Saturday, August 28, 2010

"Welcome to the melting pot"

During the first week of August the US Embassy, as part of their English “Access” program, sponsored an English camp in several schools in Dakar as well as a couple other nearby towns. As in previous years, Peace Corps Volunteers comprised the vast majority of counselors for the camp (in fact, this year there was just one non-PCV, besides the Senegalese teachers, that was involved in the camp). I was in Fatick, a town between Dakar and Kaolack, with 3 other PCVs from my region and stage, Teresa, Carla, and Ariana. The camp was new in Fatick (though the Access program has been there a few years), so the 2 Access teachers were really excited about it. The camp wasn’t very structured, which gave us the freedom to be flexible and teach English to the students through a variety of media. The resources we were supplied with were substantial, but the infrastructure in which we taught was challenging at times (though the students are used to it): a small classroom that echoes, desks that are falling apart, and unreliable electricity.

The students arrived early, but were shy about coming into the classroom. By the end of the week, though, they were up and out of their chairs, talking to each other, asking questions, and really enjoying themselves.

The first thing we did at camp was have the students pick an American name, just like we all used to do back in foreign language class in middle and high school.

Each day we played a variety of games that got the kids moving and required them to practice their English in different situations: giving directions to a blindfolded teammate trying to navigate an obstacle course, finding someone in the room who, for example, has only 2 siblings (me and Ari) or who knows 4 or more languages (several of the students and both of the teachers know 4 languages, usually Wolof, Sereer (and/or another local language and/or Arabic), French, and English), and tossing a ball around the room and saying something (such as a fruit or animal) that someone else hasn’t already said.

Perhaps the most enjoyed activity, though, involved listening to American pop/rap songs and trying to learn the lyrics. On the first day of camp we asked the students to tell us some American songs that they new/liked, and among those were songs by Akon, such as “Freedom” (duh – he’s Senegalese), “Empire State of Mind” by Jay Z, and “Knock You Down” by Keri Hilson. This was our first exposure to Senegalese students that know a lot (more than I do, that’s for sure) about American singers, and we were continually surprised throughout the week about how much they knew about American pop culture (though Ari and Carla were still able to teach them a lot; I quickly admitted to everyone that pop culture isn’t something I follow closely at all). While certainly not all the students were American -pop-culture-savvy, the several that were shocked us because there aren’t students like that in any of our villages. Each day (except for the first and last days) we played one of these songs and taught the students the lyrics. Writing the lyrics for the students was a lot more challenging than it could have been because we didn’t have easy access to the internet, so we spent close to 4 hours typing up the lyrics for “Empire State of Mind” (Ari and Carla were absolutely essential for this task as they could pick out all the slang phrases that Jay Z uses that I had (in most cases) never even heard before. Luckily, for our sakes, the Akon and Keri Hilson songs were much easier. We couldn’t print off the lyrics at the school the first day because the electricity was off when we got there in the morning (we were impressed that the school even had a printer – the school in Kayemor doesn’t have one, though I guess it doesn’t necessarily need one since it doesn’t have a computer), so Ari wrote the first couple stanzas up on the board and then we printed off the lyrics for the students the next day. We used this song exercise to help the students practice their listening skills; as you can probably guess (provided you know the three songs we played for them) that the students were able to pick out many more words and phrases in the Akon and Keri Hilson songs than in the Jay Z song. We also used the songs to teach the students new words and phrases, as well as some American slang. One phrase we found particularly important to teach about was Jay Z's lyric, "Welcome to the melting pot." Most Senegalese people think all Americans are white, so this phrase gave us the perfect opportunity to talk about how diverse the US is and how we embrace this diversity - which is quite contrary to Senegalese culture, as they value uniformity. By the end of the week, the students were singing along (even if quietly) to the songs (as you can kind of hear in the video). The teachers really liked this exercise, so I put the lyrics as well as a few other songs they wanted on a jump drive (that’s what I’m doing in the last picture below).

