Friday, April 23, 2010

Crow Boy

Crow Boy is one of my favorite children's books. In the book, a small boy, Chibi, is ignored by his students and teachers for five years until he reaches the sixth grade and has a new teacher. His new teacher sees his potential and his hidden talents and brings out the best in Chibi, to the surprise of all of his classmates. 

When Chibi performs at his school's talent show he brings tears to the eyes of everyone in the room because his classmates feel terrible about how they treated him for so many years. Every time I reach this part of the book, I also find tears in my eyes, even if I am standing in front of a group of student teachers.

I chose to read this book to my students when they returned from their twelve-week student-teaching experience. My students only have one more month of classes and then they will be released into the world as English teachers. They will be sent all over the country in the Fall to begin their teaching careers! By reading this book, I wanted them to remember the difference that one teacher can make and also to be on the look out for future-Chibis.

After reading the book, my students wrote their first Haiku poems. Here are a few examples:

in a strange classroom
a lonely boy who loves crows
students laugh at him

a tiny small boy
who imitated crow sounds
a very bright boy

spends his time alone
a strange little lonely boy
sits under the tree

a nice boy walking
looking up and down in trees
to see birds and worms

very shy crow boy
little boy never missed class
crow boy loved flowers

I hope that when my students begin their careers, they are the kind of teachers who are able to bring out their students' hidden talents. I want this new generation of teachers to embrace all students equally with a message of acceptance and the conviction that every child can be successful in school, regardless of previous experiences. I believe that my students can change the world and I hope they believe it too. 

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Chickens and Goats

I love looking out of my window. Lately, I have been seeing a chicken crossing the road. He definitely seems to be a chicken on the move. Places to go, people to see! Today I took his picture. He is certainly a busy chicken! 


Moments earlier, I saw a group of goats playing King of the Hill. One goat kept the game going for a long time, until a human happen to pass by and they all ran away. I think it is one of their favorite past times. 

My friends at home always ask me about the wildlife I see in Mauritania. Everyone seems a little disappointed when I tell them that I see chickens, goats, donkeys, and camels. It might not sound exciting but I am content to share the city with them!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Weekends in Nouakchott

I love weekends. Even though I always have papers to grade and lessons to plan, I always find time to relax and take long sips of hot coffee. I also spend my time with friends, hanging out and getting caught up on all the news. 

Recently, I have added a new activity. I visit the local orphanage every week and spend time with all of the adorable children. So far, every activity that I have introduced has been met with enthusiasm. These little sweethearts are always ready to have fun!

They love to draw,

they love to play games,

but most of all, they love to dance!

The longer I live in Nouakchott, the more amazing and inspiring people I meet. I know that I will never get tired of visiting this center because the children are precious and they deserve to laugh and learn as much as possible!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Surrounded by Surrogates

Today I received a letter in the mail that contained the card from the funeral of my last surviving grandparent. My grandmother Jane passed away on March 13th. It was hard to grieve alone, far away from my family. It was difficult to bring myself to open this card, a month late, and read about an event I very much wish I could have attended. 

A few days after losing my grandma, I left Nouakchott to visit the families of friends from New York in the Fouta region. While sitting on the front steps of my friend's brother's house, someone passed me her phone. On the other line was a friend in NYC who said, "Please go see my mother. She lives next door." I went there immediately. Sitting on her porch, my friend's mother was very small and nearly blind. Yet she was alert and active, talkative and welcoming. My heart felt happier than it had felt for a long time, like it was finally healing, now that it found a temporary surrogate. I wanted to stay by her side for as long as possible. 

Unfortunately, we couldn't stay for long because it was already getting late. As I walked away from the house, I couldn't stop thinking about all of my friends in NYC and how hard it must be for them to live so far from their families, for such extended amounts of time. I wished more than anything that they could trade places with me on the porch, even for only a few minutes. Yet I know that that day might be a long time coming, due to finances and family responsibilities.

Visiting these villages also made me realize how much my friends are needed. The financial support they are providing to the entire communities is truly remarkable. They build the wells that everyone uses for their daily water supply and their monthly contributions provide support not only to their parents, wives, and children but also to their entire extended networks of families. In a small town, nearly every one is related in some way! 

