My dream fades and I am aware I am laying down, tangled up in sheets and wrap skirts; the morning has arrived. A silver light frames my closed window and a soft breeze sneaks beneath my door and ripples the curtain. I adjust the sweatshirt that serves as my pillow and wonder at the time, could I close my eyes again?
The sounds of the morning reach me: pot lids ringing, roosters and cows calling out, my Baaba’s (Dad’s) morning pray, Nenee (Mom) calling out to her children; the morning is already in full swing. I undo the corner of my mosquito net, my hand reaching the semi-darkness for my glasses and phone.
It’s ten to seven on a cold December morning in Ibel, Senegal. I pull myself up, push out of my mosquito net and open my small window. A cold breeze blows in, the dawn is gray but the fields are already gold even in the dull light. I shiver; my best chance of warmth lays in the cooking fire outside so I dress quickly and head out.
“Wali Jam”, I call out to my family members. “Jam tun, A daanike seeda?” they ask in response. I sit on a low stool by the fire and let them know I did sleep a little. My Baaba’s second wife, Dieway, is cooking goseeri, a sweet rice porridge. My Nenee is cooking the beans she’ll sell with bread during recess. I’ve taken my favorite spot: in the middle of the two fires, leaning my back against one of the posts that holds up the loft for corn, peanuts, and pots above me. Moussa and Mari, my two youngest siblings are eating the rice left from dinner, bundled up in their little sweatshirts.
I watch the sun slowly climb as I wait for breakfast. By the time my Baaba, my seven year old sister Rama, and I are heading to school the coldness of the night is steadily on the way out. We descend the little hill to the middle school, cross the soccer field and reach the wide orange-red road. Now that all the corn is harvested I can see straight from the road across all the compounds right up to the base of the mountain, fello bande. I even see the little forms of people moving about, gathering water, starting their day. On the road we pass the middle schoolers, many of whom are in their late teens; my Baaba jokes around with the ones who used to be his students.
Throughout the week, I teach art classes to each of the elementary school levels. Today my energy is high and by my second class I’m happily in my groove. As I write “Arts Plastiques” on the black board, I ask the class what we did last class. A ringing chorus of “Madame! Madame!” greets my ears, and I turn smiling to see the kids standing up, snapping their fingers, waving their hands.
The class’ answers successfully progress from a drawing, to a person, to a head, to a face. “We start with the head, no?” I ask as I draw a large oval on the board. I receive a chorus a “Oui”. I look over my shoulder, the face are attentive, building up to answer the next question. I draw a dashed line across the middle of the face, and ask “What goes here?”.
The class explodes, “MadAME!”, “Madame! Madame! Madame!”, students are jumping out of their seats, running up to the board, screaming out.
Laughing, I point to a student almost at random, “Les yeux!” he calls out. “Oui!” I say and invite the student up to draw the eyes. The correct answers keep coming; as a class all the parts of the face are successfully placed – the nose is a little lopsided, the ears are rectangles, and the eyes too small, but they’re all there.
“C’est très bien” I say. I begin the lesson of the day, figure drawing, with “Qui peux dessiner une personne complet? La visage et la corps?”.
The class doesn’t explode; the students are silent. I repeat the request and indicate my whole body, not just my face. Slowly, there’s a few snaps, a couple tentative voices saying,“Madame”.
I choose Mamadou and he draws a wonderful face – then attaches it to a square with lines for legs extending down from the sides of the square, the arm lines (handless, but with a full five lines for fingers) extending out from the top corners. People don’t draw stick figures in Senegal, all the rage is square figures.
I smile, its really quite cute and funny, especially with the face so well drawn. Next to it I begin to draw a figure explaining along the way how legs need to be thicker than a line and a body isn’t a square.
I set them to work on their blackboards and sit behind the teachers desk, taking a deep breath. There’s an energy that builds up and flows while I’m in front of the room, but with a moment to breath I can feel the energy drain, its no easy feat. This class is very good, attentive and hard working, it’s comparatively small, only 20 or so students. My mind floats back to last week when I was swarmed by 47 six year olds all tapping and grabbing at me, shoving blackboards with cat drawings in my face. I breath out. At least they were very well drawn cats.
After a few minutes, the soft call of “Madame” comes as the first few students raise their boards then giggle and quickly hide their work as I look at them. Several build up their courage and walk up together to show me their work. I smile and always begin with, “C’est bien” before beginning corrections, most of which involve having the correct body parts in the correct places.
