Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Further Lessons Learned

As I wrote last week, I have been working out how best to be helpful to the children at the school. At first it seemed that simply paying for such things as medicine would actually be a bad idea and rather than help ill children, would set up a situation where many people in the community would see me as a source of free money. I spoke to the director of the school, Shannoh Kandoh, about this. He was the one who told me that this is a problem that the school has always faced since it has been providing free services and materials to its students. He suggested that the school allocate a portion of its monthly budget toward covering student medical costs and that teachers take an active role in ensuring that students are the ones receiving the medicine. The faculty had done this in the past but at some point had stopped. I found out that it didn't take much to get it started again.

After the first diagnosis I described in my previous post, three more children were diagnosed with typhoid and malaria within a week's time. Two more sets of parents could not pay for the medicine, so I covered the cost. This was before the school had been able to set aside money. The third family was able to pay for the medicine, though the father did ask the school to pay for the medicine. The teachers knew the family was able to pay, so the director simply reminded the father of this, and the father went off to buy the medicine himself.

Earlier, another boy came to me saying he had been coughing up blood, and the school director was able to arrange for him and his father, who was also suspected of having tuberculosis, to visit a doctor, be tested, and receive medicine. I covered the cost of the trips to and from the hospital, and the director arranged for the other costs to be covered for both father and son. Since then the school has allocated about $90 of its monthly budget of just over $1,000 to cover student medical costs. Teachers went yesterday to the local clinic to propose setting up a cooperative effort between the doctors and the teachers to look after student health. Since the consultation fee is minimal at the clinic, just about every family can pay to have a child seen by a doctor and diagnosed. According to the new plan, the child's class teacher is to accompany the family to the clinic. The doctors have agreed to then write out the diagnosis in our school medical ledger and explain to the class teacher how the medicine is to be administered. If the family says it is unable to pay for all or part of the medicine, the class teacher can request funds from the school. Faculty members will discuss the request, and if agreed, will allocate medical funds for the child. The class teacher is then responsible for checking in regularly with the family to make sure the child is being properly cared for and is being given the medicine. In some cases, the class teacher will hold onto the medicine and administer it as needed.

We will have to see how well this works. I am simply impressed that the teachers had such a strong will to set this up and that it took form so quickly. It turns out that as with many things in life, charitable giving poses far fewer risks if approached thoughtfully and with a strong commitment to carrying out a principle of good will.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


After two weeks of getting myself settled, observing classes at the school and meeting with the teachers, we have begun teacher training sessions. Monday was our first afternoon session, and it went by quickly with an introduction to playing the recorder, work on recitation, a discussion about how to develop a healthy rhythm of activity in the classroom, and some form drawing. I believe I even heard one or two of the teachers say that the time was too short. This particular comment at 3:30 on a school day that every one of them had taught right through from 8:30 to 2 with only 40 minutes away from teaching was entirely surprising.

I had prepared thinking that the teachers would be exhausted and unmotivated at the end of the schoolday. I had brought cookies and fruit to revive them and planned the most stimulating activities I could think of in order to keep everyone's attention, but I needn't have worried. Despite the long, hot day at the chalkboards, every one of the teachers was thoroughly engaged, and I enjoyed the first session immensely. The snack was not wasted, however, and it will now be expected every time.

Over the course of a few meetings, we have worked out a preliminary schedule for the training sessions. We will meet every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday from 1:15 to 4. In order to accomodate the Class 6 teacher, Amara Suarey, who has to leave by 2:30 to teach after-school test preparation classes to combined classes that include our Class 6 students, the teachers agreed to shift the entire school day half-an-hour earlier. This will extend the amount of time Mr. Suarey can spend with us each day. In addition, we will meet every Saturday from ten to noon. From noon to one I will offer English language classes to the teachers, and I will teach computer skills to the teachers on a one-to-one basis throughout the week. Next week we will decide whether I will teach English classes to the children or spend school hours observing and mentoring the teachers.

