Lundi, le 20 Décembre 2010
It’s 7:56. I’m heading towards Léona’s primary school to observe the educational system.
Stepping onto the dirt road connecting Leona with Thiowor, a neighboring village, I join a flood of children pressing to reach the school yard on time. I suddenly have a thought: “What if I were here in Senegal for a traditional educationally based exchange program?” Last year I did that in Germany. What would going to school each day in Leona, Senegal be like? I don’t even know if exchange organizations offer such programs, sending American high schoolers to study in secondary schools in rural regions of countries like Senegal, Ecuador, Ethiopia, or Bangladesh.
After arriving and briefly speaking with the principal, greeting him good-morning and asking where I may observe, I take a seat in the back of a class. This morning the students are learning French; specifically, they are learning synonyms, homonyms, prefixes, and suffixes.
In the front of the classroom, faded paint above the blackboard declares, “TRAVAIL – DISCIPLINE – REUSSITE”, or “Work – Discipline – Success”. On the right hand wall is painted a large political map of Africa, three meters tall and two meters wide. Painted in the same fashion, the opposite wall displays a map of Senegal, labeled with its regions and neighboring countries. The back wall is almost fully covered with a huge world map, four by two meters. Hispaniola has been – encircled in pink chalk. Next to it is written, “Haiti”.
When I count up the students, I am somewhat surprised. There are only twenty-five pupils although there are enough benches to seat double that number. I expected there to be thirty, at least. The teacher to pupil ratio nationwide is 1:36, but many classrooms have fifty or more children. Even with a class this small, the students usually have little opportunity for speaking practice, critical to learning a language. The cultural norm is to “teach from the board”. Nevertheless, I am impressed by the teacher’s ability. He asks the students many questions, keeping them fully engaged. Most all of the students have their hands up and are calling the teacher’s name out of eagerness to answer.
In this particular classroom, there are no striking examples of outliers, students much older than the others in the same grade level. Financial or cultural reasons often set students back many years, and sometimes limit much, if not all, opportunities for education. It is not uncommon here for seventeen year olds and thirteen year olds to be studying side-by-side. Today, I notice that the three or four oldest students are all girls. I speculate that these girls began school a year or two older than the other students. The idea of girls needing education is a new, fragile concept here.
The lesson is going very well and then, suddenly after one hour of class, the teacher leaves the classroom. I presume he just has stepped out to get a more chalk or for some similar reason, but after about five minutes of sitting and waiting, I begin to be confused. The students are leaving their desks, roaming about the room, and socializing. After more minutes the teacher returns, but not to tell the students to sit back down and get to work. He simply has returned to explain to me that class is over.
My observation experience, not to mention the children’s exercises, has been abruptly brought to end. Utterly confused, I leave the classroom. I soon learn that the teachers are on strike. Seventeen days after their official payday, the government has not paid the teachers their salaries in full. Evidently, this is a recurring set of circumstances. Often failing to be paid, they teach for an hour or so, working the hours for which they have been paid, and then strike the rest of the morning.
I am full of questions: “Why is the government failing to pay the teachers? Is striking going to make any difference? Does the government even know the teachers are on strike? What about the students?” In a battle between the state and its teachers, the children are bystanders caught in the line of fire. Who is standing up for the student’s interests?
As I exit the schoolyard, I leave a discouraging situation behind. The teachers, one of the country’s brightest assets, are understandably upset, while the young generation’s potential to flourish, both as individuals and as a society, is curbed, a victim of collateral damage.
1 – United Nations Development Programme Human Development Report 2010
2 – Senegal’s median age is 18.0 (UNDP HDR 2010)