Friday, 31 July 2009

Our Experience teaching at Morning Star School by Laura and Cat

The classroom: Three planks of wood. An aluminium roof. No electricity. And worst of all, the ‘toilet’ is anywhere you want it to be. With an open space substituting for a door we are frequently visited by a selection of farmyard animals, including goats, chickens and lizards. Our shacks resemble stables more often than classrooms. On one occasion, a pupil returned to class to find his seat was being occupied by a chicken laying an egg. When monsoons hit, the lack of windows, never mind glass ones, makes teaching virtually impossible. Our shouts are drowned out by thunderstorms and rain floods the classroom, whilst the opportunity is seized by the kids who take to the muddy pools and return, stripping off their clothes, leaving us to attempt to teach stark naked, soaking wet children. As comical as this may sound, reality is tragic. Lacking these very basic necessities is, in turn, a huge obstruction to education. Imagine what the standard of education in England would be if school ceased to function every time it rained? To think that in our school days we had almost expected resources such as electronic blackboards and Apple Mac laptops, and most certainly never even questioned that we would have a seat to sit on, a pencil to write with and four walls to keep us dry. Everyone knows of the poverty that exists in Africa, but nothing can prepare you for when the Oxfam faces of malarial, malnourished children now have a personality and a story behind them.

The teachers were more than delighted to hand over their roles to us. As far as they were concerned, summer vacation had started early. Ever since our arrival they spend their days sitting in the playground playing football, sleeping, distracting our lessons by blasting out their music, or disappear completely with the excuse of “town”. Nevertheless, they need only to return once in a while with cane in hand to ensure their superiority will never be doubted. On one occasion we walked passed a classroom where every child was sitting in absolute silence with their head on their desk. Confused, we sat them up only to be stared back by a sea of tearstained faces and scarred palms. Their teacher, who had left them alone all day, was angry when he returned to a noisy classroom. Although we make clear our distaste towards their method of disciplining through use of the cane, we fear that we are fighting a losing battle against a deeply embedded cultural norm. Since the children themselves accept this as the proper and natural part of schooling, it is not surprising that the older children carry their own canes to use against the younger children and why this tradition has continued to be passed on from generation to generation of teachers.

Although at first we were impressed by the children’s use of intellectual vocabulary, we quickly learnt that such fancy terms were merely memorised definitions with little thought for their meaning. For instance, they can robotically recite a dictionary definition of what a computer is and a list of its functions, though most have never actually seen one. When we pushed them to think creatively their stories again highlighted the disparities between our childhood and theirs. Whilst our childhood creative stories had always involved some magical land where the hero would live ‘happily ever after’, we were surprised to see how normal it was for their stories to end with death or famine.

Despite these emotional challenges our experiences have most certainly not been devoid of laughter. Whether it be teaching a class of seven to twelve year olds about the importance of protective sex to prevent against HIV/ AIDS on the first day of school, or being told during a lesson on ways to combat water pollution, ‘Madam, Madam, stop shitting in the water!’, our kids never fail to amuse us. In fact, despite western world presumptions that a childhood without proper playgrounds, footballs, or even a pair of shoes to come to school with is not a proper childhood at all, these children laugh and play with an African happiness that certainly transcends the stiff upper English lip.

Regardless of the school’s current imperfections its inspirational origins are humbling. The school was founded by Madame Cecilia who was herself orphaned and suffered many hardships in her youth. She originally set up the school in her garage for orphaned girls who were being sent out to work as street-sellers. She begged their guardians to let them attend her school for free. As the governmental schools were not as well taught as the classroom in her garage she was finally persuaded to take children of both genders orphaned and not. In 2005 she was forced to move to a larger rented plot of land due to the increase in numbers where we now teach and she is saving money with Tzedek’s help to build a new school with walls and floors and books.

One of the children Morning Star has provided for is twelve year old Mohammed; a boy with no father, a crippled mother, and an amputated leg due to a snake bite where he was left to die and only found three days later. This is just one of the many cases. The very fact that the children feel fortunate to have the opportunity to go to school here embarrasses us as we remember every attempt we made to play truant. Morning Star not only offers these children an education but more importantly allows them to fulfil their childhood which is a rare and precious commodity in this country.

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