Monday, March 31, 2008

Still More Photos of the Celebration

It takes so long to upload these that I am having to stretch out the process over a few days.

The drummers were busy during the dances. The man in the middle is the husband of one of the cooks.

Here is the witch doctor casting his powerful spell.

The two hooligans have spotted their next victim....

...the hapless blindman and his helper.

Poisoned! The work of the witch doctor!

All the excitement attracted neighbors and passers-by to watch from under the shade of the old mango tree.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

More Photos of the Celebration

After the dancing, we had two classes recite poetry. It was very lively and entertaining.

Class Three Enters

Class Four Recites with Gusto

Mr. Bendu stars as the feckless borrower of money. His is a tragic story indeed.

And then came the Class 6 performance, a real gem: The Story of Glutton Plagued by the Visits of a Blind Beggar

Bassie as the Unfortunate Glutton

Oh How He Loves Her Cooking !

The Witch Doctor Will Come in Handy

End of Term Celebration

A few photos from the End of Term Celebration held at the school on March 14. The teachers organized the children to present dances, skits and recitations, and despite the intense heat that day, we all had a terrific time and even attracted a small audience of neighbors.

Dancers waiting to enter the courtyard. They are dressed in traditional raffia skirts.

Here they are making their group entrance. They then proceeded to dance solo pieces.

A gifted and energetic dancer. She was a pleasure to watch and grabbed everyone's attention.

Next up were Class Two girls dancing in the same style. They entered as a group, danced solo to the drums and then left one-by-one.

Another talented dancer, this one from Class Two

Here they are all together, clapping and bumping to the powerful beat.

I will post more photos of the rest of the celebration in a later post.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Problems Soon To Come

We are now on spring holiday for two weeks. A national cultural festival is being held this weekend in Goderich, the Tangains ("Old Things" in Krio) Festival. Since I am reliant on public transport that frequently breaks down on the disastrous road to Goderich and most of the events are taking place well after dark when I do not want to be on that road, I have missed all but one small dance performance by the local Bondu society and the crafts markets. This Bondu society is a secret society for women that recruits local women to carry on local traditions, including dance, song and female circumcision. Girls join at very young ages if their mothers or other female relatives are members. Several of our students are members, and one of the girls in Class 6 has missed nearly two months of school in order to prepare for a special ceremony. I am not certain, but it has been hinted to me that she is likely to be circumcised during the ceremony. These are not the sorts of things about which people talk openly.

There are several international and national groups campaigning in Sierra Leone against this practice, also called female genital mutilation because it is usually performed out of doors with non-sterile knives and no anesthetic, so that it is both painful and dangerous, not to mention what it means for these girls when they become sexually active - basically a reduced experience of sexual pleasure. These groups also argue that the societies offer very little to the girls, since traditional methods of cooking, making and dyeing cloth, caring for children, and healing are no longer passed on as they once were in these societies. In many instances it seems to mean that prepubescent girls are pulled out of school to stay at home for months doing not much more than everyday household chores in preparation for the difficult ceremony. Many of them never return to school or have their schooling so disrupted that they find it difficult when they do return and soon drop out.

I do not know anyone who belongs to one of these societies, none of the teachers do, and recent radio reports say that many of these groups have staged counter-protests arguing that they are preserving Sierra Leone's culture. I am finding that particular argument difficult to accept because I have such strong feelings against what strikes me as a tradition that preserves the diminished role of women by educating them not to function in a modern economy but to stay at home to serve at the pleasure of their fathers, uncles and husbands, something that is so obviously untenable in a country where most men are unemployed and uneducated themselves and the income earned by women is desperately needed by most families.

Ummu, the girl I mentioned above, should be preparing to sit the NPSE, an examination that will determine her eligibility to enter junior secondary school. I am not sure whether she will be ready, and neither is her teacher sure when she will return to school. Ummu's father wants her to return, but his wife is insisting that Ummu stay at home.

Ummu is one of the twenty-six children at the Goderich Waldorf School who is preparing to sit this exam in May, but even if they pass, there is no guarantee that they will continue in school since most of them come from families either unable or unwilling (especially in the case of girls) to pay school fees.

