevitably continues pushing it back so that school actually started on October 5th. But classes don’t actually start right away. First the kids have to come to school and work for a day or two to cut down the brush and tall grass that has grown up over the course of the summer on the school grounds. Then they clean out the classrooms. The 2 main CEGs (College d’Enseignants Générale—General teaching school of the middle school and high school levels) in Dogbo are still not entirely organized for the year. There is a lack of many teachers so that kids just don’t go to class because no one is there to teach it. Also, the classrooms where classes are to be taking place still aren’t set for many classes so that it is always moving around. Sometimes, teachers just won’t go to class and the kids will just sit around. And a lot of the kids haven’t started yet just because they lack the money for supplies.

In an effort to encourage attendance at schools President Boni YAYI (Family names in Benin are always spelled in all Caps) made primary school entirely free nation-wide. A lot of parents still gripe about how it is expensive to send their children because they need to buy notebooks, pens, pencils, etc., and khaki fabric to make the outfits that serve as a national school uniform for the children (simple dress for girls and shorts and button shirt for boys). To put it in perspective for you, a cahier (notebook—they make them really simple here, about 100 pages with a paper cover and half the size of marble notebooks in the states) costs between 85-100CFA and the exchange rate right now is about 450CFA per dollar. So a notebook is less than 25 cents. But when you have a lot of kids, it adds up to be getting supplies for all of them to start school. Still, the president’s plan worked and attendance in recent years has jumped considerably. The problem with that was the lack of foresight as to how that would impact the secondary schools (the CEGs). Attending a CEG is not free. There is an enrollment fee for new sixieme students (The French system works backwards so that they start in ‘6th grade’ and move up through premiere and terminale) and then a yearly “contribution” in addition to having to buy supplies, khaki for uniform (but you don’t need new khaki every year…just as you outgrow it), and pay for photocopying the books necessary for your coursework since there is no program to distribute any sort of textbooks to kids here. But even though CEGs are not free, the number of students coming up from primary schools has gretly increased and there aren’t enough CEGs to handle it. There is a lack of teachers, supplies, classrooms…everything. Last year, my postmate had to teach one of her classes outside because there was no building for her to teach in.

There are 4 CEGs in Dogbo, 2 of which are in Dogbo-meme, which is to say in Dogbo proper as opposed to outlying villages. CEG-1 has been around the longest and is completed. There are a lot of buildings, all finished in cement, and an administrative building for the censor ( a main administrative officer who oversees all the teachers and classes, etc), director, and surveillant (disciplinarian—sounds ominous, doesn’t it? Discipline here sometimes includes beatings but generally for more mild offenses consists of hard physical labor dolled out in “hours.” You talk in class, your teacher might give you 2 hours so you’ll have to stay after school and cut down the brush or something to that effect.) But CEG 2 is much newer and far from completed. When my post mate first got there her administration kept telling her “we need buildings” because many classrooms were just wooden frames covered in reed walls with a tin roof (which makes it virtually impossible to hear if it rains, so fortunately school ends right around the start of rainy season) and dirt floors. AT least they had “chalkboards” though (pieces of wood or concrete walls, depending on the class, that are painted over in black paint). At any rate, they have some finished cement building classrooms and need more, and still don’t have enough classrooms for all of the kids that go there.

I recently found out though, that they were building a 5th CEG in Dogbo—on the route that I go walking on every night. They just constructed it a few weeks back and I had been wondering what would be there—I thought maybe a church. SO I walked by the other night to check it out. It is one building that is split into 2 classrooms. It is just a simple wooden frame with reed walls and dirt floors. There are no chalk boards, and the roof is tin. 20 months ago I might have thought “what a cruddy little building, I can’t believe this is a school where kids actually go” but now it is interesting to me to realize how differently I see this school. Currently there is no administrative building, and the classes could use some chalkboards, I think. But other than that the place is fine to me. I remember being in Tanzania and being taken to a newly built cement school that even had toilet seats for the teachers (no running water…you just pour water down the seat when you’re done). It was supposed to be a huge novelty but the woman showing us the school admitted that it was really so hot in the building that it was uncomfortable—they preferred teaching in a in a simply constructed classroom. I didn’t get it then, but after 15 months living in the little oven that is my cement house with a tin roof seemingly designed to trap in heat, I get it…and Benin is hot enough just being outside. During the chaleur (hot season around February through April) you can actually see the kids in class getting more lethargic because of the heat. When it’s hot for a Beninese person, I know I’m not just being whiney. So not only do these simply built wood and reed classrooms stay cooler because of the dirt floors and open breeze passing through, but they are also just more economically savvy in a place where there is a huge lack of classrooms.

