When I leave….

Gaya Morris - Senegal

March 15, 2010

A major question that we fellows have been set out to answer ever since day one is: how much of a difference will we be able to make, if any at all, in each of our host communities and work places?

For I think we each left California in September with the idea pretty well hammered into our brains that with our age and level of experience, we were learners not change-makers, despite the catchy titles and phrases on the GCY website that had lured us each. At the US training we were also introduced to the idea that volunteer and aid work in the developing world can not only fail, but even have unintended negative effects, such as when it leaves a population or a community dependent on an inflow of donated goods and volunteers, rather than sustainably self-sufficient; or when projects are abandoned before they can be properly concluded…

Arriving in Senegal in October, and finally to our apprenticeship placements in November, our powerlessness as young, foreign individuals certainly became more apparent to us, and for a time we even felt more like burdens to our hosts than helpers. But I think we all passed this stage pretty quickly and soon found ways to be of use whether by simply lending a hand in the every day tasks and chores of the schools, farms and health posts to which we were assigned, or by coming up with a few supplementary projects to support the general activities.

Now already in March, as time has started ticking away much faster than it should, I find myself thinking back to all these important lessons and questions about impact, and thinking critically about my own apprenticeship activities.

For though I still fully stand by this idea that we are here to learn, study and grow, more than to ‘make a mark,’ I am all too aware, especially as the ‘when I leave’ question has started to come up, that I am an exception to my own belief. I would never claim that I have in five months done anything that constitutes ‘making a real difference,’ because we all know that that sort of thing takes years, even decades, and involves addressing the root of a problem rather than trimming its leaves…But in a totally practical, superficial, everyday way, in certain domains of the school community in which I am a volunteer, I know that my absence will be felt.

For it just so happened that the school in which I ended up is lucky enough to have both a computer lab and a library, both of which were out of use when I arrived. Now, five months later I have somehow become the résponsable for these two places. I open and close the doors every day. I make sure that the rooms get cleaned; that books are returned to their proper sections; that Seneclic gets called to come repair misbehaving computers and remove the dust from infested mouses. I am the only one who brings students into the library, and for a time I even took it upon myself to spend three hours on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday afternoons introducing the students to the computer lab, group by group, following the schedule that the director had put together. All of this is of course a wonderful service for me to have been able to give the school for the time being, and for me to have carried out for my own personal growth, but then comes the obvious, inescapable question: what’s going to happen when I leave? For if my departure means that the doors will once again be left closed and that the computers and books will once again fall to dust, have I really helped them in the long run, or have I just ‘mixed things up’ for a short while? Is this the simple reality of a six month apprenticeship – that nothing of true, lasting value can realistically be accomplished? That only short-lived, “token” services can be given? Or do I still have time to turn things around, to prepare the school for my departure, and to make my efforts sustainable?

These are all questions that I am in the process of answering. A few weeks ago I asked the school director to call a “réunion pédagogique” of all the teachers (a faculty meeting) during which I expressed to them my worries that the computer classes that I had been giving the students would cease immediately following my departure.

The idea had been, when we first created the schedule, that each teacher would lead his or her class in the lab during the allotted time, and that I would “assist” them so that they would be capable of leading the classes alone before the time I left. Clearly however the initiative had quickly turned from a team-project to a Mademoiselle Gaya-project as, day after the next I found myself deciding to somehow rally the students for their first every computer lessons despite the absense or tardiness of their teachers. And so by this point, the day of the réunion pédagogique, I felt that the first question to ask was simply: do you want the computer classes to continue? Unfortunately this was somewhat of a rhetorical question considering that everyone knew that the computer lab had been donated by the Senegalese government for the sole purpose of training the students. For I think it would be interesting to ask them at some point, considering all the challenges that they face (simply getting kids to learn how to read and write for example), minus the presence of the school director and the Senegalese government, would they really consider “computering” a priority or something at all worth their time and effort? But at least this question raised the point that truly integrating the computer lab into school activities really depends more on them than on me.

And so it was decided then and there that that the only way for the classes to continue would be for the teachers themselves to be properly trained in ‘informatique.’ Their immediate solution was for me to revert back to the private lessons that I had tried giving during my first two months at the school. But thinking back to how tedious and ineffective that was, and how I am now more focused on the library activities during the mornings, I proposed the idea that it would be more effective and efficient for me to teach them all at once, in just a few pre-planned sessions. I would do these on Tuesdays and Thursdays, in the place of the classes I had been giving the students. They all agreed, and so after a few last motivational speeches, complements on my hard work in the library, and prayers, the meeting was ajdourned.

Since then, this is the plan that I have been attempting to carry out. Sounds like a simple enough solution right? Well… there is only so much I can do, with the few Tuesdays and Thursdays I have left. I handed out a schedule, planning each lesson and each topic for each lesson on specific days – introduction, word, excell, internet, email, games etc. – but already we’ve fallen behind. Sometimes it truly feels like the forces are against us: power cuts, unexpected cultural events, the general tardiness and forgetfulness of human beings, the incredible amounts of sand and dust that manage to leak through the cracks of the windows, carried by the winter wind. Sometimes I wonder if all of this is some sort of sign that computers are just not meant to be used in Africa… The hardest part is constantly, gently reminding and trying to motivate the teachers to show up, making my rounds to each classroom to chat almost every day. For they are all adults, and I’m just a kid trying to help them. Sometimes Monsieur Hanne jokes that I’ll be calling them from the United States, reminding them to unplug the computers over-night, or that the library needs to be swept on Mondays… and I’m sure I will want to keep in touch, to see what the long term effects of my efforts might be. If any. Its just a computer lab, its just one part of one school, and sometimes I have to remind myself: you don’t even like computers, remember? But the exercise in itself, of trying to solve this problem of twenty unused computers, has somehow become important to me.

As for the library? Well, that space will always hold a closer place to my heart, despite the fact that I know, two months from now, no one will be here to lead story-time, to tell the kids to sit in a circle on the carpet, pass around a tennis ball, pretend to climb onto the roof like the Grand Méchant Loup (the big bad wolf), taste the soup like Boucle D’or (Goldylocks), pull the rope like Monsieur Elephant and Madame Baleine… but the books will all be there and chances are, at the very least, they will read them again some day.

Gaya Morris