All of this and I am keenly aware that I will not have enough time to give the faculty everything they will need or want. Today, Saturday, we had a lively discussion about the consciousness of the child. It was the first time I had seen the entire faculty interacting in so lively a way. They interrupted one another disagreed with one another, challenged one another to explain thoughts more clearly and asked provocative questions. Previously I had experienced them as politely formal and I worried that they would not feel comfortable working with me. I enjoyed this session very much and left feeling invigorated and inspired by my new colleagues.

My sensibilities have undergone significant adjustments in the three weeks I have been here (not the least of which has been developing a comfort level with the poda-poda, but I'll leave that for another post.) I have come to accept hot, dusty days at school. I have learned to teach over noise that travels between the classrooms (now separated at least by grass mats, that nevertheless block little sound). I have begun conversations with teachers about the practice of hitting children for misbehaving and found that, contrary to my original assumption, it is not universally accepted by Sierra Leonean parents or the teachers at the school and that there is room to discuss its use in light of developing an artistic approach to teaching. Most significantly, for me personally, I have readjusted my conception of charity.

This last is still developing, but it has been front and center for me these last two weeks. When the teachers, all of whom are living on very limited salaries, learned that most parents of Class 6 students had not paid the fees for the national secondary school examinations, they pooled their own money to cover fees for all but a handful of students whose parents had paid. It seems most of the teachers at one time or another have paid for a students' uniform and have given a hungry child some money to get some lunch. One student, an older boy who had been registered at the school when he was found hanging out on a beach, takes personal responsibility for watering the school plantings. Another boy has begun stepping in to calm the younger ones when I have to clean out infected wounds, rubbing their backs and holding them firmly.

Last week we had the first of several cases of typhoid diagnosed among our students. The class teacher and I took the boy to the local clinic run by two Egyptians, and I paid for his medication because his family had been unable to afford it. It seemed thoroughly in the spirit of what was happening at the school. A few days later the boy came to tell us that his father had not given him his medicine and might even have taken it himself. That very day two more children were diagnosed with typhoid, and their parents claimed inability to pay for the medication. I began to worry about my charitable impulse going to no good end.

Apparently this is a familiar story at the school. It turns out that a good number of the children have parents who could afford school fees. These children would nevertheless be on the street instead of in school were it not for the Goderich Waldorf School because these parents seem not to feel they need to educate their children. The teachers and the school director are therefore constantly faced with decisions such as whether or not to pay for medications for a child or whether or not to buy a uniform for a child who clearly needs one. They generally err in favor of the child even though this means that occasionally they feel somewhat cheated as I did when I found out I had paid for medication that never went to the intended child. It also means that they are quite sure they are doing everything possible to keep their students healthy and safe. It makes charitable giving feel like living dangerously, which I am increasingly convinced is the truth of the matter.

Looking on the surface of just about anything in Sierra Leone, I am inclined to despair. So very much is needed here. A somewhat closer look has frequently revealed startlingly courageous and generous acts occuring all around me as with these teachers. It is enough to make me forget to complain about the poda-podas.

Below are a few pictures from recent celebrations:

Here I am serving fish sauce with the help of hard-working volunteer Amanata Bendu. The Waldorf High School of Massachusetts Bay donated the money for this all-school feast.

Class 3 teacher, Susan Taylor, serving rice out of steaming basins. It was a hot job on a hot day.

On a recent Friday afternoon at the end of the school day, Amanata and Susan organized an impromptu dance performance.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A Day at Goderich Waldorf School

The children begin arriving a little before 8 a.m. Many of them rush to school to be with their friends and to have a respite from the crowded conditions in the shacks and shanties where they live. Despite the cost, every child now has a uniform and comes to school wearing shoes, although before main lesson is over most of the little ones have kicked off their shoes and run around barefoot for the rest of the day. The teachers tell me that the uniforms and shoes are a point of pride for the children's families. When the school first opened, some children would arrive barely clothed, and only a small minority wore shoes. As the school established expectations for the children's attendance and behavior, without ever actually requiring uniforms or shoes, however, the parents seemed to take pride in the school and their children and insisted on providing them. Some of the uniforms are pressed weekly, many are obvious hand-me-downs, some are barely holding together, especially those of a few rambunctious boys in Classes 2 and 3.

