18 July 2006

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.

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