For a Change


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Africa » Benin » South » Athiémé
December 21st 2007
Published: December 21st 2007
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For a change, I am reporting and commenting on observations I made in the school yard of the central primary school in my town. There are two schools in one compound, and my good friend Mathurin is the director for one school and the superior of the second school’s director. There are about 400 students in my friend’s school, divided between six classes and eight teachers. Roughly double that for the total number of students and teachers in the compound. Students come to school by 8h and sweep out the classrooms and erase the chalkboards, and classes start by 8h30. Lunch break starts at noon, and the students and teachers go home until just before 3p.m. The day ends at 5:30 p.m. And no school on Wednesday evenings; in this French school system, Wednesday evenings are intended for Catechism classes, and whether or not students attend, there is no school on Wednesday evenings.

Friday, 10h. I am chatting with the director, Mathurin, about the bushes he planted, and how well-kept the school yard will look once the bushes start growing. First aside: there are about 70 students in his class. Because of this number the government sent him a second teacher to divide the class. The problem with that being: there is not yet a second classroom. The Parents’ Association is supposed to organize the construction of a simple shelter for the second classroom. In the meantime, he and the second teacher divide instruction time in the class; this gives me time to chat. Second aside: the past school year I attempted environmental education in the schools, including planting trees and bushes. At the time of the project I was discouraged because no one seemed to care, but this year, perhaps not as busy as the last, this school director is doing his best. Along with the bushes he has planted to make lanes to each classroom door, he has evenly planted mango trees in the spaces remaining. Mango trees give good shade, which is important especially now that the neem trees, another good shade tree, are cut down. The roots of the neem tree don’t grow deep, and risk destabilizing the school buildings’ foundations. With the neems gone and the mangos still small, the school yard is hot. He tells me that he will use the neem tree wood to make charcoal to make a little money for the school. I am trying to convince Mathurin to plant the town’s namesake tree, the Samba.

10h20. The recess bell, a vehicle’s tire rim, is clanged 20 minutes late. Children flood the school yard, and where it was once calm is now mayhem. Children stream out of the classrooms and the yard becomes a mass of constant motion of khaki bodies, many running toward the corner with the food stands to buy a small plate of rice or a ball of fried bread. Other kids play tag. Others get yelled at for pulling on the mango tree branches. One little girl is crying, her face covered in chalk. Maybe someone tricked her, or maybe she got confused. Some older girls wipe the chalk off her face. The teachers, too, have an aura of chalk about them. Mathurin leaves me to my whims while he settles problems and answers questions among his teachers. I realize while watching him that a good leader knows how to mollify hot tempers as well as how to energize the apathetic. He also buys four chickens for a birthday dinner from the woman who walked into the school yard to sell him chickens.

10h40. Recess is over. Children cram onto benches with connected tables facing chalkboards and the chalk-dust clouds recommence. The director returns to me and notices that I have been writing. He demands a translation, knowing I write journal entries for the Peace Corps website. He doesn’t mind, he just wants to know what I wrote. He finds ‘settles problems’ amusing and calls over the teacher who had the problem, fooling that teacher into thinking that his problem will now be published on the internet. I reassure the teacher that I did not write anything personal. I return home while Mathurin takes over the class.


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