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Running Barefoot

Running Barefoot
31 January 2003

“And now the rains had really come, so heavy and persistent…  Sometimes it poured down in such thick sheets of water that earth and sky seemed merged in one gray wetness.”
        —Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

from Sera:

I sit here writing to you as a heavy rain drenches the landscape, thunder rumbles in the distance, and a cool breeze sweeps through our house. Zac just made some cookies, and our dinner is simmering on the stove. The learners have all gone home for the “out” weekend, and a sense of peace and calm settles on us this Friday evening. We’ve survived week two of teaching. It was a long week.

 They finished the timetable on Tuesday, so we can finally settle into the random routine of classes here. I’m sending you a picture of my timetable so you can fully understand just what I mean by “random routine.” I warned my learners that I am going to be confused for the entire year, and that every day I will greet them by saying, “What class are you?” or “Is today day 6 or day 7?” I explained to them how simple schedules were at my school, where, for example, 3rd period was exactly the same, every day of the week. They were amazed. Of course, Zac’s timetable is even more of a disaster because he has to remember what grade he’s teaching that period and what subject—and he has the same kids for both math and physical science so there’s no way to tell just by looking at them.

 The biggest challenge in our teaching so far has been that the learners don’t have exercise books to write in. The Ministry of Education provides learners with writing books, but this year there is some problem, so the books have not arrived yet. So my classes have been doing a lot of speaking for the past two weeks. With my 11th graders I’ve been having debates on different controversial topics of their choice. I’m very impressed with their knowledge and opinions on a variety of topics–considering they don’t have access to newspapers, the internet, or even books to read. There is a TV at the school that I think they watch the news on sometimes. But even then, I’m afraid they aren’t getting the full picture. One learner asked me if Afghanistan was still bombing America, and if my house got burnt down in the September 11 attacks.

 The main thing contributing to the “longness” of the week was Sport. Everyday from 3-4:30pm we teachers were forced to force the learners to participate in the Namibian version of field and track. This daily ritual began with the teachers “chasing” the learners out of the hostel and onto the “field”—a soccer field of packed sand. Then the learners are clumped into 3 teams, that congregate under various trees. Teachers then drag various age groups out from under the shade to run races like 100m, 200m, etc,. although the distances are actually very imprecise. The learners all pretend to be sick, or of various ages to avoid running. There is no such thing as an organized practice-they just run races, we write down the winners (no stopwatches are involved in this process at all), who then raced each other today, at the interhouse competition. The amazing thing is that these kids are fast—without ever practicing or training or anything. They’re running in skirts, jeans, whatever they have, and everyone runs barefoot. With a little proper training, half of them could get track scholarships in the U.S.—but they’ll never have that chance. As far as I know, sport is now over, but I don’t really know because communication is entirely lacking around here.

 One of the more interesting things that happened this week was I had my learners, who sit in groups of 4, create group names for themselves. One group, in a cruel twist of irony, wanted to be named Ku Klux Klan, having no idea what the name meant until I explained it to them. Another group named themselves W. George Bush. Some other names were Bongolution, Edens, Negative Group, Yizo-Yizo, Omo, Coagm, Yankees, Dominance, New System, and The Big Three.

 And finally, in a cross-cultural breakthrough, we have brought the gospel of Euchre to the African continent. The learners aren’t allowed to play cards in the hostel, so as soon as some of them discovered that Zac and I had cards, they wanted to play. They taught us a game, and asked if we could teach them one of our games. Seizing the opportunity, we taught them Euchre. We told them if they could learn this game, they could come play it with us any weekend—we’d always be willing to play. It was a bit difficult at first, because although they have complicated games, they didn’t know Spades or Hearts, the usual games you can compare to Euchre. So we started from scratch, explaining trump and bowers and such concepts. They still need a lot of practice, but I think they got the gist of it—so we may have some people to play Euchre with after all. During our training, we played all the time with the other volunteers, but since then we haven’t played at all until now.

 I hope you are all doing well, and enjoying the wintry weather. I showed my learners pictures of snow that my parents sent—they were fascinated. I had to explain that the houses have heat inside, so that although it is very cold outside, it is comfortable inside. I don’t think they believed me. Whenever it rains here and the temp drops below 80F, they all wear coats and complain about the cold.

 Take care (and stay warm!)

Love sera

 Hello All,

 Well my first weeks of school involved a lot of learning, at least on my part ( I’m not quite sure about my learners yet). As you know I am teaching 11th and 12th grade math and physical science (physics and chemistry). Here, the 11th and 12th grades are spent entirely preparing for the exams (one in each subject) at the end of the 12th grade year. There are, of course, going to be many tests during the two years but these are the big ones that make the difference. These exams are “set” by the University of Cambridge and the same exams are used in many different countries. In the US, the state tells the teachers what to teach and the SAT and ACT do the job of comparing everybody on a level field for college. But here, in the Cambridge system, Cambridge “tells” the teachers what to teach by giving a complete curriculum guide, which details exactly what topics will be covered on the exams. And instead of having to also take the SAT or an equivalent, the results of their exam already compare them to students everywhere else who took the same exam. What this all means for me is that the materials I am told to teach these students is no joke. I mean, this is basically the same stuff I learned when I was in High School; some of which I haven’t used since high school.

So, while the challenge for most of the other volunteers here in Namibia will be struggling with serious language barriers, learners not behaving well and/or not showing up, and struggling to teach even the most basic concepts. (I won’t have to deal with these hardly as much because Ekulo is well run, a boarding school and the kids that make it to me speak English pretty well.) The challenge for me will be more like what a teacher in the US faces. For example, balancing my lessons so as not to bore the smart kids and not totally confuse the slower ones. Also I am in a sort of trial by fire as far as daily lesson plans go. I am taking topics I haven’t used in years and deciding how to teach them to students I don’t even know very well yet. I do think I am doing a good job (and that I will improve a lot), it’s just that there was never any real warm up for me. Anyway, I just want to say that the Peace Corps’s tag line “the toughest job you will ever love” is true so far. The challenge here will be great but I think it will also be greatly rewarding. The students here are bright and motivated and it’s really neat when I can show them something and they learn it.

love Zac

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