Here is the latest Habari from the western side of an eastern African country. First of all, let me say “Asante sana” to all the well wishers that shot me nice notes about my malaria. Many people asked how I got it. The more important question here is how Libby hasn’t gotten it. Everyone that lives here gets malaria fairly frequently. Every mosquito carries it and not one Tanzanian takes anti-malarial prophylactics, one bite and you’re done.
Libby however, has yet to get malaria and I have compiled a short list of reasons for why this could be possible:
- She sprung for the daily dose, minimal side effect, top-of-the-line anti-malarial pills while I chose to go with the once-a-week, “watch out for symptoms of psychosis,” cheaper variety.
- My blood has a higher concentration of anything that a mosquito would want so I always have little bites on me and she never does.
- The history of our friendship has proven that she is the carrier of all evil illnesses and I am the one who contracts them and becomes symptomatic (brings to mind Mono ’05).
- Finally, all bodily invasions due to hygiene gravitate toward her list, while all the exotic, “you never really get rid of it” type of stuff gravitate toward mine. This supports my theory that our friendship balances out the universe.
Alright, I’m sick of talking about malaria, on to other things. The library is nearly complete. We created a new way to organize the books through colored and patterned stickers corresponding to the subject matter that it is going over quite well. It has taken many weeks and many beers to get all the books labeled, but as I type this, we have only a hundred or so books that remain to be labeled. I only hope that when the man that runs the library returns, he will continue to maintain the organizational system. Part of the design is that is can be expanded and added to quite easily and for little cost, so let’s hope so.
I gave my first Biology test this week and was pretty upset to see that the average score was 4 out of 26 points. Libby got similar results for her English test so we talked to other teachers about the score breakdown and found that it was very common. The basic, accepted principle is that out of a class of 40 students: 10 understand most things, do well on exams, and absorb the material; the next 10 get scores in the middle and understand about half of what is going on; the bottom 20 get scores between 0 and 5 and understand nothing that is going on in class. The explanation given to me is that it is because they don’t try and don’t care about learning.
“They are hopeless,” quote Geography teacher. Coming in with a western mindset of student achievement (60% is failing, 75% is average, etc.) this has been one of the most astonishing “norms” in this country. Nevertheless, we’ll switch a few things around and see if we can’t get better results. Many of the girls here are the biggest problem. They have no academic confidence and get ridiculed by many of the boys. One boy actually told me that this girl could not read because she was stupid. She didn’t stand up for herself and I had to do it for her. So now I will dedicate one of my Biology periods to have a discussion about the physiological differences between boys and girls, particularly regarding mental abilities. One of the younger, male teachers here said he would be interested in participating in this period as well so I think it would be good.
The other issue I have here is the way they punish the students. In the grand, old tradition of discipline, the teachers carry around sticks and liberally whack their students for anything from being late, not cleaning up the class, not bringing their homework, speaking out, and the list goes on. Personally, I have noticed this happening to girls far more frequently than to boys, which has been another hard pill to swallow. We are trying to build relationships and ask leading questions into the necessity of this method but most of the time you get a response of, “It’s our culture,” and the discussion is over.
The staff and the students here have a very funny/depressing relationship. The staff openly criticizes the students and will tell you that they are stupid and have no common sense. It’s true that many do not have common sense, as I have seen them “return chairs to a classroom” by literally setting the chairs inside the door to the classroom and piling them so high and getting them tangled so that it was impossible to enter the room. At the same time, the way the teachers teach and run the school, there is no place for personal growth in this area. Nothing they do fosters an atmosphere for independent learning or reasoning without direct instruction. There are many things the school does well including the teaching of: discipline, subordination, organization, cleanliness, and punctuality.
There are many areas that could, in my opinion, be moved a little higher on the list: gender equality, individual achievement, the actual classroom curriculum, self-discipline, and independent thought. It is not uncommon that I show up to teach my first period and 80% of my class is gone because they are being punished for not doing their cleaning duties to satisfaction. This results in them missing my entire class and maybe even more. It’s always the same bottom half of the class that is being pulled out of more class to be punished for something they did wrong in another class…vicious cycle.
On to something more cheery. Our custom fit, African-style dresses came back from the tailor this week. We decided to show them off on the same day by wearing them to school. Libby’s is bright blue, a little tight in the thighs, and brings out her eyes quite nicely. Mine is forest green with frilly shoulders; it brings out my aggressive side as I look as though I could tackle someone at any minute. Libby said it isn’t that bad but it definitely doesn’t compliment my already broad shoulders.
We wore them to school yesterday and got quite different reaction than what we had anticipated. Firstly, the Brother that commissioned the making of the dresses was worried because I was too thin to look good in an African dress. They are made for more voluptuous women. Libby, being somehow not thin and somehow not fat, was going to look fine. Secondly, he was really worried about what shoes we would wear with the outfit because most of the ones we had brought were a little to practical looking to fit the “African tailor-made dress profile.” So he looked at our shoes and told us the ones we couldn’t wear. We ended on black flip-flops. We were fairly confident that most people would take our attire as a good gesture, but also kind of a joke. Although we did indeed get a few laughs, most people took it a lot more serious than we had imagined. Many students and teachers would come up and tell us we looked really nice or call us an African Queen, but it wasn’t followed by any chuckles or whispers like we had imagined. Instead, people were a little too close, staring a little too hard, moving their eyebrows up and down too many times; Libby may have gotten licked on the ear. There was a flock of young, male teachers that were loitering particularly close to the library while we were there and asking us if we knew Naomi Cambell. It was sometimes uncomfortable, but not in the way we were expecting.
The next day, Libby was in jeans, and I was in a standard (still much-loathed) skirt and one of the older teachers asked why we didn’t look nice today and suggested we get more dresses made. I personally don’t need an entire wardrobe of flashy African attire to trek around with so I don’t have plans to get another. However, my measurements are kept “on file” (in a notebook) at the tailors so at any point, any of the Brothers could go get another made. This is a little concerning.
I still teach math at Mariana’s every Saturday to six of her nine orphans. They are amazing kids and I have totally fallen in love with them. One little girl is a particular challenge because she still does not know how to read or do any math. I have a strong feeling she is dyslexic and my mother is sending some curriculum to see if we can work with it. She’s the cutest little girl in the world though so she’s got that going for her. I think the extra help is making progress with a couple of the kids so that is encouraging. This email has gotten very long winded so if you even got to this part, “hongera.” Please continue to update me on your affairs, I will need some cheering up in a few weeks when I give my next exam.