Saturday, 23 November 2013

Children of Africa

With many of the older generations being illiterate, having never had the opportunity to go to school, it is hard for the younger generations to gain support in their homes with school work and is more obvious in rural African villages.

When I arrived in Africa it was interesting to witness children who had limited concentration skills, lacked listening skills and didn’t know what phonics was, couldn't read or write no IT skills, hadn't played a board game and had never had a story read to them. A beautiful ebony skinned talented seven year little girl presented me with her journal filled with wonderful drawings depicting her life with friends in Africa. Although this little one was a talented artist she was not proficient in literacy or math; we spent many hours together “reading” her drawings and her telling me in depth stories about her childhood through her pencil drawings. Asking open ended questions of her work, her imagination ran riot and I had a hard time ending these wonderful stories spewing from her mouth for hours on end.

When I sat down to spend time with each little doe eyed child, they were so active and willing to learn. They wanted and craved one to one attention and fought to be up close to me; it was often claustrophobic. Every piece of learning I offered was sucked up and their appetites could not be sated. Like the traditional American Indian Storyteller, I was clambered over constantly and suffocated with excited children craving to get more of me and my was an exhaustive pleasure to work with these little people. My lap was full to overflowing. If they heard I was not appearing for a day or so sad whispers, cries and sighs echoed after my departure and if they heard I was returning tomorrow, hurrahs, laughter and whoops resounded as I entered the room and no minute of the day was my own.

One handsome little boy of five years took a shine to me and wanted my total attention. For the first time in his short life he found learning and began responding to his homework and suddenly began to enjoy engaging with books and conversations positively. He couldn't read or write when I arrived, nor could he count or sound letters, he knew no colours and his family spent little time giving him support. Living with his grandparents who were illiterate and spoke limited English, it was almost impossible to complete his school and homework. His family were aware and saddened they could not help and did their very best but with no schooling themselves it was nigh on impossible. By the time I left he could write his letters and numbers, had begun to sound his letters and had a hunger to learn and asked for a story every day. It had been a pleasure to get to know this boy and to be able to see him develop.

The classrooms were old fashioned, basic and tired in decor. Often run down and shabby but teachers did their best and at least there was school. Teacher training was an issue, very limited and EYFS here, no safeguarding, no behaviour or social networking policies and discipline was antiquated and harsh....let's just say we would not be allowed to practice it and I was extremely uncomfortable with their methods and thinking. So embedded in their culture, way of life and upbringing, the teachers had no understanding of my concerns. Indoctrinated by spiritualism and often the witch doctors they had entrenched beliefs that to us Westerners are wild and weird. In class they sat in formal rows behind old fashioned wooden lift top desks with ink wells, facing a traditional large grey blackboard, that desperately needed blackening. No interactive white boards, PC's or laptops in these classrooms and limited paper and pencils, fascinating to say the least. My large array of paper, colouring pencils, story and exercise books, that I had carried in my suitcase, did not stretch very far but for those children it did reach, it was appreciated and thoroughly enjoyed.

In rural schools the same meal is delivered every day, beans and rice, rice and beans and sometimes egosi may be thrown in for good measure. Children eat because they have to eat, it maybe all they get that day. Phenomenally, they all had mobiles, but often nothing else and were out of proportionally addicted to all the latest technology. Materialism was part of the mind set and culture in many ways. Few clothes, no school books, no reading books, limited food and money but always the current technology.

School uniforms were curious too; often brightly coloured, the girls wore oversized calf length dresses, with white starched "peter pan" collars, thick ankle socks and chunky badly fitting second hand shoes and carried traditionally shaped brown leather satchels. The boys wore brightly coloured oversized knee length shorts, stiff starched white shirts, ankle socks, chunky trainers and carried the same satchels as the girls. In their masses these brightly clad children walked, sometimes for miles, to and from school each morning and evening in the blistering heat only to begin housework and washing when they arrived home. Uniforms were washed each day, by hand on a ridged wash board over a metal pail, and hung to dry on ropes on patios; shopping, cooking and cleaning had to be completed and the children were expected to assist. If there was a few minutes to play, they played in the dusty crater filled streets and gutters with handmade cars and trucks recycled from trash while rusty scooters, cars, trucks and buses wove their way around them.