This significant contribution to their communities comes at a high price: Living far from the people and places where they feel the strongest connections. After spending time in their villages, I realized the magnitude of these sacrifices on both sides of the ocean. Those living abroad are deeply appreciated, respected, and missed back at home. Their names are repeated every day and I am sure that my friends are among the first learn about all of the latest village news!!!

Before leaving the villages to return to Nouakchott, I wanted to hug each grandmother extra tight. I wanted to recite over and over to every grandfather stories about their children and how much they missed them and cared about them, just as I am sure my friends do with every phone conversation. 

I have said goodbye to one generation of my family. Now it is up to me to make the most of every day and to continue honoring the wisdom of the older generations. I am grateful for every day I get to spend with my friends' families, even if we share no common language. Just being close is enough! 

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Fouta Friends

I just returned from spending a week in Fouta, a region located on both sides of the Senegal River between Senegal and Mauritania. I only visited friends on the Mauritania side of the river, although it was just a skip away from the border.

This trip was the summation of a long time dream and remains at the heart of my decision to live in Mauritania.

This story did not begin here in Nouakchott. It started the day I accepted a job in New York City with a humanitarian organization in August 2005. While working in secondary schools throughout the city to raise awareness about global poverty issues in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, I also wanted to volunteer in my neighborhood of Brooklyn. I first tried the local branch of the public library, but after playing phone tag for a long time, I was rudely informed by the program coordinator that the library doesn’t have any volunteer opportunities with their ESL classes. Later, I found out that this person was in fact incorrect, but it was too late to enroll in the library’s mandatory volunteer training, which was only offered twice a year.

To make a long story short, after much hard work and many failed efforts, I was finally put into contact with a community association for West African immigrants located a few blocks from my house. I started volunteering the next night.

I was amazed by the low level of English of my students, who were men between the ages of 20- to 60-years-old. Many had never attended formal school and could not write in any language. Others had been in the U.S. for more than ten years and still could not hold a simple conversation in English. I struggled to get appropriate resources for my students, whose needs were hard to fill. I reached out to many other programs and agencies in the NYC area and it became more and more clear to me that this community was not being effectively reached by any other program in the city.

As my involvement in the community increased, so did my appreciation for the generosity and ingenuity of my students. I soon found myself volunteering nearly every night of the week. There seemed to be no limits of ideas and projects I wanted to implement but there was not enough time in the week. Despite a demanding full-time job, endless fun adventures to be had in the city, and an incredible group of inspiring friends, I rarely missed a class for nearly four years. With a strong sense of purpose, each evening at 8:30 pm I dropped everything to be there with my students.

As most of my students were Mauritanian, Senegalese and Guinean, I became fascinated by their stories of the countries they left behind and all of the reasons that led them to New York. Mauritania’s many coup d’├ętats and Guinea’s on-going political problems were passionately discussed after class each night. My students became my friends and I cherished spending time with them.

Many of my students returned home to their countries every few years to spend time with their families. After being home for three months, they returned back to classes, bringing with them  news and food from home. I also felt transported to another place when eating "mutoode," a small nut found in Fouta's semi-desert landscape, and watching videos of weddings in the village. These stories made me want to follow my friends, to visit their families and gain a deeper understanding of their lives at home. I knew that as long as I was in New York, I would only ever understand half of this remarkable story. 

My volunteer work with the Pulaar Speaking Association is what led me to apply for this program to train teachers in Mauritania. Not only do I have a passion for increasing teachers' skills and capacities, but I also love my friends from Mauritania and know that I have a tremendous amount to learn from them!

After six months of living in the capital city Nouakchott, I finally found the opportunity to visit the families of my NYC friends during my Spring Break from the training college. I was overwhelmed with happiness to able to see their houses, their children, their wives, their mothers, and their fathers. I was so touched to receive an enormous welcome at every door, share meals together, and sleep next to them under the stars.

This visit to Fouta was more wonderful than I could have ever imagined and more meaningful than any words can describe. I am incredibly grateful to everyone in NYC who sent me to greet their families and ensured that I would receive the world’s best hospitality during my stay. I am as certain as always that I have always received much more than I have given throughout my many years of volunteer work.