The deputy head of my school spent 3 hours yesterday afternoon and 2 hours this morning painstakingly re-drawing the school timetable. The cluster monitor, who is the administrative head honcho of all the schools in this area, rolled up on his motorbike yesterday and expressed his dissatisfaction with the current timetable. He thought we should be having break at 11:30, not 11:15, so the bureaucratic process swung into action. I politely tried to point out the irrelevancy of changing the timetable as it is so seldom kept to. None of the teachers at my school have a watch and there is no working clock on the premises so it is mainly up to me to dictate the timing of the school day. Even with working watches there would be no adherence to orderly time keeping as so many things come up to hinder the teachers staying in the classrooms.
Today whilst in the middle of a Math lesson with grades 5 and 6, the three other teachers turn up at the door imploring me to come and eat breakfast as they have just got some fresh milk delivered by the son of a local cattle farmer. I attempt to explain that I am in the middle of a lesson – a lesson that I had planned with the vague hope that the grade 5/6 teacher would observe so as he could see that it is possible for children to comprehend fractions without barking at them constantly for an hour. It was a futile hope. I carried on with my lesson and got the kids on task and then hypocritically went out to try the milk mixed with millet and sugar. It was delicious.
I am writing this in a classroom I recently cleared out to convert into a new library for the school. The classrooms previous function had been as a place to chuck broken furniture. Now it stores some lovely books.
I am contemplating the purpose of AID whilst staring at a 50kg World Food Programme (WFP) rice sack of Enid Blyton novels that have provided generations of termites sustenance.
What was the cost of bringing over so many irrelevant Enid Blyton books? What was the benefit?
Some well meaning Brit, either VSO or independent, had obviously put some work into getting this pile of dated children’s literature out to the middle of the bush. They had completed their mission, they had got books to people who had none. And now they rotted.
Do not think I am pouring scorn on Gambian villagers for not treasuring these sacred Enid Blytons. It is doubtful they had asked for them, it is doubtful they made any promises about what they would do with them. But it also makes me doubt my desire to become another meaningless cog in the AID mechanism. It’s well known that Africa is suffering of an AIDS epidemic, is it also suffering from Aid?
This will be atopic I am going to explore more thoroughly in later posts. I am currently reading Paul Theroux’s ‘Dark Star Safari’, an account of his escapades from Cairo to Cape Town. He was a Peace Corps volunteer in the 60’s in Malawi, as well as fathering one of my favourite documentarians Louis Theroux. Paul is pessimistic about the benefits of the Aid industry to Africa. In the book he goes to see the school that he worked in in Malawi. He finds it a shell of what it had been forty years previously, I imagine much like the school I rocked up to in September. Vermin infested, shambolic, a broken instrument of education.
He also visits another school in Malawi which had been run by two Brits who had dedicated their life to working there. Two years after their deaths in Malawi the school they had worked in had been stripped bare, the once orderly regimented institution now tattered and strewn about. These people, fully qualified head teachers from the UK with a much greater work ethic and experience than myself, could achieve no lasting legacy in this dark star continent. What little hope is there for little old me?
Ways I can go about working here
- An insular Aid approach – develop some well meaning project, struggle to achieve some goal e.g an effective library. Realise it will crumble after I leave.
- An old fashioned colonial approach – boss some people around, try and replicate a western working environment in my school. Be hard and condescending.
- Passive observer / integrater – have no aspirations of changing anything, attempt to learn as much as I can. Read as much as I can. Work as the Gambians do, sporadically and unproductively.
My two years here will probably be a strange amalgamation of the three, but I am beginning to have no qualms about taking the third approach, something that I doubt I would have said even one month ago. Now I have very little guilt about mainly learning from this experience. I will do no evil here but I am not sure I will achieve much good.
My only qualm is the negative effect an institution such as Peace Corps can have on a countries development. Peace Corps hires some of the best educated Gambians to train and work for us, the Peace Corps volunteers. Would these people, these very able people, not be better serving The Gambia’s development by working for The Gambia directly not a foreign government organization purporting to be helping The Gambia. Would they not be a greater asset working directly in Gambian schools, in its government, in its hospitals.
Aid agencies offer better pay and working conditions but in effect add to the brain drain already mad heavy with emigration. However hard a volunteer for Peace Corps works here, it is not Gambian, it is other, it is alien. It can be excused as an anomaly. What you really need is th cream of the Gambian population poured through the education system, providing role models and redefining the ‘Gambian way’ from within. You can’t change a countries cultural work ethic through external powers. The cream is instead spilled on Aid agencies and menial work in more developed countries.
I have no solution to the increasing number of problems I find here, I’m starting to find out I’m not even sure what I can define as a problem.
I’m developing a reading list to help me try and come to some sort of conclusion on these issues and I hope to write about my findings in later posts. I intend to try and get a hold of some of these books somehow. If you have any further recommendations for any reading about the problem/solution of Aid/poverty or Africa in general please let me know.
- The Bottom Billion – Paul Collier
- The Mystery of Capital – Hernando di Soto
- The Road to Hell – Michael Maren
- The Lords of Poverty – Graham Hancock
- Africa Betrayed – George Ayittey
- A Bend in the River – V.S. Naipaul
- Dead Aid – Dembisa Moye