I finished teaching at the University of Nouakchott last week. On my last day on campus, I saw this graffiti on the wall outside of the classroom where I taught. It made me laugh and also realize that I would miss seeing so many students every week.
Last fall, I decided to teach one class at the large university, in addition to my main role of teaching at the small teacher training college. There are very few trained teachers who are native speakers living in Nouakchott and I knew the university needed a lot of additional support. I offered to teach one section of an intensive speaking class, which divided one class of students into three small groups.
On my first day of class, there were 77 students packed into the room. There were four students sitting on each bench.
Each week, I had to bring my own chalk and eraser. I ordered a copy of the book I used in class from the U.S. and I utilized every creative means I could think of to make the class engaging and participatory. Using markers and white paper, students created their own visual aids and conversation starters. My portable speaker provided opportunities for listening to music and speeches.
I always felt bad for the students who had to strain their eyes to read the writing on the board, especially those crammed into the back of the room. The chalk barely made marks on the board because it was so worn from use. I wished I had black chalk. I suspected it would make a better mark than the white.
I wish I could have done much better but with such limited equipment, I still worked hard to design an interactive class. I was also disappointed by many of the students, who came to class late, distracted, or didn't come at all. I gave the final exam to 102 students, many of whom were new faces who had never bothered coming to one class during the twelve-week course.
There were stars in the group who excelled despite all of the confusion and difficulties. Thirteen students never missed a single class and many others demonstrated an enthusiasm and passion for learning that made teaching the classes very rewarding.
Overall, I was dismayed by the mountain of challenges placed on the shoulders of administration, students, and professors. It was clear to me that university simply didn't have the capacity to meet the needs of the more than 8,000 students enrolled in the institution.
The administrators are overwhelmed with the enormous amount of logistics required. There are not enough rooms or equipment. The classrooms designed for 200 are overflowing with 500 students. The professors are underpaid. The students struggle to stay on track with their coursework and make ends meet. Although tuition is free, students still need to pay for food, transportation and lodging. These expenses are cost prohibitive for many students whose parents do not have the financial means to support them.
Although my class is finished, I have not forgotten the lessons I learned and the people I met. I wonder how other institutions throughout Africa manage to overcome these same obstacles. I wish everyone success in rising to meet the demands of these ever-increasing challenges. I will continue to search for solutions.