When the crowd around my desk grows too large I send the students back to their seats. At my call to “Montré!” blackboards fly up. I’m proud every time. I am surrounded by thicker legs (a few drawings are just a head and legs), arms with hands as well as five fingers, bodies a little less square-like, and all topped with beautiful faces. Every class students improve and grow; every class the students try, they may be shy to start or show their work but they never stop before they begin by saying “I can’t”.
I hold up a few prime examples, and a few more boards get passed to me from students who want their work held up. I check the time, I’m only allotted a half an hour and I’ve used it up. I head back to the desk gathering my things as a wave of students displaying their work follow me. I wave goodbye at the door and a chorus of “Merci Madame!” sends me on my way. I say goodbye to a few of the teachers who are leaning in their doorways, getting a breath of fresh air while their students work, and head out to cross the village to the middle school.
The village in mid-morning is a golden place, shades of yellow and warm brown make up all that surrounds me: fields, the base of the mountain, huts, woven fences. I greet the women at the water pump; the heat of the day is beginning to grow but work still needs to be done. As I walk by, I call out the morning greetings to each of the compounds. While walking through fields once green, full of tall stalks of corn, now turned to yellow stubs and dried grasses, I hear “Madame Safi! Madame Safi!”, I turn and two of my students run towards me.
“Honto a yehi?” (“Where are you going?”) I ask. They offer me a piece of baobab fruit and say they’re going home. Its barely ten in the morning but their teacher isn’t here today and they’ve been released. This happens fairly often, but is always disappointment to hear; it wouldn’t be too much trouble for another teacher to write some practice problems on the board.
“That’s bad”, I say and they echo back shaking their heads, “Moýa”,
I turn towards the middle school and they head home, I call back saying how important school is. They nod and head on their way.
My thoughts fall back to the first month I spent watching the school system: the absence of teachers, the late starts each day, school as a whole starting a month late, corporal punishment, anger and fear used as teaching methods. I take a breath. Its not for me to change. For one, it would be impossible to change a whole country’s system and standard within a few months; secondly, change should come from those whom the system effects the most, the parents and families.
Yet, I have found my role, the way I can create little changes. I am defining the type of teacher I want to be, the type of teacher I want my students to know: a teacher who will smile and seek improvements rather saying “no” to a student and moving to the next, a teacher who works with natural curiosity rather than seeking total order, a teacher who when handed the whip by a student will put it in the closet and seek control by other means. I hope to create a safe, liberating space for my students.
Thoughts on my position and the role I seek to play tumble through my head as I enter the teachers lounge in the middle school. I say “Bonjour” to the room at large, shake a few hands and take a seat. In the corner a chair is filled with extension chords, cellphones, and various wires and chargers. The middle school is one of the few buildings in Ibel with solar panels and there’s always a little battle over who gets to plug in their phone.
The middle school holds a much more business-like air, there are more teachers, and a larger push for growth. The principal bustles in holding a stack of papers and begins passing them around. He has high hopes for the school, he wants a functioning student government and more technology; this year he obtained three laptops for the school’s use and aims to get a copier and televisions by the end of the year.
The teachers review the papers handed out and tease the principal on his love of paper work. He has his own little computer and printer and seems constantly surrounded by stacks of schedules and copies of government educational guides.
Madame Badji calls to me, “On y va”, and we head to English class. She is my supervisor and together we’ve begun dividing up the labor of English classes. I start the sixeme class with a tongue twister and later help with the pronunciation of cardinal numbers (“sixth” and “ninth” present a true challenge). After, Madame Badji takes over to teach grammar and I sit back to watch the class.
The classroom is one half of a large cinder block building with high ceilings; large square windows frame idyllic village scenes and the door frame looks out to the soccer field where cows are grazing and soaking in the sun. The walls are unfinished, the floor is dirt and the blackboard hangs on wires drilled into the cinder blocks. But its sunny and breezy and once you have students, a teacher, and a few pieces of chalk a lesson can be taught.
There’s a gap between the physical limits of the middle school and the Principal’s dreams for the place. But I think the gap is one caused by growth. The middle school draws in from surrounding villages, even students in villages with their own middle school will sometimes transfer to Ibel. Its a quality school, the availability of books and resources is high and the Principal is a driving force for increasing the use of technology. Its just little things, adding some more solar panels, and having enough buildings and solid desks that need improvement.
