I live in a Wolof neighborhood, and work at a school where the majority of the students are of Wolof origin, therefore speaking Wolof as their native tongue. I had never visited any other elementary school in Sébi, except for the one on the same side of the national road as Sebi Route, that is…before today. I recently had a meeting with a linguist that I was put into contact with through the director of the language school I attended in Dakar. He and his partners welcomed me for lunch and a wonderful discussion about the language issues that have presented themselves in Senegal, and particularly Sébikotane, in the recent past. While I was there, I was introduced to a whole new genre of educational problems in this country, ones that have shifted my perspective and therefore reshaped my experience outlook as a whole. That day after lunch, Rokhaya, the lovely director of the organization in Sébikotane, invited me to come and observe classes the following day at the pre-school and elementary school in their native tongue, Saafi-Saafi. Being an aspiring educator and linguist myself, I could not help but accept the offer. So I took the preparatory books given to me, and went home to prepare myself for the next day. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
I arrived around nine the next morning, after having had a meeting with the director of the elementary school. After being welcomed by Rokhaya and her team, we set off for a side of the city I had never been to. The first part of the morning was really rejuvenating for me personally; the preschool was extremely well run and organized. Children had cubbies for coats and backpacks, name tags, stations for learning, and teachers had structured lesson plans that the children actually enjoyed. I was really encouraged by this part of the day, for this is the first time I have witnessed such a child-friendly environment since my arrival in Sébikotane. Around eleven-thirty, Rokhaya and I left to go meet the teachers at the elementary school, Sébi Sous. The plan was to go and greet, chat for a few minutes, and then hit the road back to the office. That is exactly the opposite of what happened.
I started off by introducing myself, telling the teachers a little bit about where I come from and what I am doing here. We had small talk for a few minutes, and then Rokhaya gently asked me if I was ready to go yet. I smiled and said yes quietly, and we got up to leave. As we started walking away, I noticed she was held back by something, and when I turned around Rokhaya said in a cordial voice: “They want to ask you and I a few questions. Sit. We’re going to be here for a while.” Thinking this was just going to be another unplanned meeting, I didn’t hesitate to take my chair again, and immediately after, we began.
The meeting started off like any other. There was a brief introduction of the school, followed by the link of the projects they have been up to recently. The entire “equipe pédagogique” was there, except for the director. They then asked me more specifically what I was doing at the school. Interested by my specific project, they took my phone number down, in hopes to expand the project at their school as well, and told me that the director would contact me upon return. That was the end of my voice in the meeting. Then came Rohkaya’s turn.
You see, Rokhaya has started a program for educating children in their native language, specifically, Saafi-Saafi, a dialect of Serrer. The program is extremely well managed and the curriculum is excellent. The objective of the program is not to take away from schooling in French, but rather to help students with their French. It has many external partners, one of the most recent being the Hewlett Foundation. The program starts off as a preschool, educating children in their native tongue alone. This idea is brilliant, because the kids are learning essential cognitive thinking skills; ones that many preschoolers never get the opportunity to fully develop. And obviously, if the child knows how to think and apply what he is learning, the child will have a much easier time retaining and therefore learning a second language. It has also been proven that 74% of the Saafi-Saafi alphabet can be transferred to French without difficulty. And since the children have the advantage of learning the alphabet and function of syllables and words in Saafi, transferring the concept into French is never a problem. This is an opportunity many Wolof and Pulaar children don’t have in Sébikotane. Along with the preschool classes, the program takes children after school and reinforces what they are learning in French in their native tongue. They are not interfering with the public school system; they are helping it. The kids who are a part of this program have an incredibly high rate of success in academics, particularly in mathematics and language.
But the teachers at Sebi Sous did not see it this way. When it was Rokhaya’s turn to speak, the teachers did not thank her, nor did they congratulate her, but rather, attacked her, telling her that the program was not helpful or necessary by any means. There was a lot of yelling and tension involved in the meeting, and needless to say, I felt extremely anxious and surprisingly angry from the reactions of these teachers. I was sitting on the edge of my chair, listening closely to every word in French. The arguments I heard were irrational and uncalled for, and both myself and Rokhaya had to brace ourselves to handle the situation gracefully.
The argument that confused me the most was about how the Serrer kids are speaking Saafi in class, and do not speak Wolof or French, and how unacceptable this is. They say that this is all due to Rokhaya’s program in Saafi-Saafi. But what I would like to point out, both as an outsider to this school and an insider to a school just like it, is that this problem exists at the school where I am, and at my school we do not have a program for Saafi. This means therefore that the problem can not be due to Rokhaya’s program. When I mentioned this to the teachers, one of them told me to be quiet and stay out of it, and all the rest except for one ignored my comment and continued arguing. The one who heard me gave me a quick wink, assuring me that my statement was okay to have brought up, and that this matter was far beyond my control. Rokhaya eventually gave them so much evidence and statistics about the issue that the teachers had nothing left to argue, but the bitterness of the subject did not evaporate. Is it not fair for these kids to be able to speak their native tongue like the Pulaar and Wolof children? Why should they be left behind? And who says that Wolof is the only language of the children in schools? Given, the majority of teachers are Wolof, but the school is in a Serrer neighborhood. Educating children should not be about what is convenient for the teacher; it should be about what is convenient and best for the child. After the meeting, the teacher that had winked at me earlier came up to me. She told me she would love to discuss my ideas further on the issue at a more appropriate time. She said she would come by the library on a Saturday during one of my classes. I am eagerly anticipating this future conversation.
I had an abrupt self-realization during this intense meeting…one that I am incredibly grateful to say that I have had. I came into this experience thinking that French would be enough to get me by, because academics are in French. I was blind to the need for compassion and friendship on behalf of my students, something that really requires their native tongue in many circumstances. I was convinced that the only way to get them to learn French was to force it on them. But recently, and especially now, I can see differently. I do still believe that French is essential to succeed in academics, because it is the heart of the Senegalese curriculum. But I also am aware of the importance of a child’s native tongue. I have really been studying Wolof the last month, trying to improve my skills to be able to communicate with my children. But I now have an audio cassette and book in Saafi, which is my other priority. I want to learn as much about these children and their languages as I can, in order to help them grow in academics, and most importantly, to help them grow as people. I say often how brave these kids are for going to a school in a language they don’t understand, sometimes even two. So now, as I am trying to communicate and learn languages I don’t really understand, I am able to better understand what is going on as a child is struggling to learn a language, and help them more in the process. This is a lesson I want to remember throughout my lifetime, for it can apply to many situations throughout life. People like Rokhaya inspire me so much. The fight and the drive she has for her people is absolutely incredible. She is helping me to better myself, every step of the way, so that in return I may help others. And one day, when somebody asks me, So you speak Saafi-Saafi? My answer will be yes, and I will join hands with my students and family all around me, proud of who they are, where they come from, and who they have helped me to become in this wild and beautiful journey.