Every evening I had a hard time dragging myself away from these gorgeous little ones; their little faces with wide eyes said it all, “please stay, don’t go; don’t leave us.” They never wanted me to leave and I often did not want to go but I was usually exhausted by the end of the day from the intense pressure to continually sate the learning appetite of these under nourished brains, the constant mauling of my body and calling of "miss" all day. If the only thing I had done was to stimulate the passion for books and learning then my mission was accomplished.
I lived many miles from where I was teaching and the traffic was heavy and slow, the electricity was non-existent, water was in short supply, no washer or dryer, antiquated air conditioning units, corruption all around me and the pressure of constantly being asked for money or a “dash” was draining. Everything about living in this part of Africa was hard work and exhausting. No one could be trusted and so called friends hung around me because I was white and rich…or so they believed. Everywhere I went I had to be accompanied by a body guard to ensure my safety, that was exhausting in itself; I could never go out alone or with a girlfriend. Even the police could not be trusted. There was a constant fear of kidnapping.

At the end of my day I was driven back to my very basic hotel room; I doused myself down with cold water in my make shift shower, hand washed my clothes and hung them to dry and retired for some well-earned rest to recharge my body and brain for another day. I snuggled down with my book and a good strong cuppa before the electricity was pulled and darkness obliterated all sense of meaning and I retreated into the land of nod. What seemed like only a few hours later I was woken, at 5.00am, to the sound of wails calling the locals to prayer, one hundred percent humidity and bitten to bits by mosquitoes and sand fly? And so starts another teaching day in Africa.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

The Arabian Beauty Salon

Other than the large hotels mostly set on the beach and the odd excursion to one of the major cities, there is very little to do in for expat teachers in rural Arabia. Once you have experienced the glamour and glitz there is little else to do week after week. As westerners we had to be very careful to abide by the local rules and laws and also careful not to offend, so our western way of life had to be carried out in the lounges of such hotels and more or less from behind closed doors. This is the only place we could eat, drink and be very merry, so for four very English teachers, Sunday afternoon visiting the local beauty salon to have a manicure or pedicure was a treat and a half and believe it or not…a big event.

We loved this outing every Sunday, apart from the fact that we ended the afternoon with beautiful nails and toes; we also loved it because we were able to experience a vision and flavour of the Arabic women’s world that we could not watch anywhere else. We were able to surreptitiously get inside their world and be part of the intimacy of Arabic women and experience the harem clique and striking atmosphere. As western women we were not supposed to become close to the local women in case we influenced them in some negative manner. Some of us had, over the months, made close friends with local women only to find, sadly, the relationship died a very quick death once their men folk became aware of the relationships, consequently the women back peddled and didn’t turn up for coffee again. Sadly, we never made friends with an Arabic woman.

The beauticians are, generally, young Pilipino women who have left their families in their home countries and travelled to the Middle East to make a better life for themselves and their extended family. We got to know many of these Pilipino beauticians and were privileged to have many deep and difficult conversations with them over the years spent working in this rural town. One extremely young beautician shared her very sad story with us whilst filing and shaping our finger and toe nails. She had not seen her two year old baby for two years and missed him terribly; she just worked long hours and sent most of her money home in order to help take care of her son and give him the life she felt she never had. Quietly shaping she shed quiet tears.

The beauty salon we attended was large and must have employed over twenty of these young girls who were all supplied with very basic accommodation and employed by a wealthy Arabic madam. The girls would shed a few tears reciting their life stories to us and were so grateful that someone listened with empathy and compassion. The girls looked forward to our visit and made us very comfortable and welcome and over time we all became good friends.

Sunday afternoon at the salon was amazing for many reasons including outlandish expanses of mirrors, leather and crystal but watching the Arabic women paint themselves from head to toe for weddings, parties, dinners and just to please their men folk was an incredible sight and privilege. Kohl eyeliner, bright eye shadow, vivid lipsticks, hair extensions, dyes, gel nails and jejazzles were everywhere, not to mention frills, petticoats, sashes, stilettoes, beads and bustles bedazzling us. We sat surveying this exotic opera for hours as they paraded back and forth in front of us. No expense was spared and the adornments glittered and sparkled bright enough to blind any spectator watching this spectacle.

Four very English teachers sat, hands splayed, with our Pilipino friends busying away at making our nails gorgeous while we were entertained by these amazingly beautiful women and young girls in their magnificent makeup and attire. Sunday afternoons transformed the salon into a local meeting place for chatter and gossip, laughter and tears, playfulness and teasing; a tranquil setting for Arabic women to come together safely and allow their reticence and restraints to be shed for a short while, and bare their hearts and souls in a culture where this is hard to ensue. Thankfully, for us very English educators, we were fortunate and blessed to be able to witness this beautiful pastime and be a small part of it too.

Waiting for our manicures to dry, we sipped sweet black Arabic tea from crystal clear miniature mugs; it was a pleasure.