One could build a ton of these classrooms for the price it would cost to make one cement building—and it would serve so many more students. Granted, I think it would be better if they at least put up chalk boards at CEG-5 but I am sure that they are going to shortly (they really only just built it and are getting underway. In all likelihood, they ordered boards a few weeks ago from a menusier who still hasn’t finished them).

So that is the situation in Dogbo in terms of school—not enough classrooms, not enough buildings, not enough teachers, and a ton of students. Supplies are a non-issue…there is no classroom decoration here and no supplies. The school issues a box of chalk per semester to their teachers and that is all. Anything that PCVs want to use in their classrooms to make their lessons more dynamic they have to provide themselves. But dynamic lessons don’t really get very far here because the education system is based on rote learning. Kids don’t know in ANY capacity how to think critically (they just memorize and spit back facts), and they have no toys or any other kinds of activity to intellectually stimulate them. My friend gave her neighbor kids a coloring book with crayons and realized a week later that they didn’t know what to do with them so she had to explain it. My postmate gave her kids markers to make nametags at the beginning of the school year (which is itself an anomaly because Beninese teachers don’t bother learning names—there are upwards of 70 kids in a class and they don’t care) and the kids didn’t even realize they had a choice in what marker color they could use. You do that in the U.S. and children will be arguing for the pink or blue marker. It’s surprising to me how much you get used to things like that, but sometimes, I still take a step back from the situation here in Benin and try to see the bigger picture, and it is really sad to me that this is the reality for the kids here. I don’t think they are ever taught to think that they can have a future and accomplish things if they want to. I know that this will take time to change…this is the first generation of kids going to school for many families, which is in and of itself a great feat. But still…sometimes it is sad.

I’ve decided to pay for Filomene to go to school this year. Normally I hate doing anything like that that would come off as me just giving away money because then everyone clamors for the yovo to buy this or that for them. But she is a sweet kid who always helps me out by getting me water, etc. and I want her to go to school. Plus, people at home randomly gave me money to do something good with it here, and I think this meets that criteria. Her “contribution” plus all of her supplies and photocopies is going to cost me around forty US dollars, and she’s promised not to tell anyone that I am the one paying for her. What she will do to continue her education after I leave boggles my mind. Her father died recently and he paid for her to go to school in the past. Her father had 10 wives and over 50 kids so now it falls to Filo’s mother to find her money for school, and she won’t do it. Her mom just doesn’t think school is important since she herself didn’t go. Actually I was really angry with Filo because the volunteer before me gave her $80 to pay for her school and told her explicitly to safely hide it and tell no one about it, but Filo gave it to her mother, who spent it. I know that family loyalty and umbuntu (to borrow a South African term for lack of a better idea) is very important here but I just don’t understand the lack of looking out for oneself also. People won’t pay for education because they don’t see that it is important. It is one of the most frustrating things EVER to me. It is like people who won’t pay $3 for a mosquito net but will pay HUNDREDS of dollars for meme tissue and a huge funeral party for someone who dies from malaria. I’ve come to learn that people will find money for what is important to them, and education has clearly yet to become a priority in Benin for most people outside of Cotonou and Porto Novo. I guess since I am such a nerd and am myself clamoring to get back into the world of academia when Peace Corps is over, I can’t really understand it. But at the same time, I know there are kids in the US who could care less about school too.

At the end of the day, I don’t think that Filo is the brightest child I’ve ever met, and I don’t think she will do much after school but settle down and sell things in the marche like her mother does, but I still want her to go to school. Filo is starting the “5th grade” cinquieme but should probably already by in the 3rd because she is older. She started late as kids in village often do, and had to re-do 6th grade because she failed a subject. From what she told me, a teacher made a pass at her and she turned him down so he failed her. If you’re shocked, don’t be, because that happens ALL the time here.

Most teachers are male, and most of them are sleeping with their students—plural. It is a 2-way street: Many professors use their positions to get laid by giving out passing of failing grades, presents, etc. Also though, many girls will play the same game because they are lazy and still want to get good grades, and they are raised in a culture where it is ok. Sometimes parents even encourage them sleeping with their teachers because if they get pregnant they hope that the teacher will marry them, even if she would be a second wife. Unlike in the US, where teachers don’t really make a lot of money, being a teacher is one of the highest-earning jobs you can find in Benin. That means that a lot of teachers are in their profession for the wrong reasons—ie: money, prestige, and easy access to lots of young females. I can only hope that over time, this starts to change, and that more and more women become teachers as well. Only time will tell.

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