Over the past week I’ve been coming up with all sorts of topics I could write blogs on instead of working on all the reflection essays we’ve been asked of us write, to conclude our experience and prepare for our reentry – all of them to be titled ‘capstone procrastination.’ Proof I suppose of the fact that I am in no way in conclusion-mode and still determined to be doing and learning as much as possible, despite the many hours I am now forced to spend cooped up in my room writing or typing in the computer lab.
For unexpected discoveries keep on popping up. The conversation I just had with my host mother the other day for example, about all the various ‘groupements’ that exist in Sebikotane and her involvement in them (I can’t believe its taken me five months to finally have that conversation), or my interaction with a group of Senegalese camp councelors who are being trained in the classrooms at l’Ecole Sebiroute during the holidays, or my discovery of a local organization in Sebikotabe dedicated to the education of children. All of this begging the question why now?!!! But I try to tuck it all, all these knew possibilities and ideas, into a safe place, telling myself these are things I may come back to in the perhaps not so distant future.
But as for this evening… the best example yet… I was finally about to sit down to a computer to start typing away after having dismissed my small group of students in the library next door, when someone knocks on the door asking to ‘connect’ to the internet. I’m used to that, as the school director has instructed me to let people access the computers if they pay 100 fr per hour. He is wearing a long white tunic with an artsy tie-died pattern and has a colorfully woven pouch and painted sort of gourd hanging from his neck. He introduces himself and recites a rambling list of the many professions he considers his own (singer, dancer, reciter, educator, collective something or other…ecc.). That’s quite a lot of work, I say, a little surprised but intrigued, as I busy myself with turning on the computer. And so what do you do? He asks me. Are you the one in charge of the ‘salle’?
And so I explain to him a little bit, that yes, I am the one in charge. I’m a volunteer at the school and since I happen to know a bit about computers and no one else does, they decided to put me here. He remarks that he’s never before seen a computer lab in all the schools he’s been in in Senegal. Well what good is a computer lab, I say, if no one uses it. And I explain a little bit about my attempts to train the teachers so that they can teach their students, and about how it hasn’t really worked out. I didn’t even need to explain why and he already understood. And he launches into a little speech about how he understands how I feel and about how he’s experienced the same sort of frustration in all of his work in Senegal, telling stories of events he tried to organize, a pre-school he tried to start. The Senegalese love to criticize themselves for their laziness.
And so the conversation goes on and eventually I decide to voice a question that’s been going through my head for a while but which I hadn’t quite posed to anyone yet. What do you think about books? I asked, and explained a little about my experience in the school library, my discovery of the difficulties kids have with reading, and of the scarcity of proper paper, reading, writing materials in homes and in schools alike. About how I’ve always believed in the importance of stories in education, and about how I know a little bit about the Senegalese oral tradition. What do you think about recording these stories in books? I asked him. Do you think its a good idea, or even right to transform this part of your culture, traditionally retained in memory and transmitted in sounds, onto paper?
His response is mostly positive and encouraging, although he seems to understand my reason for my asking. I thank him and am about to head back to work, when he suddenly feels inspired to launch into another speech thanking me, talking about the rareness of openness of people these days, telling a story of one time he tried to hand out a free mosquito net to a white woman and she tried to avoid him automatically assuming he just wanted money out of her. He leaves the computer lab before his time is up, leaves me a slip of paper with his name on it, and a necklace from around his neck.
Openness is indeed so important, and yet sometimes so difficult. It can make you quite vulnerable. And how do you find the balance, especially when you have to be firm with students, ignore cat-calling in the streets, or when you have to be wary of handing out your phone number to every stranger who asks? And yet it is still possible to meet, randomly, so many decent people in the world, to have meaningful conversations, and to learn unexpectedly from a stranger.