Sunday, March 21, 2010

University Graffiti

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.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Music makes my heart sing

I first bought one of Baaba Maal's albums in Paris in 1999 because I was intrigued by the cover. I listened to it a million times and then tried to find more of his recordings. I have listened to his music endlessly since then. When I moved to Brooklyn in 2005, I coincidently moved to a neighborhood with a large West African community. 

When I went to the Baaba Maal concert in New York by myself, I was surprised to see so many of my neighbors at the show. At the concert we all became very good friends and they helped me finally start volunteering in the neighborhood, which I had unsucessfully tried to do many times. This eventually led me to want to come to Mauritania four years later. And again, I went to the Baaba Maal concert alone and, just like last time, I found many friends there to remind me that I am never alone in my love of Baaba Maal!

I have seen his concerts in the U.S. many times but none of those have compared to the brilliance of his two concerts this weekend in Nouakchott. For the first time, I was seeing Baaba Maal perform for an audience where the majority of people shared his same culture and language. He was preceded on stage by a line of young girls dressed in traditional clothing and carrying gifts. They were stunningly beautiful.

Baaba Maal addressed the audience in Pulaar and spoke passionately about African unity and the strength of the Fula diaspora. Baaba Maal knows that his message has a lot of influence for positive change and he uses his voice to advocate for the marginalized and disenfranchised and for building a better world. 

I was the most surprised when one of the drummers called my name and asked me to come to the stage, at which point he introduced me to everyone and handed me the microphone. Baaba Maal put his arm around me and just when I thought it couldn't get any better, he started singing his song "Deliya"! It was unforgettable. 

I have many friends in New York and Senegal to thank for that moment. They made sure that I would enjoy the concert more than anyone else in the world. 

On both evenings, Baaba Maal's powerful voice filled the entire room and awakened the hearts of everyone present. During the final song, the young girls returned to the stage to dance. It was a perfect end to a perfect evening.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Military Doctor

Every day I walk past many men carrying guns. It is part of life in Africa. Men with guns guard the banks, government buildings, and other important places. Each day I see the same men and I started greeting them, even though they don't usually respond with more than a nod. 

One day I saw one of the soldiers walking toward me down the street with his hand on his head and a pained expression on his face. When I asked him what was wrong, he said that he had a terrible headache. Then he told me his shift wouldn't be finished for ten more hours. I happened to have some ibuprofen with me so I asked him if he wanted some medicine for headaches. I briefly explained a few of the potential risks of taking it. He eagerly accepted the pills and smiled a half smile in appreciation. 

I forgot about that incident completely until two months later when another soldier stopped me on the street as I was walking by, saying, "Excuse me, Madame." When I turned in his direction, he opened his mouth wide and pointed to a tooth, stating, "It hurts when I chew." I explained to him that I was not a doctor and that he needs to see a dentist to figure out the problem. I also told him to go to the pharmacy and buy some ibuprofen and he asked me to write down the name for him. I carefully wrote the letters on a piece of paper he produced from his pocket.

As I turned to leave, another soldier stopped me and began to roll up his pant leg. He pointed to his shin and said, "It hurts when I run." Again, I explained that I am an English teacher and not a doctor. I then told him to make sure he warms up well before running! At that point, I could no longer hold back the laughter and everyone soon joined in.

Now when I pass the soldiers I get many smiles and greetings, and of course, reports of good health!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Little Delia

Last week I met a little girl named Delia. 

Next Tuesday, she will be eight years old. Delia lives at the orphanage in Nouakchott. She is cared for by a wonderful woman who opened her house to all of the city's unwanted children. She raises the children as her own and they have become part of her large family. 

There are currently about twenty children living in her house. She began caring for all of them when they were babies. They all arrived in various ways, from people calling to tell her about a baby abandoned in the garbage, to her daughter finding a baby in her car at the end of the day. Everyone knows that all children will be well taken care of in her care. 

She created a school for the children and they all grow up as brothers and sisters in a happy and loving environment. I love all of the children equally but of course I have a special place in my heart for little Delia. I will never show it because I want to give the same amount of affection to all of the children. 

I feel so lucky to be able to spend time with the incredible woman who has sacrificed everything to care for these forgotten children. With no institutional funding, she relies on the generosity of individuals. I want to surround myself with passionate people who stand up for what they believe in. I know I have already found that in this amazing house. I have already decided to spend as much time there as possible and help as much as I can during my time here.