Another big hit (for some of the students anyway) was the “American” food we brought in for them. Because Senegalese are so proud of their national dish, ceebu jen (aka rice and fish), we really wanted to cook a “typical” American dish for the students, but we had a really hard time trying to come to an agreement among the 4 of us what a typical American dish is. We eventually just had to come to the agreement that there really isn’t a typical American dish because what we eat in America depends so much on where you live in America, your ethnicity, your personal values, and your personal likes and dislikes. (As my host mom pointed out the other day, personal likes and dislikes play little part in what most people eat here because the lunch and dinner are cooked for the entire family and no one would cook a meal for just him- or herself.) Once that was decided, we began brainstorming dishes that we could make with our limited access to food (no supermarket here) and with our limited cooking resources (all we had was a single gas burner and a refrigerator that stayed marginally cool because of the regular power outages). Thus, after a long discussion and debate, we settled on making apple fritters. They were delicious – to us anyway. The teachers really liked them, as did some of the students, but other students did their best to hide their dislike by covertly passing their fritter off to another student or hiding it in their napkin and quickly tossing it away when they had a chance.

Camp lasted from 9 am to 1 pm everyday so we typically gave the students a couple breaks each day. During those breaks they typically pulled out the basketball and/or soccer balls and messed around with them – even the girls played soccer one day. The teachers got in on the action a couple times, too.

This was something I wouldn’t have expected to see in a Senegalese school: “Happyness ici” – i.e., happiness here:

The reason I wouldn’t have expected this phrase is because one of the most common and personally frustrating greetings I hear here goes like this:
“Yaangi noos.”
“Deeteet. Noosuma dara.”
In English this translates to:
“You’re enjoying yourself/having fun/happy.”
“No. I’m totally not enjoying myself/having fun/happy.”
I no longer bother to ask why because the only response I ever get is “I don’t have any money. There isn’t any money here.”
Not only do essentially all the Senegalese people (I’ve met anyway) say they’re not enjoying themselves, but most students (in the world, not just Senegal) would probably say they don’t really enjoy school. That’s a broad generalization, and not true for a lot of people (I loved school – and still do, which is one of the reasons I went on to graduate school); but even Senegalese students who might realize how important school is in order to have a better future would probably tell you they don’t necessarily really like school.
Thus, I was very pleasantly surprised to see this phrase written on the wall of the classroom. Someone either thought this was a cute practical joke, or someone (or, hopefully, several someones) truly enjoy school. If the latter is the case, then this is a good sign for the future of Senegal. Now we just need to determine why so that as many other students as possible can truly enjoy school, too.

Camp wouldn’t be complete without goats, of course…

…or tea. A younger brother of one of the teachers made the tea for us everyday – here he is in a typical Senegalese situation, sitting on a chair, making tea, looking just slightly bored, but with some a-typical amendments: 2 cell phones and a computer.

This was another reminder that we weren’t in the bush any more. Since tea is such a common activity in Senegalese culture, we decided to turn it into an exercise for the students: for homework one day, we had them write down instructions for how to make tea. Then the next day, I sat in front of the class and made tea (since I’m the only one of the 4 of us that actually knows how to make Senegalese tea). We had them tell me very specifically, step by step, exactly how to make the tea. This forced them to remember (and learn) specific vocabulary words – for example, if they just said, “Put the tea in the teapot,” I started to put the whole bag of tea in the teapot (rather than opening the plastic bag and just pouring in some of the tea), which forced them to quickly yell, “No, stop!” and reevaluate exactly what they were trying to say. The best part was seeing the students try to translate the one word in Wolof, “foourr”, into English: pour the tea from one cup to the other and back again, to cool off the tea and make foam on top of the tea. There are quite a few words in Wolof for specific actions that people here do every day but become long phrases when translated into English.

On the last day of camp we all wore our camp t-shirts and took a group photo (Ari is missing because she had to leave camp a day early). It was a great experience for everyone involved, and the teachers have our email addresses and phone numbers (and vice versa) so I’m sure we will stay in touch and perhaps we’ll be back in Fatick next year for the camp…

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