25 July 2006

Photos of the AgFo-Ed. group match

Pictures from our football match. Look at the beautiful Atlantic ocean. The education team is on defense on the right (I'm wearing red).

24 July 2006

Education volunteers dispel myth: they can run!

A few notes for the uninitiated: IST (In-Service Training), AgFos (AgroForestry volunteers), Ed(ucation)

Friday, March 31, saw the merciful end of our respective ISTs, and the new AgFos and newish Ed group decided to have an American football match on the beach.

The AgFos seemed pretty confident of victory in the days leading up to the match, and talked a lot of trash (Lie Sinyaan: "When I'm done with you, you're going to wish your daddy pulled out early."). The Ed group was a little intimidated by those taut, wiry bodies, honed by days working in the fields and searching for counterparts. Add to this the fact that we were missing three of our stalwarts - the sublime Robert (who was taking a bath), the insane Lie Njie (and the prospect of a post-football Frisbee game), and one of our tall man-eaters. But six months of watching kids kneeling in the sun with their arms over their heads meant that the Educators know a thing or two about doling out punishment.

Faced with the disinterest of half our team ("No lunch or per diem? Fuck it."), we managed to field 7 education volunteers for the 5-on-5 affair. By contrast, the AgFos came in droves, with a dozen or so willing participants. Still, the Teachers had a tight rotation and Jannetty, for one, tagged in and out with aplomb.

After a tentative first few series, the match was tied at 1. But a few defensive stops by the Education group put the score at 4-1, and the rout was on. The ignominy continued till a score of 10-6. At that point we decided to finish things off with a "first to three," leaving a total of 13-7. For one day, Tie-Dye Mai was known as Touchdown Maimuna, and Xaji came through with some incongruously athletic defensive plays. Yusufa was to opposing receivers what Katia is to dance partners. The wide margin of victory, however, prevents us from referring to it as a “grind it out win”.

Although cowed, and a little shellshocked, by the beating administered by classroom- and office-bound educators, the AgFos deserve some credit for their showing. Most of them turned out to play, in contrast to the lackadaisical education volunteers. Also, Peter had the block of the game when he put Guttridge flat on his back during one kickoff. They also bought us beers, the stakes of the game. One can only wonder if they regret freezing out Rodney, who apparently expressed interest in playing, and has wanted to lay Alieu out for a while now. Good dinner and drinks followed at the Sandplover.

Back at the Stodge, though, the AgFos rallied like true PCTG veterans, masters of the sedentary arts. Not ones for drowning their sorrows, they turned to the Stodge TV for comfort. The Ed vols, by contrast, were a little frightened by the content ("Texas Chainsaw Massacre") and retreated to the clubs of Senegambia.

In the meantime, the Ed group awaits a challenge (and the promise of hotties in the next Ed batch). Perhaps the health groups can offer more resistance?

18 July 2006

The guy with the mustache...

Well, my blog has been linked to by my fellow PCVs and some of our newly arrived Education trainees perused my page. I met the Wolof trainees this past weekend as I was asked by PC to go down to Sare Samba and help out a little. I managed to provide a little encouragement, chiefly by showing that after a year I am still pretty hopeless (and no longer remember how to set up a water filter). It was fun to revisit my old stomping grounds, and I really get on well with my old host family there. A couple of the trainees had visited my blog, and the chief thing they remembered was my facial hair of a few months ago. "Didn't you have a mustache once?" was the question.

Janitorial Hubris

From the annals of indignities heaped on our school caretaker…

Given the low rung on the pay scale occupied by our school caretaker, his attempt to become the only Njau Lower Basic School staff member to retain two wives was bound to raise eyebrows. With a lower salary than even our unqualified teachers (whose monthly earning were unfavourably compared by our deputy headmaster to the money needed to feed an English dog – see June 4 entry), Ebou Incha’s gambit to take on a recently-widowed mother of three children seemed a classic case of overreach. Ousainou, our headmaster and, along with my host father Chebo, a staunch advocate of having only one wife, was quick to announce his disapproval of Ebou’s assuming this added financial burden. Alas, a great many destitute Gambian men cannot resist the allure and status of a second wife (which aims to obfuscate, yet simultaneously worsen, their sorry financial states), and Ebou Incha proved no exception. After Ebou gave a warugar/bride price which included two cows, the new wife Jai arrived at the beginning of the 2005-06 school year, just preceding my own arrival.

It wasn’t long afterwards that Ebou pointed to his onerous financial obligations when I pestered him about his daughter Incha’s dropping out of school. It soon came to light, too, that Ebou’s first wife Sohna was not happy to have Jai join the household, with the ill feelings exacerbated by the compound’s precarious financial footing. Soon Jai was spending most evenings in a neighbouring compound which I sometimes visit. Jai often bugged me about buying her stuff but, as I get that treatment from quite a few people, I thought little of it. After about six months of acrimony and deprivation, Jai decided she’d had enough and returned to her in-laws’ across the river in Niamina.

Following this turn of events, the women of Njau decided to do a “roast” of Sohna – Ebou’s first wife. To the accompaniment of drumming and dancing the women teased Sohna, needling her for driving away Jai, who could’ve been a big help with work around the compound and on the farm. Ebou recounted this final humiliation to Ousainou, with the coup de grace being that Malick Ceesay (yours truly) came along to watch insult be heaped on top of injury (in truth I came for the music and dancing and only learned of the event’s agenda later on).

