Sunday, May 31, 2009

Apreciating Medeocrity. . .

From Life Goes on in Benin

Appreciating mediocrity. . .

At the end of my first year of teaching, I can easily see how quickly I’ve adapted to the education system here in Benin. I did some statistics, and was excited to see 60.1% of my students passed the second semester. Passing here isn’t a “c,”lLike in the U.S. To go onto the next grade level, you need 50%, 10 of 20.

So what’s the good news? There is good news here. I must be doing something right. The success rate among students is usually somewhere among 49% school wide, thus students performed better in my classes (60% success rate) than others. I’m not sure if I’m a good teacher or just easy, but looking through the official grade book, these students do seem to do better in English than their other subjects.

What else? Well, you’ll see in the statistics that girls make up only 32% of my classes. They’re lucky if they get to go to school. If they are students, they often don’t have time to work and study at home. They are still expected to clean and cook, and fulfill all the subservient roles that women are expected to fulfill. But, it turns out, my girls, at a 57% pass rate are not that far away from the average of 60%. Not bad, no?

Another marked difference was between the students of 6eme and 5eme. Both of my 6eme classes had 3 or 4 really high performing students. Some of them had averages close to 20. Meanwhile, in my 5eme classes, the highest was 17, and very few received over 15. There are many causes this could be attributed to. Does it become more difficult? Perhaps. Or better yet, maybe the reforms in the pedogogy, “The New Program,” are starting to settle in and students are benefiting. Then, there’s always the possibility that learning the first year fundamentals from a native speaker has set them ahead, and that the 5eme students were not so fortunate to have a strong teacher in 6eme. Granted they’ve had much less to learn (to forget), my 6eme students are much more likely to conjugate a simple verb such as “to be” at the snap of the finger than those of 5eme.

So how’s that for being positive. Yes, the system certifiably sucks. There’s corruption. There’s sexual harassment (which is really starting to stand out as I see these cocky teachers flirt with their students). There are teachers who can’t and don’t want to teach. Many students are not completely literate. They don't have access to books to become especially literate. It's tough for the students as well as for the teacher. As Jessica’s mom posted on my blog, we endure a lot for our students. I hesitate to call my first year a success, but I put it behind me thinking I must have done something right.

6eme – 1st Year
Highest Grade – 19.58/20 (98%)
Lowest Grade – 01/20 (05%)
Number of Students Passed with 10/20 or more – 42 of 68 (62%)

Number of Girls in the class – 22 of 68 (32%)
Highest Grade of a Girl - 14.86/20 – (75%)
Number of Girls with Passed with 10/20 or more – 13 of 22 (59%)

Highest Grade – 19.53/20 (98%)
Lowest Grade – 01.75/20 (8.75%)
Number of Students Passed with 10/20 or more – 41 of 69 (59%)

Number of Girls in the class – 25 of 69 (36%)
Highest Grade of a Girl - 15.31/20 (76%)
Number of Girls with Passed with 10/20 or more – 12 of 25 (48%)

5eme – 2nd Year
5C –
Highest Grade – 17.06/20 (85%) (A boy)
Lowest Grade – 04.58/20 (23%)( (A girl)
Number of Students Passed with 10/20 or more – 36 of 53 students (68%)

Number of Girls in the class – 16 of 53 students (30%)
Highest Grade of a Girl - 14.36/20 (72%)
Number of Girls with Passed with 10/20 or more – 12/16 (75%)

Highest Grade – 16/20 (80%)
lowest Grade – 03.33/20 (17%)
Number of Students Passed with 10/20 or more – 29 of 53 students (55%)

Number of Girls in the class – 14 of 53 students (26%)
Highest Grade of a Girl – 14.31/20 (72%)
Number of Girls Passed with 10/20 or more – 07 out of 14 (50%)

243 Students Served
Highest Grade – 19.58/20 (98%)
Lowest Grade – 01/20 (05%)
Number of Students Passed with 10/20 or more - 148 of 243 students (60.1%)

Number of Girls – 77 of 243 students (32%)
Highest Grad of a Girl – 15.31/20 (77%)
Number of Girls Passed with 10/20 or more – 44 of 77 (57%)

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Look what the petit dragged in. . .

