Finally I have been able to visit a Village School which was built as a part of one of the programs with which I will be working! I still have not officially started work, though. November 4-7 the International Partners met in Bouar. (That includes 15-20 representatives of the Central African Lutheran Church as well as people from donor organizations in Europe and the United States.) After that meeting, international partners arranged to visit programs in various towns. I went with four people from the US: Gordon and Betty Olsen who work with Lutheran Partners in Global Mission, Pastor Alan Kethan from Texas, and Pastor Paul Schaur from North Dakota. (The same four that the National Church President and I met in Bangui last week.)
Thursday we visited two very interesting programs – Village Schools (part of my work area) and Village Savings and Loans (not part of my work, but fascinating. See the next blog entry.)
Village School Program Director YAIMAN Etienne took us to visit Peouri School that was originally built about 15 km. from Baboua. During some civil unrest about ten years ago, the people fled to Baboua. They insisted that they wanted to have “their” school in their new location! They had it in the village and wanted it to follow them to the town – even though the program was not planning to build a school in Baboua since there is already a government school there. In the end, the school was build. In fact, it is now the first school to have a permanent building (along with several paillotes – open-air, straw-roofed structures). Since the school has been started, others in town are taking advantage of the Lutheran School’s reputation for good teaching. It has become the largest of the 20 village schools in the program.
720 students attend the school from 8 a.m. until noon Monday through Saturday in the equivalent of grades K-5. (Actually, the parents are currently building one more paillotte because one class must meet from 12:30 – 5:30 because of lack of space.) There are six teachers (one of whom is also the director/principal). For one grade level, they have had to split the class in two so that class sizes could be reduced to 93 and 95… Another class lists 165 students enrolled! Students have French (to learn to read), math, and a few other books – unusual in this country where textbooks are as rare as hen’s teeth. Children were enthusiastic and attentive. We saw no discipline problems despite the large classes. (We were told that some exist, but they are not common.) When students want to respond, they raise their hands as do children in the US, but here they often snap their fingers as well. I was also happy to see that students wrote answers on their slates so that all students participated. Here are some who were practicing reading and writing syllables.
As we arrived, all the students were outside to have the flag raising ceremony. Normally it would be done first thing in the morning, but they waited so we could be present. In the dirt, six circles were drawn and then a straight line. We were asked to stand on the line and students filled the circles. They had a short welcome speech and gave us some artificial flowers. (We later returned the flowers so that they could be reused on other occasions!) Classes lined up facing the flag pole. I felt at home as students put their hands on the shoulders of those in front of them to space themselves out better! They sang a song and the flag was raised.
We then visited the classrooms. The new permanent, brick building houses three classes and the director’s office. Then, there are three paillotes for other classes. Parents helped build all the structures – including a brick building with latrines and one teacher’s house – not yet occupied. (There will eventually be more.) Parents provide sand, stone, and labor. The program buys the other materials and provides expertise in building appropriate structures.
Classes were lively, but well-managed. The two kindergarten classes each sang us a welcome song as we went in. They were practicing comparing shapes – which line is longer? Draw a tree that is taller. Another class was practicing reading. A third was learning the format of a business letter. One class was outside having relay races as a part of Physical Education. Pastor Paul joined a team and raced with the best of them!
After the classroom visits, we had a reception – food (of course!) and conversation. We were able to ask the teachers and the director questions about their school and work and they also asked about us. We asked why there were no female teachers and one teacher said – it’s men problems – women either have early pregnancies or they get married and have too many responsibilities at home. He added that they are not interest in the job! He was very surprised to learn that most elementary teachers in the US are women. The director did say that they had had two women briefly and that they will continue to recruit them in the future.
I was very pleased to be able to spend the morning at this school and to start to understand the program. Next week (Friday, I hope) I will be back in Baboua (after more touring with international visitors) and finally able to start my work in earnest.