Friday, December 21, 2007

Realites of Sierra Leone, not Relativities

I was riding in a taxi this morning on my way to Goderich when I had a sudden view of the most populous section of Goderich. It is a view I see every morning if I am sitting on the right side of the poda-poda, but this morning I realized that I had become so used to seeing it that I wasn't thinking "slum" anymore while passing it, but of course that is what it is. As with many aspects of life here, I have developed a tolerance for sights and smells and discomforts that I probably would not have tolerated two months ago. This kind of adjustment is trickier than it might seem and is more than just a matter of retraining my sensibilities. Really I am resisting some of this retraining, in particular when it comes to the condition of the children on the streets and at school.

Along the hill that slopes down to the tidal river where fishing boats sit between runs out to sea are crowded together tiny shacks with corrugated zinc roofs and walls or tarpaulin roofs and walls or a combination of the two. Having walked among them several times while shopping in the market and visiting students, I know that they are built right on the dirt, that they are dark even in the middle of the day, that most are no bigger than 10 feet square but shelter as many people as can squeeze in, and that few of them lack substantial holes in their roofs and walls. Many of our students live in these shacks as do much of the population of Goderich that moved there to escape fighting in the interior of the country. They remained even after the war despite the lack of economic opportunity, mostly, it seems because their villages had been destroyed, their family members killed and there seemed to be nothing to go back to except terrible memories.

I used to fear such places, I suppose because I assumed that only mean and uncivilized people could live in them and imagined them rife with bullies and knife-bearing thieves. Most, however, are inhabited by fishermen who do not own their own boats, young mothers rearing multiple children, old women and men looking after their grandchildren, and crowds of babies and toddlers, teenagers and school-age children. All of these people are suffering, but it is not a suffering that is obvious in their faces or their bodies or their faces. This is normal life for them and they are used to what to me even after two months here are incomprehensible degrees of discomfort and want.

One family that sends its children to the Goderich Waldorf School lives an unfortunately typical example of the kind of life people live in such places. The boy is about ten years old and is in Class III; the girl is eight years old and is in Class I, which she is repeating this year. She looks to be no older than six. Their mother is a fishmonger who frequently goes "upcountry" to sell fish away from the coast. She is regularly gone on such trips for weeks at a time. Right now she is on her way to Liberia because she heard fish are selling there, and it is not clear when she will return. While she is away, the two children are left in the care of their stepfather, who is a fisherman. He is regularly away for three or four days at a time whenever his boat goes out. This leaves the children with no one to watch them.

They live in a shack on one of the local beaches where the fishing boats bring in their catch. The condition of this shack occasioned the teachers during an English lesson with me to practice using the word, "appalling," to its correct connotation. Fishmongers then clean the fish and usually take them to be smoked on large brick-walled fire-pits called bandas. The family's hut has such a banda and it is in use late into the night whenever the fish are brought in. This means that the children do not have a place to sleep until the fish are smoked since the bandas fill the shack with smoke. At such times the children are left to find a place to lie down outside until the work is done.

The boy is old enough to help the fishermen pull in nets and thus receive a few small fish as payment, and he can generally feed himself this way. The girl is too small for this and relies on whatever charity happens her way while her mother and stepfather are away.

Of course, when I heard this story I was alarmed for the children, but was quickly told by the teachers that there are several students at the school in similar situations, though this one did strike the teachers as particularly severe. The number of children without basic care really seems too much to cope with at times. The teachers are aware of multiple children in each of their classes who desperately need proper care, feeding and housing, but with little money of their own and only so much time to devote outside of their own families, the teachers are often left feeling helpless to do what is needed. It may come across as indifference on their part, but I would say otherwise. I think they are overwhelmed and try to focus on holding the school together for the children's sake. Whenever the opportunity arises to help a particular child, they are in fact very willing to do what they can. For these two children whose mother is away in Liberia, I contributed a little money to feed them, and the Class V teacher, volunteered to check on them twice a day to make sure they ate and had come to no harm. Last night I received a phone call from this teacher, who told me that the boy had a bad cut on his leg. The teacher treated the wound, which, as I saw today, was a huge, open gash about an inch across and an inch-and-a-half long on the boy's shin. The Class IV teacher then volunteered to clean and bandage the wound every day until the mother arrived home.

I am often impressed by the exactness and thoroughness with which these teachers, my new colleagues, respond to problems that many of their neighbors either ignore or shrug off. Among them I have not ever heard "This is Africa" to dismiss a sick child or problematic family. It is true these teachers need more resources to address the needs of their students, but when so supplied, they respond very quickly.

The teachers are now enjoying a well-deserved holiday break after a full month of spending extra hours after school and on Saturday mornings attending teacher training sessions with me. They are all learning to use the Internet, and about half of them have become adept at downloading material onto the flash drives I brought from the U.S. A donated laptop and a neighbor's generator will allow these teachers to access the material over the vacation as they prepare for the next trimester. Without books, the information, stories, and poems on these flash drives are vital resources for them.

We have also spent considerable time drawing and are beginning to work with color. None of the teachers felt he or she could draw when we started in mid-November, but all of them have made nice progress and are enjoying the lessons. Most enjoyable for me are the discussions around child development that we have each afternoon. Although the language of the chosen text, A.C. Harwood's "The Recovery of Man in Childhood," is challenging for them, the ideas are beginning to come clear. The teachers are now talking about seeing children in new ways and how they must adjust their work with students accordingly.

I have avoided giving the teachers "tips" for teaching and have stayed out of their classrooms, both for the same reason: I do not want them to feel that they must follow my style of teaching just because I am a "Waldorf teacher." My aim is to engage them in careful study of child development and then to support them in creating their own curriculum and teaching styles accordingly. At first I worried that they would be unhappy that I was not giving them more specific advice, but I needn't have worried, as several of them have begun to comment on how they are beginning to understand the work they need to do in order to improve their teaching.

And so we close down the school for two weeks and go to our homes hoping that all of the students will return in January. There is a palpable feeling among the teachers that they can intervene to help their students at home more and more and that they can approach their work in the classroom with new inspiration.

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