I never write about work. I suppose that writing is a kind of thoughtful vacation for me, and I spend too much time already stressing and obsessing about the details of the work I do in Ndiago to want to carry that over into the relaxing pensiveness of writing for this blog. But today is a little different.
This entry almost didn't happen. I was trying to get to the village this morning, but since Tabaski, a big old Muslim holiday, is just a couple of days away, about a bazillion people are traveling now and I missed my morning car to Guinguineo. I've been here too long to be frustrated by the workings and non-working of public transit, so I returned to the regional house and got back to work. I'll give it another shot in the afternoon.
Anyway, some variant of what I've written below might find its way into a grant request, so there's more background information here than you'll want if you read this blog a lot (weirdo) or if you talk to me regularly on the phone.
Here we go. The Ndiago Library Project.
Ndiago is a small village in the Kaolack region, 7 kilometers from Guinguineo. It is home to about 300 men, women, and children. Like most people living in rural areas in Kaolack, the villagers are primarily farmers living just above the subsistence level. Everyone farms, but some families have enough money to run small businesses as well. One woman sells soaps, another peddles lightly-used clothing and fabrics, and a couple of the wealthiest families have even established small boutiques, stores that sell very basic supplies such as powdered milk, cooking oil, eggs, and small sweet candies.
Another sign of the slight prosperity of Ndiago is the presence of the schools. The village is the Communite Rurale, the Senegalese version of the county seat, so we have the area's main schools. Together, these three small schools serve children roughly between the ages of 5 and eighteen. Kids attend from Ndiago and many of the surrounding vilages, including Sakhagne, where my neighbor PCV Andrew Oberstadt lives and works. Formal education is very highly valued in Ndiago and the surrounding area, and families will save and sacrifice to pay the enrollment fees and to purchase chalk, pencils, and notebooks for their young students. When a child receives a certificate of promotion to the next grade level, the mothers will proudly display the prized sheet of paper on the otherwise barren walls of their huts.
The experience of earning an education in Senegal is completely different from what my school life was like in the States. My parents never reluctantly pulled me out of class for a week because they needed my help bringing in the last of the peanut crop. I went to a series of good schools and was lucky to meet so many gifted and passionate teachers. Year after year, my teachers were thoughtful, excited about their work, and endlessly devoted to instilling a love of learning in me and my classmates. And when we graduated from college, some of the best and most intelligent people I know chose to become teachers. No surprise there, with the role models we had. We also never suffered from a crippling lack of school supplies. Back-to-school shopping was a yearly ritual, and maybe the only type of shopping I ever enjoyed. We had computers and educational software and endless supplies of pencils, binders, erasers, a million other things. Many of the administrator’s offices at my high school had bowls of M&Ms ready for casual visits by students.
And then, of course, we had books. We had school libraries and city libraries full of books on every subject imaginable, and since I grew up in Los Angeles, those books came in many different languages. I am a child of parents who love the written word, and so my love of reading came upon me early. I might be one of the only American 24 year-olds left who would prefer an hour with a book to an hour with the Internet.
When I got to Senegal, I quickly noticed that people here do not read for fun. Cramped into a ball on Senegalese public transit, barreling down horrific roads full of pot-holes and squished between smelly, coughing adults and screaming, puking infants, dodging the streams of goat urine trickling down from the roof of the decrepit vehicle (those goats up there must be terrified, they way they bleat and carry on), I pull out a book. In the 22 months I have lived here, I’ve never seen any Senegalese person even carrying a book around like that.
That’s one problem. But it’s not really what I’m concerned with. What makes me sad is that the students of Ndiago don’t have access to books. The only authority they have on any subject is their teachers. Sure, they can ask their parents questions, but their parents probably received even less of a basic education than they’re getting. There’s no Internet here, no textbooks that the kids have easy access to, no Encyclopedias, no dictionaries, nothing. Teachers write out a passage in French on the board, students copy it down and memorize it. No children in the village hear French spoken at home, very few adults understand it, and so it’s tough to imagine how the students could comprehend much of what they “learn.”
School opened back up recently, after the long rainy season break. The kids, even ones as young as 5 and 6, have been working in the fields with their parents and older siblings for months. Now, they return to the classrooms. They return to overcrowded rooms, to a lack of basic supplies, to teachers who are angry and frustrated and who sometimes go on strike because they haven’t been paid by the Senegalese government.
It’s tough to be very excited about these prospects, but this year, I am. The teachers at the primary school approached me with a plan. We are rehabilitating a large empty building on campus and turning it into a library, for the use of all the children in Ndiago and the surrounding communities. We are also going to incorporate time for reading and a basic literacy program into the curriculum. I can’t imagine a project that could be as rewarding to the community and as gratifying to myself, given the importance of education in Senegal and the deep love I have of reading.
Right now, we’re taking the preliminary steps. The village leadership has invited a mason to come evaluate the old classroom this weekend, so that we will know if we can fix up the space or if we should consider building a new one. I will soon be looking for some funding to build bookshelves and bring in seating and tables and perhaps electric lighting for the library building. And then, of course, we’re looking for books. Many organizations who specialize in sending lightly-used books to the developing world exist, so I’m not too worried. We’re looking primarily for books in French, since students don’t begin to learn English until a very late time in their schooling when many have already stopped attending. I’m talking with all the teachers about how they can incorporate more literacy and reading comprehension in their students’ days. All in all, there’s a lot of work to be done, and everyone involved is excited to get to it.
I’m also excited because this is a project that I can invite my friends and family back home to help me with. I might be doing some fundraising myself for the project instead of writing a grant, and of course at some point I might ask for donations of books. In another way, I’ve already received a lot of help from home. My parents and every teacher who ever put a book in my hands are all a little responsible for the fact that I’m undertaking this project so happily. Thank you to all of you.
Anyway, time for lunch and a second shot at getting out of here, back to Ndiago. Happy Thanksgiving.
Love and guts,