From May Activit
Adrien brought home a field mouse he killed when he was working in the fields. I think I squashed his pride when I wouldn't let him cook it in my house.

Chantons Au Coeur. . .

From May Activities

Chantons Au Coeur

The little Spectacle that could, was. Now I’m spent. Last night I texted my friend Nora and said something to the effect of “Can I put my whole village on a sedative?” They get so wound up – so excited for any event, that sometimes the enthusiasm is hard to bare – especially for someone who comes from a pretty quiet, reserved culture, where drama has twice the effect because it’s rare.

This last week has been very stressful for me. Because the teachers were striking and/or otherwise uninterested in helping me plan “Les Journées Culturelles,” most of it fell into my hands. It might be unfair to say that they were uninterested in helping, but they were AWOL and impossible to contact. Helas. At the same time, because of the strike, the events were not a high priority with the administration. They wanted it to happen, but they were concerned with making the semester tests happen. I’m ok with that, I want the year to end too!

The best part of the event was working with the kids. They were open minded and ready to help. Now, I’m really inspired to harness that energy and creativity, and continue working with them.

So here’s how it went down:

The day started with a prize ceremony for the best students in every grade. A fantastic result was that many parents came and stayed for the conference on the Trafficking of Children. The conference went well enough. People listened and participated, but finding cool shade seemed to be the first priority. The people giving the conference ended up being in a spot of shade 40 feet from the group of attendees, who were all under a huge mango tree. The speaker was an executive for APAM, an NGO charged with protecting poorly treated children. I was pleased to see a lot of interest and concern for the Children of Benin by the students themselves and their parents.
From May Activities

We held the spectacle at about 5:00PM, hoping the sun would quickly fade, and it did. We had singers, dancers, skits, and poetry. My friend from the Corps of Beninese Volunteers, Ibrahim, sang and played his guitar and gave a short talk about the Traffic of Children in Benin. A group of students did a skit where a child was accidentally trafficked, reunited with the parent, and the trafficker was punished. I was really impressed – the kids designed the sketch entirely themselves. The censeur (Vice Principal), took over the show as MC, and I actually left for a little bit of it because I was feeling claustrophobic. There were several hundred people surrounding the stage and they seemed to get closer and closer to the stage (and to me), until I couldn’t stand it anymore. There were all kinds of technicalities that would never fly in the world of American liability, but here, “ca va.”

From May Activities

From May Activities

From May Activities

There’s no way to really know if my efforts this week have planted any seeds in students’ and parents’ heads. It’s a very sensitive subject. There could have been parents there who have “domestiques” who have been trafficked. There could have even been students who were/are trafficked themselves. Education here is saturated with “development themes.” I hope this one won’t be lost in the mélange.

More pictures.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Scab, etc. . .

The past four weeks most teachers at my school have been striking. Until recently, Benin was forbidden by the World Bank to hire permanent teachers. Now that it’s been approved, the teachers are getting impatient. Contracts have been promised, but none have been received.

Fortunately for myself, it’s the Peace Corps that feeds me, and as a result, I’m a scab. That’s right. This week, because so many professors were on strike, I have proctored 20 hours of end of the semester exams. I’ve been trying to help as much as possible, assuming that my extra work might expedite the end of the semester. When exactly is the end of the semester anyway?

I have mixed feelings about teachers striking. I come from a state in the U.S. where teacher strikes are illegal and a country where, in comparison to the rest of the economy, teachers are underpaid. Meanwhile here in Benin, I see the teachers living better than the rest of my village, and I can’t help but think that they’re gold digging, taking advantage of a government, because they see the government as a big pool of money they ought to have access too. They have struck two years in a row – to what end? I can’t help but think Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you” speech could use a few performances here in Benin. .