The other dark cloud hanging over the school has a gleaming silver lining, but is ominous nevertheless: Shannoh Kandoh, the school's director and founder, has managed to secure seven acres of land for a permanent school site, and with the support of Freunde der Erziehungskunst Rudolf Steiner and at least one major individual donor, construction costs should also be covered. This means the school will move to the other side of Freetown where the land is located for the 2008-2009 school year. None of the current students aside from the handful of faculty children will be able to attend the school next year since it is over an hour away. If I include the twenty-six children who are applying to secondary school, that makes about one hundred ninety children in Goderich who have no certain place in a school next year. The future of Waldorf education in Sierra Leone is seeming increasingly sure, but that is no consolation for these children.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A New Roof and Lunch Guaranteed

With a generous donation from my parents, the school has been able to replace the damaged roof with new tarpaulins. We haven't had another big storm to test it yet, so we are just hoping it holds. It certainly looks very nice, brand new white tarpaulins under the bright sun.

More very generous donations from the Rudolf Steiner School in New York City, the family of a former student at Steiner, and the parents of one of my Steiner colleagues have ensured that the lunch program can run through the middle of July, when school is scheduled to close for the year. It is a significant amount of money required to feed two hundred plus people here everyday (I am including the faculty, the cooks, their families and the various neighbor children who regularly stop by to eat from the pots) and I am grateful to all of the donors for making it possible to make this program something the school community can count on. With food prices rising everyday in the markets, these lunches are often the only meals our students and even our cooks eat all day, although I have raised the cooks' salaries to avoid a repeat of when one of the cooks, the woman whose house we use for storage and cooking, asked me on a Saturday morning a few weeks ago for a few thousand leones because she had no money to buy food for her family.

Friday, March 14, 2008

And Now Onto the Curriculum

Finally, I have managed to post a photo of myself with the faculty of Goderich Waldorf School. Back Row, left to right: Suzanne Lamb, Susan Taylor (Class 3), Amara Suaray (Class 6), Robert Bendu (Class 5); Front Row, left to right: Aminata Bendu (Class 2), Shannoh Kandoh (School Director), Clarisa Bangura (Class 1), Mohamed Conteh (Class 4).

This past week I started to introduce the teachers to the Waldorf curriculum, in as much as it exists. Rudolf Steiner gave only bits and pieces of the curriculum in his various public lectures and discussions with teachers, and what is used in most Waldorf schools today was worked out from those lectures and discussions from his contemporaries and subsequently formalized through decades of practice. The curriculum was originally developed for European children and included such things as a study of Norse myths in fourth grade and of medieval European culture and society in seventh grade. These subjects exemplify certain qualities of cultural consciousness as they existed at various points in western European history. The West African counterparts still need to be worked out, and I am afraid that is a project I will hardly have a chance to tackle during my time here.

So I am teaching the teachers what I know and am hoping to inspire them to do a little of the work interpreting the Waldorf curriculum on their own, although it is very clear to me that this will not be easy for them either as they have so few resources and so little education themselves.

There is also the question of artistic expression. African music and art is qualitatively different from that of Western Europe or the U.S. and I have only a cursory knowledge of it. For instance, music here is far more rhythmic than melodic and pervades the social environment in ways I have never experienced at home. Fishermen chant as they pull in their nets on the beaches, school children dance their ways to school in the morning, and even the youngest children, the toddlers still wobbly on their feet, can bounce and rock their bodies to complicated beats. Morning singing is powerful in the Goderich classrooms and sets a completely different mood from any that I ever managed to create in my own New York classrooms. All of this is worth preservingand nurturing in the children, and it is my greatest challenge here to present the teachers with inspiring ideas for presenting subjects and skills to the children without imposing my own style and culture on them. This is so difficult because the teachers are very inclined to imitate what I demonstrate for them. If one day I teach them a poem in order to demonstrate how to work with alliteration, I can count on at least two teachers introducing that very poem to their classes the next day without consideration of its appropriateness for the age of the children or the subjects they are teaching.

