Tuesday, May 27, 2008


Teachers of Dialafara

Nicole and I waited up all night for our fellow volunteer, Vanessa, to arrive from Kayes. Due to breakdowns, she didn't get in until 5 am (4 hours late). The bus guys tossed down this huge rice sack and we were stunned. A whole rice sack; wow? We thanked Vanessa and wished her a good journey (at least 2 more hours to Kenieba). We went back home, got some sleep, and then called over the headmaster (director and teacher of the middle school) and openned up the 'present.' Nicole was happy to count the thirty flip flops and notebooks, pens, pencils, sharpeners, erasers, rulers, scissors, paper, binder, markers; and thai dolls. The headmaster smiled from ear to ear. We thought about how best to distribute this in a fair, but encouraging way. We talked about spelling and geography bees, jeopardy, giving them to good students, etc. The headmaster decided that the flip-flops would best be given to the girls who had at least a C average, as that number closely matched the number of flip-flops. The top three students of each class were given the notebooks and pens and pencils. The art supplies have been left in the teachers office for the teachers to make illustrative posters for the students. The loose-leaf paper will be used for the math classes to do their sums. The difference in American and Malian paper styles is a little unfortunate, but they are happy to work around that. The rest of the pens and pencils will be given out at the beginning of next school year, because if they were given out now, they'd be lost or misused, and they will nicely reinforce the 'grade ceremony.' Among those photos, I included some images from the 'grade ceremony' from the second trimester (it was in March or April). The teachers gathered all of the students and invite the parents (of whom only a pitiful few arrive) to announce the grades that the students received on their finals. It was striking for Nicole and me because they also say the comments like 'very bad student, student talks in class, misbehaves' etc, and the rest of the students laugh. We're working with them to try and change this to a more positive, inspiring ceremony. The inspiring part is when they
announce the top three of each class, and the top girls, and pass out notebooks and pens and pencils to them. We're still trying to get some sort of competition going for the thai dolls and other supplies, but its totally new territory for the teachers, so it will take some work.
Top girls receiving their flip-flops

Award/Punishment Ceremony

Top Students of the Year
Let me talk about the school. In Dialafara, there is an elementary and middle school (grades 1 to 9). The school itself used to be grain storage buildings, but throw some cement on the wall, paint it black, and you've got a school. Each room is about 15 ft x 30 ft and holds anywhere from 70 to over 100 students, crammed together 4 to a desk where there should only be 2, leaving the tiniest path for the teacher to slip through to get to the front where the black board is. Since this is the only middle school in the county, students come from all over (as far as 40 miles). They have to stay with a family in Dialafara because there is no transport to the villages. When school is done for the season, they walk the 10+ miles back to see their parents. It's hard to keep the students coming when home is so far away, especially the girls. Each class is only about 25% girls. Unfortunately in our village, education is not much respected, so the girls come to class to look pretty among the other girls, not so much to learn. They usually cannot speak French, even though the teachers mainly talk in French, and they've theoretically been studying it for the past 7 years. To be sure, there are girls who try really hard and do well in school. But it is really hard to stay in middle school when you get married and have a baby. The girls who stay in school are very lucky to have parents who understand its importance (after all, ten cows and $300 to marry your daughter is much more lucrative than school).
Students three to a desk

Students start learning to read and write in Bambara, one of the national languages. They grow up speaking Malinke, which is almost Bambara but not quite (more different than American English and British English, but the same idea). The learn to sing the national anthem; to raise and lower the flag, to march in step. They use chalk and little black boards to do their lessons. In 4th grade they begin learning French. They must pass a test called the BAC to graduate from 6th grade. From there they go to middle school, where the classes are mosty in French, except for the English class. In middle school, 5 teachers teach them math, physics, chemistry, biology, geology, geography, English, French, history, drawing, music, and civic and moral education. Each class lasts about 2 hours long once or twice a week. The teachers do their best, but with 70 students, you can't give students the attention that they need. So the good students sit up front and learn and the teacher often calls on them when they raise their hands, snap their fingers, and say 'me, me, me sir;' and the disinterested students sit in the back and zone out. The teacher used to have more control when he could threaten them with a beating, but now that's against the law, and mostly not done. It's also difficult when there is only one textbook for every 4 students, so much class time is spent writing on the board what is written in the books. Since the students don't get enough attention, many are unable to pass the compositions (tests) at the end of each trimester, so they repeat the class. Most of the students in 9th grade are around 17. To go to high school, they have to pass the DEF. The closest high school is in Kenieba, 40 miles away, but most students who go to high school go to Kayes, the state capital, 100 miles away, or Bamako, the country capital, 400 miles away.

But I have painted a bleak picture of school. The teachers get together everyday and eat lunch together, talking about their classes, about the soccer game last night. They laugh all the time. The students play soccer, or sit around and drink tea when they aren't busy with chores. They know that school is important. Some of them have plans to be doctors, English teachers, soldiers. Others are content to graduate and help their family at the farm. Most everyone is happy. They have the same feelings as American students. Some dread that first day, others can't wait for it. There are the students who cram hard before the test, and others who study the whole time. The students are happy when they get good grades. There are the students who don't care, about anything. There are prankster students and teachers-pets. The setting may be different, but school is essentially the same.

My recommendation for future school donations would be pens, pencils, sharpeners, art supplies for teachers to make posters, money for textbooks, French and really easy English books, pictures of American life (classroom, farm, supermarket, parking lot, school yard, nature, city, animals, transportation). Donations are easier to distribute (though probably not to collect) at the beginning of the school year than at the end. But any aid at any time is always welcome. I think Peace Corps is a great way of getting the aid away from the capital city, which gets more than its fair share.

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