As the teachers unlock the padlocks to the wooden doors, really the only security measure possible on the tarpaulin-covered structures, the children enter and begin sweeping the packed-earth or sand floors and pouring buckets of water over them to help settle the dust for a little while. As 8:30 approaches, more and more children arrive in the play area bordered on two sides by the school buildings. Three or four women are already set up to sell bags of cold water, dried fish, peanuts, buns, and fruit to the children, and they will remain there until after the last child has left the school for the day. They take in about 11,000 leones on a good day, which is about $3.50.

A Class 4 boy or girl is sent out to sound the signal for main lesson to begin, and he or she hits an abandoned soap-making barrel with a short piece of rebar, most likely picked up at some local construction site. Classrooms fill quickly and deep-throated, profoundly rhythmic singing and recitation fills the school. I have never heard the Lord's Prayer, which all classes recite, said with such fervor. I didn't actually recognize it until about half-way through the first time I heard it, probably because it had such a slightly different rhythm from what I am used to hearing. The younger children approximate the sounds of the prayer and the morning verse, both of which must be complete nonsense to them. Although, come to think of it, the Lord's Prayer was probably not much more than nonsense to me at their age. They do seem to have some sense of reverence, however, judging from the way they hold themselves during the prayer. The older children, however, recite with care and much better pronunciation.

Main lesson proceeds, with all teachers having opted to teach the same subject at the same time. In November all classes are studying mathematics. It is almost as if someone gave them a brief outline of what a Waldorf school program is, and they ran with it. Much of what I see in the classes would be recognizable to any Waldorf teacher: the singing, the recitation, the main lesson, the storytelling... The teachers are working mostly on their own, though, and have had to be extremely creative to fill entire days for their students. There is far more rote learning than most Americans these days would be comfortable with. Some of the teachers use switches on the children - the switches are sold from bundles in the local markets that were emphatically pointed out to me by a group of the children one morning. Singing often develops into energetic dances in which all the children jump into the middle of the classroom and bump their pelvises in ways I have seen teachers intervene to stop on the grounds that it is too sexual. Here the teachers tie grass skirts on the girls and encourage the children to stand around and chant and clap. The children have been positively joyous when I have witnessed this and the dancing is very good.

After main lesson there is a ten-minute break, during which there is a new tradition of going to Auntie Suzanne to see if she will give you a plaster (Band-Aid). I didn't expect to be delivering first-aid to the children, but have been doing so almost since I arrived with the help of Mohammed Conteh, the Class 4 teacher. The school director's wife is a nurse, and before she gave birth to her latest child about a month ago, she would come weekly to check on the children. In her absence Mohammed and I are doing our best to fill in, but there is little I can do for the ones complaining of diarrhea and body aches except ask their teachers to send them home and check to make sure the parents take them to the clinic. Most likely these children are coming down with malaria. We already have a suspected case of tuberculosis and a boy with both malaria and typhoid. The school pays whatever medical fees it can since most of the parents cannot afford any medicine whatsoever.

The first morning class after main lesson runs from 10:30 to 11:30 and can include anything from French (only in Class 5), to English, preparation for the national secondary school entrance exam (Class 6), storytelling, religious and moral education, physical and health education, creative practical arts, and music. Most of the actual classes are not what you would expect them to be given their titles. For instance, creative and practical arts seems to consist of students reciting definitions of such terms as "art" and "visual", this because teachers feel they cannot do art themselves and therefore feel uncomfortable teaching it. They also feel very unsure about how to use all of the block crayons that have been donated to the school. As a result, the days can often be filled with repetition of texts written on boards, but there is a good degree of variety on many days, and honestly the children don't seem to mind much if there isn't.

Lunch is another chance to see about the plasters or to buy a snack or to beg a snack off a friend. General running around and a few small soccer (football to these kids) games start up when there are inflated balls around. The girls make good use of a new jumping rope that looks as if it was sneaked off of one of the local fishing boats.