Why does this happen? Well, not because I tell them to do this. In fact, I have asked several times for them not to do this. I think they have been given so little with which to work and they have so faint an understanding of the ideas for education that Steiner explained that they are desperate for anything of substance that they can introduce to their students. I have stayed away from teaching model lessons because I want the teachers to develop their own teaching styles. It is becoming clear to me, however, that this might be too much to ask of them at this point if all I am giving them are general ideas about childhood development and a few quotations from Steiner about how to educate children of different ages along with rudimentary lessons in drawing and color work. And so I have begun presenting lessons to the entire faculty and following them up with discussions about what I did and why. I am not sure this approach will be successful, but for now the teachers are grateful, and there is a renewed enthusiasm among them for the training sessions. It will take a long time before there is a true Goderich interpretation of the Waldorf curriculum.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Nothing New

Morlai,a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old-boy in class six, came over to me the day before yesterday to tell me he had a sore. I asked him where and he showed me his arm. On the back of his upper right arm was a u-shaped black scab. It was a little less than a quarter-of-an-inch wide and from end to end was probably four inches long. Pus was leaking out from under the scab. He had another, smaller, sickle-shaped scab on his forearm, also leaking pus. I asked him what had happened. I had to ask twice before he said under his breath, "My uncle."

"Your uncle beat you?"

A nod.



"That was three days ago. Why didn't you tell someone earlier?"

"I stayed home. It hurt."

"What did your uncle beat you with?"

"A cable."

"Was it hot?" I asked because the scabs seemed to me to be oddly smooth and uniform in color, like burn scars.


"Why did he beat you?"

"Some money was gone from the house."

"He thought you had taken it?"

"Yes, but I don't have it."

"Are these the only places he beat you?"

He stood up shaking his head and removed his shirt. On his back were several more small scabs, all sickle-shaped and leaking pus. He then pulled up his shorts and showed me four more of these scabs on his right thigh and lower buttock. Swelling had started around all of the scabs.

I cleaned around the scabs, gave him some plasters over the most exposed ones, and then gave him a little pain reliever. I then took him to his class teacher, Mr. Suaray, who said he would go to the police, which he did that afternoon. The uncle is a fishermen and is now away at sea for the better part of a week. The police agreed to look into the matter.

Monday, March 3, 2008


It's been a somewhat hectic few weeks, with rainstorms that have knocked down power lines and wreaked havoc with internet service in all of the various internet cafes I use. A big storm at the end of last week even tore huge holes in the roofs of both school buildings. Until new tarpaulins can be purchased, we are just hoping the dry season lives up to its name.

This is how the roof looks from inside Class 6. Rain clouds have moved over the area and storms are forecast for later today. In the end I think we will just have to manage, a favorite approach to just about everything around here.

Lunch continues to be served four days a week. The three cooks amaze me, cooking over open three-stone fires in incredible heat while Fatmata's year-old son, Nyake, crawls around all of the pots and pans without harm and occasionally makes his way to his mother's lap where he suckles while she peels onions or cleans fish or washes dishes. Three-year-old Mohamed keeps himself entertained pulling around an ingenious little car that Alhassan, Fatmata's teenaged brother, made for him out of a sardine tin, lollipop sticks and water bottle caps. Friends and relatives stop by; petty traders bring their wares in large tubs and the cooks take a break to bargain with them; children from neighboring houses run over to see what left-overs are available.

We are now serving rice and plasass separately. Plasass is the Krio word for the various sauces made of greens and fish or meat that are served here. We serve cassava leaf and fish, potato leaf and fish, crin-crin (I have seen the plant and eaten it, but have no idea what it's called in English) and fish, and black-eyed peas and fish. The teachers are unanimous that the food is delicious, and the children never leave anything in their bowls. Personally I feel utterly dehydrated after eating my bowlful: they use so much pepper and palm oil, which has a sharp taste. All of this is possible because of a donation from students at the Waldorf High School of Massachusetts Bay.