Saturday, December 14, 2013
When I first arrived here a few days ago, I found it difficult to adjust – mentally, physically, emotionally – I’m not sure. I was unsure of my role.
Am I meant to be teaching? They invited me as their guest, but should I pay for my food? They are welcoming me here for a few weeks, so during that time how can I produce a tangible result to make my visit concretely worthwhile?
Partially because there is no coffee easily available (and I didn’t want to trouble Mr. K by asking for any food/accommodation other than what he had already generously provided), I experienced a severely uncomfortable caffeine withdrawal (that I am only just recovering from) during my first few days here. It may sound silly, but it’s actually true – I don’t think I’ve gone one day without at least one cup of coffee/espresso since I left Ghana in August 2010. And it is seriously chemically addictive! So that caused severe headaches every morning, not to mention the time change, diet change, environment change, etc.
Shamefully, perhaps, the first few days I was here, I found myself sleeping late – till maybe 10:30am even though school started at 7:00 – and I think it was primarily out of cowardice. Should I call Kelly and Annabel and talk to them? Do I owe that much to them? Additionally, the kids had exams, none of the old teachers I had known were still there, Mr. Kabutey, was often out at meetings in the city. It seemed there were infinite excuses for my inability to get my act together, to just help, do just start doing something. And in under-privileged communities all over the world, certainly there are many petty, exhausting, quotidian humiliations that deter productivity, discourage creativity, and cripple human ingenuity.
And so perhaps I was just letting the little things get to me. I love this place and these people so much, and I know that they are working very hard under (very) non-ideal conditions. No, I cannot pop over for three weeks and bankroll the school, pay the school fees, buy all the supplies they lack. Yet it is a balance. I must also not allow myself to believe that my ideas are stilted and fruitless just because the grind of systemic poverty seems so overwhelming.
On one level, one must learn to cope with the bizarre incomputables: the dissonant Bvlgari shampoo samples I grabbed from my mom’s house that now sit on the cement ledge of our makeshift shower room, or the fact that three years ago when I was here I didn’t look at a mirror once (it does amazing things for body image, and it’s sister, vanity; I highly recommend it), and now I periodically see my own face through an inverted Snapchat camera. I mean, the expository conceit of Snapchat alone is itself disturbingly dissonant, in certain ways.
I don’t mind it being hotter than Oman here, although the lack of AC eggs on the mosquitos. Then again, I haven’t been taking my malaria prophylactics every day, ostensibly to economize them, but in reality to spite esos malditos insectos.
I knew in advance that it would be leagues more challenging to be alone here than as before, with a few other obrunis. But in a way of course, it’s familiar, feels like a homecoming.
Fielding Mr. K’s disparate ideas (build solar panels to power the school, feed the students by growing maize in the former pepper patch, email Dartmouth for new volunteers even though WPE is no longer affiliated with Manye) is challenging as ever. Largely this is because many of his ideas are excellent, but it demands a lot of poise judgment to latch on to and facilitate les bons and politely pocket veto les autres.
And I had plenty of my own ideas, but I hesitated to articulate them. How do you teach art, inspire kids, educate and create, when you must operate under the assumption that you have no material goods/tools whatsoever to work with? (Wu Tang’s C.R.E.A.M principle) Examples:
I thought, Let’s paint Christmas cards! No paint, no cards, no running water in the school, kids’ clothes would get stained and no way to insure the marks will come out, parents can’t afford a second uniform, kids get caned for coming to school with improper dress.
Let’s choreograph a dance! We could perform it for the parents, the kids love to dance. But no source of music other than my iPhone, and no speakers. So they won’t be able to hear it playing. So how to practice the steps?
I love memorizing poetry, let’s teach them to recite (all they know at the moment is prayers) poems! Good idea, but none of the poems I know – and that is relatively many – use simple and/or relevant enough English to make any sense to them. Maybe “Wild Geese,” by Mary Oliver? La arif.
I was thinking of Shel Silverstein’s “Sick” or Jack Prelutsky’s “Homework! Oh Homework!”, two poems I memorized at a young age that helped me learn to love poetry. Yet they evince very American privilege and speak with arrogance and entitlement as only American youth (myself included) unerringly do. “If only a bomb would explode you to bits/ homework oh homework you’re giving me fits”? To be sure, I loved repeating those lines in Mrs. Finnerty’s first grade class. But I’m not really comfortable teaching kids that violence is funny, because it’s not really an abstraction here (as it was, blessedly, in my elementary school). And both poems are about hating homework or school, but the kids here love both, beg for more of the former and come to the latter at 5am and don’t leave until dark because school is such a haven for them. I thought of Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening,” but then you have the problem of explaining what snow, and all the vocabulary associated to it in the poem, actually mean.
I thought, let’s make friendship bracelets like before! But we have no thread, all that we left here three years ago was lost or stolen or spoiled. Ditto all the hundreds of markers, crayons and colored pencils we brought. And most of the storybooks.
Social media advertising? Start an email pen-pal system with kids at PDS or another American school? But there is no Internet here, and the two 1998 Dells are so fragile I’m not convinced they want to unleash hundreds of students typing letters on them.
Go jogging with the kids after school (which they adore)? But most of the students don’t have sneakers, and the female ones for the most part don’t own bras (sports or otherwise). I would play football with them, which they also love, but a) I’m abysmal ca va, of course) and b) the school only has one soccer ball and it has a hole (they play with the deflated one de toute façon).
So, I guess my first lesson of being here was an introduction to the infinite supply of “I can’t because”s you can create for yourself, and a realization that by instead using the Nike principle (“Just do it.”), you usually figure out how you can.