Career Advancement and Self-Improvement vs. The Siren's Call of Green Tea

July 7 – The choice may seem obvious to the uninitiated, but when I returned to Njau from an 8 km walk to Mbolgoh and Njokoben to greet parents and explain their children’s report cards and exam results (and my hopes to get half the kids to repeat Grade 1), I discovered two of Njau’s “unqualified” teachers waiting for transport at the police station cum gelegele stop. It was 7:30 in the evening and my erstwhile colleagues were hoping to travel to Mansa Konko, where the next morning they would take (and hopefully pass this time) the entrance exam for The Gambia College’s teacher certification program.

Given that the journey entails at least three gelegele/minivan rides (and the potential for breakdowns) and a ferry ride, plus the fact that Friday, being the Sabbath, is a horrible day for catching transport, a noontime departure is prudent – especially when considering the stakes. If I have to be in Mansa Konko by a certain time, I’d allow 8 hours on a normal day.

Today was (mercifully) the last day of school (we assembled to give out report cards and tutus…), which let out at 11AM. As I left to begin my catchment village tour, the teachers settled down to brew some ataaya (Chinese green tea with lots of sugar). This included our two prospective teachers, who one might have expected to want to leave early to be well-rested in advance of an exam they’ve already failed a few times. They too hunkered down, though, for two full brewings (a batch of ataaya features three progressively sweeter rounds) that took them well into the afternoon. Once I’d arrived and greeted the police and my colleagues, one of the teachers bemoaned their difficulty finding transport at this late stage. This was one of those rare occasions where I managed to bite my tongue; a year of haranguing teachers about the seemingly obvious is wearing on me and the rainy season break is arriving in good time.

Rock The Vote, Gambian style

July 5 – In the days following the AU summit, when 35 or so heads of state (along with the presidents of Iran and Venezuela…) descended on Banjul for a few platitudes and a joint statement denouncing coups (future ones, not the ones that brought to power some of these leaders, including the host), President Jammeh has shown his gratitude to a compliant populace by giving the country (well, those with government jobs or at banks and the like) four days of public holidays.

So school is finishing today (Wednesday) instead of on Friday. This combined with the fact that we had Monday and the previous Friday off, put paid to my hopes of our headmaster holding an end-of-year staff meeting (or even a 2006 one).

One sector of government is working quite strenuously, though, unlike the schools, which are giving added meaning to the phrase going out with a whisper. The “Independent” Electoral Commission is in town, registering voters for the upcoming presidential elections (variously projected to take place between September and November). Suffrage is universal from age 18, so I was a little surprised to see some of my 6th, 5th and even 4th Grade students lining up to join the democratic process. To be sure, some of our students are a few years older than their corresponding grades (and some PCVs working in high schools have students older than them), but I don’t think that even any of our Grade 6 students are as old as 18.

In lieu of birth certificates and immunization cards, which inconveniently have closer approximations of birthdates, the children have statements ghostwritten by relatively literate young men (who are back in town for the rainy season), then stamped by their alkalis (village chiefs). It’s a reasonably effective, albeit obvious, racket, as the ruling party (the president appoints district chiefs who in turn oversee the alkalis in their area) will have the alkalis turn out the (pre-selected) new registrants later to augment its take at the polls.

As a result of this registration drive, we’ve been missing our Deputy Headmaster, who’s also our Grade 1 teacher, for the past three weeks. He’s hoping to parlay his working for the ruling party/electoral commission into a headmaster post – a position he’s consistently failed to carry out in the past. He’s been so abysmal, in fact, that he’s been demoted to deputy status (no mean feat).

The upshot of this is that your correspondent found himself in charge of writing, giving and grading exams for over fifty Grade 1 students. I decided to be thorough and this, combined with questioning administered haltingly in English, Wolof and Fula, meant that I spent 20 hours alone on giving the exam, not counting treks to outlying villages to test students who’d been absent. The upside of this is that I have a very clear idea of what our first graders know, and don’t know. Still, after over 1000 minutes of showing students numbers (for example: “6”, answer: “W”) and letters (flashcard: “F”, response “21”), it gets a bit draining. As of now my main goal for the summer is to venture out to our catchment villages to explain the report cards to parents, do a little farming, and bugger off to Mauritania and Senegal for three weeks.

A little about the competition

29 June 2006 – Tonight I visited Musa and Fana Ceesay, whose 5 year old son Mam Sheikh has left the school’s nursery class, and is now studying at a dara (madrassa) in Darou, a km away from us in Senegal. So I dropped by to see if I could encourage Mam Sheikh’s return. Musa and his brother Sheikh, a teacher at Njau’s school, are both well-educated and could help Mam Sheikh, who’s a bright boy, to do well.

Musa was quick to mollify me, however, explaining that after two years in Darou, Mam Sheikh would re-enroll at Njau for Grade 1. His plan to give Mam Sheikh a little grounding in the Koran sounded reasonable enough.

As Musa went on, though, I felt less at ease. He explained that the students spend the morning farming in the school’s fields, then study after lunch. He noted that the teachers are very strict (a strong statement given some of the sadists in DOSE’s employ), and the children don’t sleep on beds (or under mosquito nets) and only bathe once a week or so. Musa said that Mam Sheikh used to be very playful (he is five, after all), but now his demeanour has totally changed. I had to concede that point to Musa, although I haven’t seen Mam Sheikh recently.