Of course, since it’s not really a civil society, very few people pay taxes, and the World Bank ends up paying the teachers. Then, suddenly, this foreign entity that I don’t really understand ends up controlling education in my host country.

I’ve also been working very hard on a secondary project, a variety show that will take place during our Journée Culturelle to celebrate the end of the semester. The idea is to raise awareness of the Trafficking of Children, which is considered to be a very big problem here in Africa, especially in Benin (see I was supposed to plan it with four other professors, but because of the strike, I’ve been pretty much in charge.

I have no problem getting students excited to help me. I send them run all sorts of errands and ask for their advice constantly. They’re a great help. My problem is the adults. They’re all happy I’m doing it, but in a relieved, “we don’t have to worry about it,” sort of way. At the same time the culture here, as such, is “on va voir” or “we’ll see.” Decisions are put off and I sit around waiting impatiently for them to be made.

So after a few weeks of work, the Spectacle entitled “Chantons Au Coeur Du Benin: Pour que le traffic des enfants s’arrete,” (Let’s sing at the heart of benin, so that the traffic of children may end) looks like it will finally happen. We’ve got chairs and a sound system reserved. Don’t worry about where we will get electricity, if it will rain, if it will be to hot, if the students will come, if there are enough t-shirts to sell, on va voir.

I’ll be sure to fill you in after the big event on Friday!

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Let There Be Light. . .

From Life Goes on in Benin

No that's not the heaven's opening - God calling you home - etc. That's a brand new light fixture at my school. Here in Benin, most classrooms are large cement buildings with tin roofs. They don't have windows, but rather, ciment blocks with large wholes for light to pass through. They tend not to have electricity either.

Whereas my village is electrified, before now, there have only been light fixtures in about 6 of the 20 rooms, none of which I teach in. So, you'll imagine my excitement when, as part of a school improvement project, they put two light bulbs in every room. Now, even on dark days, everyone can see the blackboard and the copybooks they are copying into.

The typical electric work here is pretty shoddy. I've changed my own light fixtures three times, and only have been heavily shocked once (it probably wasn't smart to stand on a metal box in a puddle of water). I was impressed that instead of dangling the electricity on trees and thin branches stuck into the ground, they actually buried the wires between buildings. How's that for progress?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Ouesse Ouildcats

From Life Goes on in Benin

Claire is my friend and fellow volunteer in a village not to far south of here called Ouesse. Claire, a TEFL volunteer like myself, loves softball and wanted to share that wit the people of Ouesse. So what did she do, she started a team. Of course, noone in Ouesse had heard of the game "softball," but by now it's an old past time. In an effort to help the girls to gain self confidence in her CEG, she started a girls team. They started with no equipment, practicing with grapefruits and a wild bat fashioned by a local carpenter. Eventually, donations of gloves, balls, and bats were sent from her family's softball club in the states.

After a few months of practice, she organized a game in Parakou between Peace Corps Volunteers (who got shirts saying "Yovotomme Yaguires), and her team, the Ouesse Ouildcats (Les Chat Sauvage). Anyway, I was impressed with her work, and by how well these girls played. It was fun experience, and in my mind, the ideal Peace Corps Volunteer Project. She chose something she loves to do and used it to help empower girls. Go Claire!

From Life Goes on in Benin

I forgot to mention, I didn't actually play. Kendra and I came ready to sit and enjoy the game. She ended up umpire, and I ended up photographer. Alas!

From Life Goes on in Benin

More journeying. . .


The weekend after Easter, I decided to see a little of the country. This was inspired by the fact that I already needed to go south for a “Training Design Workshop,” where volunteers help the support staff to design this years “Pre Service Learning” for the incoming volunteers.

I wanted to go visit my friend Angelina, who lives in Lobogo, a pretty big, but isolated village west of Cotonou. My friend Katie and I took one of those wonderful air-conditioned busses to Cotonou, then a bush-taxi to a village not to far from Angelina.

The first thing we noticed was that we were in the jungle. Where we live, rain has just recently started again, but in the south, the dry season is shorter, thus everything’s greener and, well, more vibrant. It’s not that the north is ugly; it’s just quite brown for most of the year.

