06 September 2009

My stay in Scotland

It's been nearly three months since I left Scotland and, as I catch up on some posts I wanted to do, I decided to write a little about my experience in Edinburgh.

I first lived with a great friend of mine from my time in Ghana. It was staying with Sena and his family, and to play uncle for several months. I also enjoyed my experience at Harmeny School immensely, and I believe it'll help me a lot as a teacher in New York.

Cramond Island, Edinburgh, in February 2009

Part of the idea of moving to Scotland and not back to DC was to see how I liked life in the UK, and to have a quieter existence after finishing up in The Gambia. I made some good friends from my Sunday football group, Papa, Sena and Delali, my Wolof student and fellow West Africa aficionado, and my coworkers.

While in Edinburgh I was fortunate to have several visitors from the U.S., as well as a couple of friends staying around London. As Ousainou was in the UK, I had the opportunity to practice Wolof on the phone often, and during his visits. Since Harlem has an area called Little Senegal, so hopefully I'll get to keep up on Wolof.

For the last eight months or so of my stay I moved into a flat closer to work. This allowed me to bike to work, or take the bus, in 30 minutes - a nice improvement over the old 75 minute commute. Plus it was a little more spacious. Just before Christmas I discovered a weekly pick-up basketball game. Great fun, although I was surprised how popular basketball is with Polish people (or "Polanese" as Ousainou puts it) - of our 15 regulars, 6 were from Poland.

One major downside of living in Scotland was a general inability to pursue a teaching certification there. This was principally due to my unwillingness to spend several hundred Pounds (and a couple of evenings a week) on a couple of English courses, which would help Scottish universities establish that I had sufficient command of the English language to teach in Scotland. Bachelor's degrees from fairly reputable American universities, plus experience in Scottish schools and attendant recommendations, don't suffice. As a result I was beginning to disengage from life in Scotland and very relieved to get into the teaching programme in New York.

Other disadvantages included the weather and my second job at TESCO three nights a week. The latter helped me to save a little money, though.

Cramond Island on a sunny day in May

So I had a good stay in Edinburgh, although I didn't manage to travel as much as I'd have liked. Plus I mostly missed the festival as I visited the U.S. in August 2008. It's possible I'll return again, assuming a U.S. teaching degree has some value there, and enjoy the luxury of government provided healthcare!

The Green School Bus

Throughout my visit to Njau, my host father Chebo extolled the virtues of Gambia's new public buses. I will a bit surprised by this praise as he's generally not keen on initiatives undertaken by the APRC, Gambia's ruling party. [In a particularly rash pre-election moment a couple of years ago, he told the Njau police station officer that the S.O. would be slaughtered if the opposition won.] The vehicles are old American school buses painted green (the ruling party's colour) that ply the north bank road to the Barra ferry, and even across to Banjul and Serrekunda.

Chebo's main points:

- The buses are repainted green, and refurbished inside too - they're comfortable and have a good radio and speakers.

- The buses are cheaper than gelegeles (D90 to D100), which is forcing gelegele aparantis/conductors to reduce their fares.

- The buses don't dawdle for passengers and so are much faster.

- The buses get priority on the ferry so that you can quickly continue to Serrekunda (for no extra fare, although you do pay for the ferry ride).

Chebo, fan of green buses, and radios.

So on the appointed day I went to the bantaba (old men's hang-out spot) at the highway and waited for the 3 o'clock bus. Around 5 it rumbled up.

It soon became clear that the green school bus was not so different from the competition. The usual overcrowding led to great sharing of seats and children (I had one girl on my lap for a few hours), and plenty of time was devoted to picking up passengers, plus the obligatory food/toilet stop in Farafenni. But it also featured the usual kindnesses and personal interest of any trip - the girl who sat with me was being looked after by her grandmother as her mom could not manage. They were travelling to a wedding but didn't know how to get there. Fellow passengers made a few inquiries and phone calls to find out where they were going and someone on the bus agreed to escort them.

One improvement was the good state of the radio and speakers. There were no cassettes so we listened to a Gambia Radio and Television Service programme on the sexual exploitation of children, which somehow had the anagram SISSECS (like "scissors" with "ex" as the second syllable).

