Back to life, back to reality

17th January    

‘Beware gentle knight. There is no greater monster than reason.’

Cormac McCarthy – All the Pretty Horses

I was correct in my predictions. Going back to civilization befuddled me. It was much easier to slip back into the life of electricity, running water, choice of food and internet than it has been to readjust to village life.

I came back to the village of Ker Sait Maram with optimistic hopes of what I could get done. Pretty much at every turn I have been reminded of the difficulties and futility of achieving my charitably defined goals. First day back at school and only one teacher was present, scuppering any hopes I had of implementing a more rigorous timetable and getting all the staff on the same page. The elusive headteacher did finally show up on the second day of term – he arrived in the afternoon and promptly went straight for a nap bursting any misconceptions that I had that all the school needed was a headteacher.

Second day of school and the school’s reputation within the community was badly damaged. The previous day we had received a call from the regional education office telling us to gather as many people as possible for a UNICEF sponsored enrollment meeting at 9am. We sent the word out only to hear back from the regional office later that night that the meeting would actually be at noon now. There was no way to tell people of this change before 9am the next day – whilst mobile phones are ubiquitous here they are unreliable, signal is sporadic, keeping them charged is a challenge and having credit to call people is not always a sure thing. So we had around 15-20 parents show up at 9am for the meeting , only to be told that nothing would be happening until noon. The school still had only two class teachers, the meek headteacher and myself. The parents looked on curiously at the institutionalized chaos they sent their children to everyday. Noon came and more people wandered into the school. Still no sign of any enrollment initiative, UNICEF sponsored or otherwise. It got to 1 o’clock and I finally got through to someone at the office who assured me that the vehicle with the people for the meeting would be there in half an hour. Of course it got to 2 o ‘clock and there was still no one there, some people had been now waiting for 5 hours, time they could have spent farming, building, working. I pushed for us to start the meeting without our esteemed tardy hosts and gathered everyone in a classroom and began a productive meeting of what people wanted the school to improve on and how we could convince more people to send their children to school. 2:45 and the white Toyota Landcruiser swings into the school yard with a man enthusiastically beating a drum sat astride it. The regional honchos poured out and looked somewhat shocked that they were not being greeted with more adulation. Many of the parents had begun to filter away from the school by now – they were going to pray, to eat lunch and get on with their lives after this inconsequential waste of their times.

The head honcho, a thick set man in crisp white shirt and dark glasses, strode into the headmasters office. I followed him in to find him getting straight to the important matter of signing in the visitor’s book. No apologies to anyone about wasting their days, no proposals for what we could do now. The most important thing was clearly that the visit get recorded. The stench of bureaucracy curdled in me. I greeted him and exchanged veiled pleasantries. He addressed me as ‘old chap’. I inquired why they were late. He said their previous meeting had overrun. I have been to enough Gambian meetings to now realise that running late is an unavoidable inevitability. I wondered aloud if there is anything that we could do next time a meeting is called so we don’t annoy all the people we invite. He placed a hand on my shoulder and told me those dreaded words “This Is Gambia” and shrugged. I replied that even in The Gambia the lateness of him and his party was considered rude, as could be told by the scowling faces of the people who had been here since 9am. I said that I understand that unexpected delays happen in this country. I proposed that you can work within those circumstances and try and mitigate the damage. I asked if he or any of the other passengers in the Landcruiser had a phone. He seemed offended, retorting that of course he had a phone. I said that maybe next time we have a meeting we need to improve the communication. At this he revealed his trump card “I am not involved in communication, that is someone else’s job”. I asked whose job it was. Someone in the office, the reply. I said that perhaps the people travelling need to be more involved in communication as they are the only ones who have the information about whether everything is running on schedule.

I bandied around a few more suggestions to how we could mitigate against something like this happening again. He poo-pooed them all. I suggested that today had probably hurt enrollment rather than helped it. He seemed unperturbed by this. We somehow got onto the purpose of education. He quoted Plato saying that education was about teaching people to conform to society’s standards. I retorted that old Greek men said a lot of stupid things. I called his logic flawed. He exploded. “You have insulted me very seriously. You cannot say my logic is flawed.” I squeezed in apology after apology trying to defuse the situation. But he was riling himself up; he broke into a shouting mantra of “I don’t give a shit what you think. I don’t give a shit what you think. I don’t give a shit what you think.”

I hadn’t experienced confrontation in a long time. I welled up. I blubbered. I walked away to him shouting after me. I satisfyingly punched a mud hut wall, whilst the teachers and parents looked on incredulous at this altercation.

I called my boss at Peace Corps to explain the situation. I couldn’t speak. This experience had breached my emotional dam and six months of frustrations frothed in tears and mucus. I walked back through the village, eyes streaming, breath gasping. Embarrassing.

My memory of this is very subjective. I probably brought it on myself. I was being confrontational. I was being condescending. He was an elder. He was in a high powered job. You don’t speak to high ranking elders like that in The Gambia. But I was angry. Angry at all these peoples times being wasted. Angry at the lack of responsibility. Angry at the regard the regional office people held the lives and time of what they considered mere village people. Angry that I hadn’t eaten anything for 7 hours.

Later in the day I felt slightly vindicated in my position. I went to apologise to people in the village. They wouldn’t have it. They told me that the man, the boss man, he was not a good man. He was very not a good man. I should have hit him, one man told me.

I spoke to the teachers and they seemed appreciative that I had challenged the man. One teacher told me he never shakes this man’s hand – a great indicator of the regard he holds him in.

Whilst feeling vindicated I was rattled. I don’t want to open myself up to these situations. I don’t want to fight these battles exposing my frail mental state. I don’t want to be paternalistic, confrontation, condescending, colonial toobab who comes around berating the injustices of an alien culture. I can’t win these battles. I’m not here to conquer minds. I’m not here to fight but I’m not here to conform. I’m not here to be revolutionary but I’m not here to be reactionary. There is not way through these contradictions.

‘All domination involves invasion – at times physical and overt, at times camouflaged, with the invader assuming the role of a helping friend.’

Paulo Friere – Pedagogy of the Oppressed

‘The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding.

Albert Camus – The Plague

‘Charity creates a multitude of sins.’

Oscar Wilde – The Soul of Man Under Socialism


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