A blank page and a Pencil

Grace Bachmann - Senegal


January 4, 2013

A classroom full of ten year-old’s is daunting.  They wiggle at their desks, leave their seats to wash slates, and argue over bits of chalk.  In broken French, and then more fluidly Pulaar, I ask a few students to draw a face on the blackboard.  Every student jumps from his decaying wooden desk, arms outstretched for the colored chalk I hand out.  I try to send a few students back to their seats but they persist.  Soon, more than dozen figures appear on the board, and few resemble a human face.  The eyes, nose and mouth of most run together on the penny-sized face.  When the kids wander back to their seats, I ask them to look at all the faces.  They laugh and point at their classmates’ simple creations, and then I demonstrate a face with realistic proportions.  Meanwhile children of other ages crowd the windows and doorway of our half-constructed classroom, whispering and pointing at the foreigners teaching art in their modest school.  Some students imitate my drawing on the black tar haphazardly applied to the wall of the building next door. My students, and their eager on-lookers, stare bright-eyed but uncertain in a new atmosphere demands their imagination.

My art class provides these ten year-olds with a change of pace from the traditional learning style present in every classroom from kindergarten to secondary school.  Teachers conduct class on a basis of memorization and repetition, a style that exists in all classrooms and leaves little space for active thinking and creativity.  In the early stages of my class, students are struggling to create symbolic pencil sketches reflective of their own image of Dindefelo.  We move slowly, as they rely heavily on my instruction and approval.  A blank page and a pencil paralyzes some children.  Limited of access to paper and pen outside of a formal education setting generates a lot of pressure each time they put the pen to paper.  And because the communal nature of Pulaar culture often encourages complete assimilation into the group, these school children fear deviation from my instruction and the work of their peers.

In our first class, we drew people because, in the story we will tell through visual art, we are the problem.  Self-expression and developing an artistic skill set make up just half the challenge; adults and children alike lack environmental awareness.  We will examine ourselves, our homes, lifestyle and environment to expose ways in which we threaten the natural world.  These 39 school children can become pioneers of a new attitude towards the environment in acknowledging key issues in the community: water contamination, solid waste management, preservation of natural resources and wildlife.  In a village with a largely illiterate populace, but one intimately bonded to environment, they have a chance to turn heads and draw attention to its preservation.

Grace Bachmann