The moderators covered the main talking points, but weren't very good at countering caller responses. When one man called to castigate teenage girls for wearing short skirts thereby testing men's self-control, the presenters did not counter this argument.

The bus reached Barra around 10, which eliminated most of the ferry advantage as there was hardly any traffic at this hour (and we were down to one ferry). Whereas Gez and Liam elected to abandon their earlier green school bus, I didn't see any alternatives. I got to Mariama's around midnight, perhaps four hours later than I may have with the first post-lunch gele. But it was nice lying under the bantaba with my host dad and some of the men of the village, and I enjoyed the trip once I realised that Chebo's assessment of the APRC bus was hopelessly off.

05 September 2009

A Bittersweet Return to Njau L.B.S.

My friends Liam and Gez joined me on this visit to The Gambia in April 2007. It was fun to share some of my Peace Corps experience with them, and it's always fun travelling with people who take notice of things that you may not see as readily.

My old boss in The Gambia, Ousainou Touray, moved to the UK shortly before me. We talk frequently, and we were able to get periodic updates on Njau Lower Basic School. Ousainou served as Njau's headmaster/principal for five years. Since Ous and I left, there have been 4 or 5 headmasters in the last two school years. So we had an inkling that all was not well. In addition to presents for his family, Ous gave me a couple of footballs for the school.

The day after I arrived in The Gambia, I came to Njau to try visit the school before it closed for Easter holidays (Gambia, 90-95% Muslim, dutifully observes even the most obscure Catholic holidays like Ascension). We went up to the school on Friday and met the students on the way as they'd been sent back (Gambian schools tradionally close a day or week early before a holiday). We continued and checked out the school and the (vegetable) garden. Eventually the new headmaster came over from his quarters. Liam wondered why I didn't give Jallow the footballs but, as he didn't seem terribly enthused, I elected to wait until the PTA chairman, Mot Hoja Ceesay, turned up as planned. I left the footballs in his care.

Mr. Jallow, myself, Mot Hoja Ceesay in the school garden

The school grounds weren't in very good shape. The roof from Grade 3 had blown off, and the furniture/class was relocated to my beloved library, the door to which was left unlocked as the keys were lost. The school garden wasn't as big as before, but did seem fairly well irrigated. After a few more minutes we headed off.

As my former Njau L.B.S. colleagues returned for Easter I began to learn more about Mr. Jallow. It turns out he was the headmaster of Buduk L.B.S. southeast of Njau. He was caught selling the school's World Food Programme supplies so he was transferred to Njau (Gambia's Dept. of State for Education doesn't fire people for stealing students' food).

On top of being a criminal, Mr. Jallow also got on very poorly with his teachers. One, Sheikh Ceesay, is a Njau native and lives there with his family. Due to conflicts with Jallow, Sheikh moved to Buduk's school, even though it meant spending the week away from his family and rent a food bowl. I was unable to see one of the two remaining teachers, the Ustas (Koranic teacher), as he had left early after an argument with Jallow. My little brother Alhagie Sait's teacher had not returned since the Christmas holidays. The lack of teachers and classroom means that a couple of classes now come in the afternoon.

One good thing to come out of Njau L.B.S.'s current travails is that it's helped me better appreciate Ousainou and the work he did at the school. I always knew he was cut from a different cloth than many headmasters and education authorities, but this visit reemphasized some salient points:

- Ous had a great rapport with his teachers. They were welcomed into his quarters for after-school lunch and ataya, and by and large work attendance was very good.

- He got on really well in the community, and knew just about everyone in the area. He also helped some compounds through the lean months. (Although this too was a misappropriation of WFP stores, it wasn't for personal gain. There was still plenty for the students, and whatever's left at the end of the year gets pilfered by the regional education office.)

- Ousainou also worked quite hard. He organized outreach/"sensitisation" in Njau and surrounding villages. He also spent a lot of holiday time visiting NGOs and prospective donors, in order to get funds for school improvements (library renovation, water pumps). The roof from Grade 3 would definitely have been restored.

Ousainou Touray and I in London. April 2009

Throughout my visit, many people noted how much Ousainou was missed and how the school was struggling. As disappointing as the school's state is, it helped me appreciate how much was accomplished by Ousainou.