Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Batteries, Basic Math, and Gbonkolenken

Break open an old battery, mix the acid with ground up leaves of the pawpaw tree and rub it quickly on a board (before it burns your hands). Teachers here who can’t afford to buy real blackboard paint tell me this makes a pretty powerful substitute and offered me this advice when I said I needed a blackboard. Tomorrow I’ll be searching for paint to prepare for the classes we’re starting in the library this week with the women of the household who’ve been asking me if I’ll teach them basic math skills that would be useful for marketing (stemming from some confusion about cost when I tried to buy two and a half cups of groundnuts with two thousand Leones, trying to avoid making change). My general sense is that the women’s functional math skills far exceed mine but their lack of formal teaching puts them at a loss when doing anything outside the familiar.

This week we finally got the good news that the grant we applied for through CIDA’s Voluntary Sector Fund came through, which means that we can extend our support to schools, start learning programs for adults, begin construction at Mayagba, and support community economic development through agricultural work. Great news for programming, though this also means that we need to raise a bit more money to match the 1:4 ratio. After receiving the news, I headed out to Gbonkolenken, the other chiefdom where we work, to explain and consult about the planned schools programming with the sixty teachers and community members who gathered together on a Saturday morning with no prior notice. Huge debate and discussion was generated not so much on programming, but on the designation of the two copies of Where There is No Doctor that I brought along, as each school, health centre, and chief felt it would be best placed with them, all with very solid reasons. The final solution generated and accepted by the group was that the books would rotate each week among three schools and community, to ensure that all have access and the contents are taught to the students and people at the mosque and church. I think I need to bring many more copies of this vital resource when I return from Canada.

And oh yes, Canada! As I’m hearing about the six feet of snow outside my brother’s door with another 25 centimetres expected and hearing snippets of news about Afghanistan, I’m starting to worry about my impending return in four weeks. I am, though, looking forward to sharing experiences with schools, family, and friends. My bags will be coming home empty except for the gifts I’ve received from here, which includes a collection of toys the children have been giving me (an empty sardine can with a string attached for moving sand, an empty tomato paste can for carrying loads on your head, and a delightful lorry made of sticks with wheels fashioned from discarded flipflops all held together with thorns). It will be the children here, I think, that I’ll be missing the most, though tonight’s milky star-strewn sky experienced at 3am with a warm breeze gently lifting the fronds of the palms behind the house reminds me of the natural world I’ll also be missing. It will be satisfying to know, though, that I’ll be able to leave some well-used initiatives in good hands (we’ll be able to hire Kouame and Mabinty part-time to run the library and computer centre for the next year and facilitate learning programs with women), and satisfying to be able to come back to many initiatives in full swing.

So, where to find blackboard paint in Magburaka? The first four stops led us to the only person who had the paint, we were told. Turned out to be three bottles of boot blackener that some use to make blackboards. Three more stops (at each stop someone directed us to another) and voila, two cans of UNICEF-brand blackboard paint at the bargain price of 10,000Le. During this hunt, Kouame told me of arriving at school some time ago, and walking into a classroom where every child had an old battery he or she was cracking open to smear on the board. I’m thinking of rigging up a white board from an old plastic map and using the markers left here by Bill et al, or ditching the idea of a board (it was requested by my teaching partner) and simply working with manipulatives. Flipflop lorry tires would make great one-blocks, as hundred Leone coins are called. Better go find some children to set to work.

Photo: Play devil playing a play Kelle