The class finishes and I head across the soccer field to Nenee. I pass the classrooms that were added this year due to an increase of students: the roofs and walls made up of woven fencing held up by a structure of wooden poles. They are quite pleasant to pass the day in, light and wind flows in but everyone remains well shaded and students can hang their bags on the stumps of branches. I’m not sure they will last the rainy season, but for now they’re full of students learning.
I find a little place to sit as I watch my Nenee quickly make change, slice bread, and fill it with beans for the growing crowd around her.
I turn to Mari
sitting next to me and ask, “A yehay Ekkol?”.
She responds smiling up at me. (She went to school today).
honnu a jangoday?”
She laughs at my reaction and turns her attention to Nenee, asking for a piece of bread. I asked her what she learned today and she had said nothing. I hope it’s just a normal kid response, but after opening two months late the preschool doesn’t seem to be doing much, half the time the kids will be sent home after a couple of hours.
When the bread runs out, we pack up: I place a container on Mari Ba’s head, and carry the large stool up the hill to the compound. When I unlock my room, my hut has retained the coolness of morning, I open the window and take my book.
I open Lord of the Rings and comfortably lean my back against the tree. Nenee is beginning lunch and my siblings are playing kitchen with old cans and bottles in the dirt. They have a whole system going; at the end of a chapter I pause to watch them imitating sifting, cleaning rice, and making attaya.
After lunch, the heat is close to reaching its peak and I relax under the tree. I do a few exercises in the Pularr textbook, plan a lesson or two, and sip attaya (special Senegalese tea).
When a group of neighborhood boys roll in my four year-old brother Moussa turns quickly to me, “Safi! Ballon!”. “Ko soodu an”, I respond, and he rushes off to grab the soccer ball from my room. The boys run down to the fields to play, he’ll be back as the night arrives, kicking the ball through the gate tired but with a smile.
Before the heat has begun to fade, but when I know it won’t grow, I pull myself up, and, bucket in hand, walk down to the well. I carry the water on my head up our hill and place it in the enclosed fence area behind my hut. I gather up my soap and wash cloth and scrub my whole body clean, right in between my toes and behind my ears. The dust of the dry season has incredible staying power: there have been times I thought my feet were getting quite tan until I took my shower.
I dress in clean clothes and a sweater and head back out. The hazy sun has now dropped below the top branches of giant Baobab tree that stands at the entrance of our land. The cool blue night will soon roll in. I sit down next to Rama, humming to myself.
She laughs and imitates my humming, bouncing her head around, “hum hmm, himm”. I laugh with her and begin to sing out loud, “Set out a running but I take my time”. “behha bun bunnning eh I make my teeem”, she echoes. I laugh and sing the next line, “A friend of the devil is a friend of mine”. While living here I’ve begun to sing to myself, its entertaining, relaxing, and a little mental challenge trying to remember all the verses. If Rama catches me I’ve got to teach her the words. We work through a little Grateful Dead and some Bob Dylan, I sing a line and she repeats back poorly and between explosions of laughter. But soon she’s called off to help find and lock up the chickens.
The night has arrived and we circle around the cooking fires glowing orange and red casting out shadows. We leave their warmth just to take dinner and then quickly return. The bright moon rises and it before long Moussa’s head begins to nod and he’s sent off to bed. The talk flows over me. Some nights, Baaba and I will exchange folk stories, discuss the school, or compare the US and Senegal. But tonight, after teaching three lessons and knowing I’ll be starting at eight tomorrow, I accept the sleep I feel rolling over me.
I stand up, “En Bimbi”.
“Awa, en bimbi, si allah jebbi” My Nenee answers; we will see each other in the morning, god willing.
Turning on my flashlight I take the short walk to my hut, but in closing the door I’m fully in my own space. I change quickly to my pajamas, put my journal, flashlight, and novel on my bed and tuck myself in under the mosquito net. I stretch out my back and savor my sacred alone time, just me and my thoughts with no interruption. I reflect on my day in my journal and then take myself out of it all by opening Lord of the Rings.
Soon my eyes grow heavy and I find a place to mark my page. Tomorrow, the gray dawn will come again, the rooster will crow, breakfast will be eaten, and daily life will continue in all its beautiful colors. For now, I will dream.