With donations from the Waldorf High School of Massachusetts Bay, students and faculty enjoyed a full lunch during my first week here. The female teachers (who seem to be assigned this task whenever it arises) prepared huge basins of rice as well as what is called fish sauce, which includes large chunks of dried fish.

The soap barrel is sounded again at noon, and afternoon classes resume. School is over at 1:30 for students in Classes 1 and 2, 2 p.m. for the older students. Loads of them hang around buying snacks, chatting and playing for at least another 30 minutes and then there is quiet. Everyone has headed back home, some to help out at at family stalls in the market, some to help with the fishing down at the beach, some to help break up rock at construction sites. Class 6 students head to another primary school in Goderich, where they take part in classes to prepare for the national secondary school entrance exam. They will head home around 5:30. Despite the heat and the dust and the lack of materials and whatever else might presumably trouble all of us at the school, it will have been a long, hot day with everyone still full of the delight of being together. Remarkable.

Friday, November 9, 2007

A Few First Impressions

I arrived in Sierra Leone exactly one week ago and have been busy nearly every minute. My first day was spent taking a tour of downtown Freetown, buying a cell phone and learning how to balance ventilation with protection from mosquitoes, something that involves quick leaps under my mosquito bed net after opening all of the windows in my bedroom. The second day I spent on a tour of a community where the Goderich Waldorf School has secured a 7-acre parcel of land on which it could finally build a permanent school building as well as faculty housing and a small farm. The third day, Monday, was my first day at the school and I have been there every day this week.

The school looks just as it did in the photographs you can view on the links I have posted, but I had not sufficiently imagined how it would feel to be among those buildings and with the teachers and children. I have been made to feel very comfortable in very new surroundings. The children are happy and playful and get themselves into trouble and do everything children are supposed to do, including follow their teachers attentively in their lessons. I am surprised only because most come to school without breakfast and the temperature under the tarpaulin roofs reaches the high nineties by 10:30 by which time even the smallest children are dripping with sweat. There are very few complaints, though, about the heat, about the hunger, about the gaping infected wounds many of the children have on their arms and legs, results of a lack of first-aid treatment for the simplest of cuts. The classrooms are open to one another, which means that each teacher is doing his or her best to speak over the noise from adjacent classrooms. The teachers have no break from child supervision from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and are working without the most basic resources of information and for very little pay. Nevertheless, they arrive every day. Attendance among teachers and students is remarkably high given the conditions.

I have taught two classes so far, but it turns out that classes one through four don't really have enough English to understand me, so I have been teaching them English as a second language, which is very useful for the children since they have to sit their state exams for entry into secondary school in English.

The days are long ones, dusty and hot, and a haze over the eastern mountains surrounding the city is the harbinger of the harmattan, a cold dry wind off of the Sahara Desert that, according to one of the teachers, turns everyone's skin white and cracks lips. It should arrive any day now and last for about a month. I won't mind a cool wind, but more dust won't be welcome. When I arrive home after school, the first thing I do is take a cold shower, turning the water a reddish-brown with layers of iron-rich soil that I have picked up on my clothes. I do laundry every morning and will probably be able to remain presentable if I keep up the habit.

I am living just south of downtown Freetown in the Babadori Hills section of the Lumley community. Downtown Lumley is a noisy hub for taxis and poda-podas, buses so named because when they drive into and out of the chasm-deep potholes in the roads they make a noise: poda-poda. I had my first ride in one this morning, sitting on a stool where the front passenger seat might once have been. Somehow the bus made the journey of a few miles from Lumley to Goderich in less time than any taxi I have taken so far: we made it there in 25 minutes this morning; usually it takes closer to 45 minutes. The potholes are really something to behold, but I wouldn't want to be held responsible for any car that was driven over them. Undercarriages are pretty well beaten up and exhaust systems often just fall right off.

There is a great deal more to write, but the keyboard is getting sticky, I am very thirsty and there is a crowd waiting to use computers in this internet cafe. I think weekly postings should be fairly regular from now on, so keep checking.