Angelina’s house has a thrifty beach-bungalow sort of feel. I liked it a lot. She lives in a nice, walled in compound with lots of shade and various kids and roosters running around. While we were there, we hopped on zems and went to see Lake Possotome. This is a large lake sourced by the Possotomé thermal springs (Which also sources Possotomé Natural Spring Water, but I suppose you don’t get that in the supermarkets in the US).

We checked out a few of the hotels, one of which has a floating restaurant, then went to a buvette and had a few drinks. At times in Possotomé, I felt as if I was in a beach town and started looking for ice cream. That faded quickly every time I saw a naked 6 year old running around or a goat crossing the street.

Back in Angelina’s village, we experienced her marché in all it’s glory. Angelina’s village is not too much larger than mine, but since she is in a central point for a lot of villages, her marché is enormous. There were isles of fish, escargot, fabrics, baskets, ceramic cooking pots, and read-to eat deep fried foods (always a winner with me). The market experience really impressed upon me how truly different the northern parts of Benin are from the south. It’s hard to describe. They’re just different. There’s a sense of vibrancy there that reminds me of festive latino culture. Meanwhile in my village, while still vibrant, the people seem a bit more stoic and worn. Maybe this is just the result of my perception being affected by the fact that I’ve lived here for 10 months now. Who knows? Monday, Katie and I left for Cotonou.


Every time I go to Cotonou, I’m trapped in a confused state of mind. I’m very much in Africa, but at the same time many of the conveniences I love and miss are available to me for the short period of time I’m in the area. We, as volunteers, came here to integrate into communities, to learn about their cultures and to share our own at the same time. We came to “live like them,” in their villages. To eat their foods, speak their languages, listen to their music, while at the same time helping them to “develop,” which lets be honest, means helping them to become more like us. Do you see where the confusion is coming from?

So, anyway, there is a pang of guilt that is associated with enjoying life in Cotonou. The first night, some friends and I ate Chinese. I had Chicken Imperiale (kung pow), which was delightfully tasty, but I couldn’t help but think what my friends au village would think about my 5,000CFA meal, enough to feed a small a small family poorly for a week.

And then there’s the 1,500CFA ice cream cone I ate after. Ice cream is pretty much unheard of here (though frozen treats are not lacking), so you have to eat it where you can find it. When the guilt strikes, I just remind myself that I didn’t sign on to suffer or sacrifice for two years. But alas, the guilt goes on, as it might for a long time after I leave this place.

The next day I stuck around the workstation, enjoying the high-speed internet, air conditioning, and warm showers (yes, I took more than one). I went to a supermarket that had some amazing things that we don’t get in Parakou – tortilla chips, cheeses, Dr. Pepper, gummy bears. The choices were overwhelming and all very expensive, so I left not having spent much at all. It makes me wonder how I will handle a grocery store in the United States this summer.

Training Design

That night we were taxied to St. Jean Eude, a Jesuit retreat center that the Peace Corps uses from time to time when they need to cheaply pay for the lodging of their volunteers. It was like coming full circle. 10 months ago we arrived at St. Jean Eude for our first night in Benin. We were exhausted after 24 hours of travel and the second year volunteers were eager to celebrate our arrival. We were there again, this time planning the training for next year’s volunteers.

No lies. The workshop was pretty boring. Peace Corps is undeniably and unapologetically an agent of the U.S. government. This means revising paper work, filling out more paper work, and following various Peace Corps training paradigms.

After two days of planning, several of us went back to the workstation so we could easily catch a bus in the morning, not to mention another evening meal. I was with my friends Jessica, Katie, and Naima. We all wanted a hamburger and pizza, so we ended up splitting two pizzas and splitting two hamburgers. It was a winning combination. I ate it quickly. It was delicious.

The next morning, we headed back to our villages. The bus traveled quickly, and I was back in village with the dog, the petit, and hundreds of children calling me bature once again.