Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Back to School

It has been a very eventful few days...

Yesterday we had quite high attendance for a first day back from a holiday - generally understood in Freetown as "no better school" (see the post of the same name for more on this concept) - and all the teachers agree it is because we are serving lunch. Nearly everyone was in school today, which is practically unheard of. Really we shouldn't expect full attendance until next Monday. To drive home how very seriously this concept is taken here, here is the story of the eight-year-old girl who lives in my compound and who tried to return to school on the first official day back from holiday. On the first day four children showed up in her class. They were allowed to play all day and then sent home. On the second day seven children showed up, were allowed to play for a short time, and then were told not to return until the following week. Anyone who came before then, they were assured, would be flogged.

On the topic of flogging, I met two teenage boys at Lumley Beach last weekend. They were selling DVD's on a Friday afternoon. I asked them whether they attended school. Yes,they did. Then after asking about their ages and grade levels, I told them I was a teacher.

"Ohhh," said one knowingly. "Teachers like to flog children."

"I don't like to flog children, and at our school the teachers don't flog the students," I said in my kindest voice. This is actually true now that the faculty has been discussing alternative means of discipline and punishment.

"Oh yes. Our teachers flog us, but when the white people come, they hide the canes."

I have to admit that at that moment I tried very hard to remember whether I had seen any canes lying around the school grounds recently... but I stopped myself from falling into the trap of suspicion. Really, I told myself, it is the decision of the teachers themselves to try new forms of discipline and abandon flogging completely. My approval or opprobrium will have no real effect, as this boy pointed out so clearly.

Well, what else? On my trips to Grafton, I have had to go through Freetown in the middle of the day on poda-podas, something I hadn't done before. First of all traffic in Freetown is so terrible that it was a topic on the BBC World Service last week. Sierra Leone does not make it into the international news very often, so I was very interested to hear the results of a thorough investigation into the state of affairs. The reporter, however, interviewed only the minister in charge of national transport and roads and almost certainly did not ride on a poda-poda in downtown Freetown at rush hour. The entire segment amounted to the minister talking about how he was working on all of the problems with roads and traffic, which in Freetown according to him were caused by too many cars on the roads and too many cars parked illegally on streets. Entirely overlooked was the fact that the central streets are clogged with petty traders who set their basins down on sidewalks, so that pedestrians are forced to walk in the streets. In the absolute center, the traders set up their basins three and four deep, reaching from either side of the street so that they nearly touch in the middle. Where there is actually room for vehicles there are regular traffic jams so that it can take well over an hour to drive ten city blocks. When I say regular, I mean every day. I am told that the previous president had banned street selling and had managed to clear the streets, but had not managed to build adequate market space, which made him immensely unpopular in Freetown. The new president campaigned in Freetown on opening up the streets again to traders, so I don't think traffic in Freetown is going to improve anytime soon. As for excessive numbers of parked cars, I don't see them, because really in the most clogged parts of town there is no place to park a car.

From my vantage point on my poda-poda one morning, I watched the action as we headed straight into the jam. The poda-poda came to a halt, and the driver turned off the engine. The apprentice conductor hopped off to go in search of water for himself and a washcloth for a passenger who had given him some money. When he returned another passenger sent him off for a soft drink. Even when the poda-poda was able to inch forward, the apprentice was out in the crowd, shopping on behalf of passengers. Meanwhile, throngs of petty traders who don't actually set up on the sidewalks or roads, meandered by, often stopping to sell snacks or drinks through windows to passengers. It was amazing the poda-poda could move at all. At one point after the driver had turned off the engine and settled into his seat for a long wait, we were boarded by a police officer who noticed the lack of a license sticker on the windshield. Five thousand leones and a lot of pleading took care of her - she had threatened to empty the bus of all its passengers, so this was an immense relief to all of us. The experience made me grateful for my traffic-free commute to Goderich, potholes, broken-down poda-podas, dust and all.

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