Out of the kitchen and into the classroom

Watching Mame Ami carefully trace the lines and curves that make up her name reminds me of me when I try to help cut onions without a cutting board, or clean rice, or help with laundry back at home. I am always amazed by the speed at which Kine can shave an onion without cutting herself, rotating the juicy white sphere in one hand while hacking at it with a knife in the other, or the way she can empty an entire calabash of rice into the pot without spilling a single grain. And as for laundry, no matter how hard I try, as I rub two soapy corners of my t-shirt vigorously between my wrists, I just can’t get the right sound. Kine and Ami Ndoye will laugh – by now more at my determination and persistence than at the awkwardness of my attempts to copy them – bend over my bucket next to me and dipping their palms to the surface of the water, in one graceful gesture, effortless but firm, produce the most wonderful, satisfying sound. It’s the sound of soap suds being squelched through the layers of my host mother’s boubous, or through the frills of little Cogna’s endless collection of ridiculously frilly dresses. It’s a sound of strength and precision, of cleanliness and cool water on a hot, dusty day, and it’s the sound that I come home to almost every day at one o’clock, and that I sometimes wake up to in the wee hours of the morning.

Mame Ami stands with her head cocked to the right and a loosely clenched left hand nestled in the crook of her lower back, the same way she would stand while stirring a pot of Ceebujeen, or while pounding spices in her wooden mortar and pestle. She hesitates as she struggles to remember to next stroke and she looks to the teacher, the ‘animatrice’ for support. Another half bracelet opened to the ground, Ramatoulaye calls out. These women are learning how to write their names for the first time not from letters but from a list of symbols described as objects they would recognize: sleeping and standing branches, bracelets and dots. The letters will come later.

This is only the second session of the ‘alphabetization,’ or literacy classes, this year. The ages of the women attending vary from late twenties to late fourties and fifties but the majority I’d say are ‘middle aged,’ which means they are all working housewives. For ten months starting this week they will meet in this classroom Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for two and a half hours. Besides learning how to read and write in their native language, Wolof, they will be educated on health (various maladies such as AIDS and Malaria which are often known of but misunderstood) and will also conduct some sort of money-making project by selling as a team a product of their choice. These literacy classes are a part of a government program called PIEA, Programme Integré d’Education d’Adultes. Ramatoulaye Fall, the ‘animatrice’ is the cornerstone for this program in Sebikotane, although she is supported and often checked up on by various important individuals including the mayor and various imams. The attendance rate is pretty low so far as Ramatoulaye still makes her rounds, talking to women and trying to interest them and encourage them to make the effort to show up, but eventually she hopes, even expects, that she will be regularly be teaching to a group of thirty. But of course I have shown up at three o’clock sharp every day so far, eager for the chance to practice my Wolof in a more focused setting, and to experience this fascinating mechanism of development.

Already I have many questions, first and foremost of which is: what are these women’s motivations for taking nine hours out of their week to attend these classes? Are they mostly just in it for the money or are they actually determined to know how to read and write, and if yes, why? Although I haven’t asked, I would highly doubt they are learning to make some sort of radical change in their lifestyles, that would take them away from their home and family – but more to enable them more in their current activities. The two younger women who do all the work back at my house, Kine and Ami Ndoye, have never expressed any sort of regret for dropping out of school early and not learning how to read or write or speak French. Seeing me writing in my journal, they’ve each mentioned to me a few times, casually, you should teach me how to do that sometime, as though talking about some interesting skill that would be cool to learn, just for the sake of it; for even they seem to share the common assumption that knowing how to read and write is important.

For, next question, how would knowing how to read and write practically apply to their lives? Their lives, which consist of waking up early every morning to sweep, wash their kids, then do laundry and cook lunch until noon, then start to cook dinner and so on. I don’t mean to be critical at all, for if anything I have been struck by the how settled and content women seem in their roles – in what I learned to call, back in sophomore year AP European History, their ‘sphere.’ The fact that reading and writing is such an essential part of my life, and such a trivial skill to Kine and Ami NDoye, at once reveals the distance between us: the fact that I’ll learn how to scrub my clothes in a bucket for fun, while Mame Ami will giggle and smile abashedly as she learns to write her name for the first time at the age of forty (that’s an estimate).

Making her way back to her seat, the task complete, she’ll do a little jig, like she would when exiting the center of a Sabar dance floor. There is a smattering of clapping and laughter, and in this way, this classroom and this task, at first foreign and awkward to these women just out of their kitchens and bedrooms, becomes their own.