She walks here barefoot every day, sometimes wearing a little shift of a dress, and sometimes, inexplicably, wearing a knit sweater over it. Her name is Rama and she just watches. When I make eye contact, she’ll raise her eyebrows and give me a small smile. Her name reminds me of one of my favorite yoga mantras, so I’ll chant to her sometimes, “Sitta Ram, Sitta Ram, Sitta Ram Ram Ram.” She sings back, “Sitta Libby, Sitta Libby, Sitta Libby Libby Libby.”
The children here respond wonderfully to the language and movement classes I’ve begun. The classes are so popular, in fact, that they grow even from the moment they start, with curious children walking up and taking their seat in the back row.
Literacy is not strong here in Africa. Schooling is not mandatory and the cost of uniforms and supplies is often too much for families to send all of their children to school. It is not unusual for a much older student to be in grade school, having finally found the opportunity to go long past the age of most of his peers. A teacher friend of mine tells of many high school students in their twenties who, shy about the age difference, lie and say they are in their teens.
While Soso is the language most Guineans speak at home, schooling is done in French. Thus, the children in school are able to read and write in French. School supplies vary in availability and quality, with many students using papers stapled together as their notebooks. It appears that for every student in school, there are between 3-4 working in the market or playing at home.
The language and movement class I began offering is designed to hop over the imposed limitation of illiteracy. As few of the students have the skills or supplies to copy down a list of vocabulary and then commit it to memory, we use muscle memory to imprint the meaning of the words. A grand gesture of the arms over the head is associated with one word, while we spread our arms out to the side to indicate another. Working slowly and repetitively, we’re able to string words together into sentences.
The classes are disorganized, as most things in Africa appear to be. I have a core group of students who are there every class, children of the family who have offered me space and a blackboard to use to teach. Other children drift in and out of the lessons. One day, a group of visiting women wanted to greet me, so walked right through the class to have a conversation in front of the black board. I politely but firmly showed them a more appropriate place to speak. The only rule I’ve made for the classes is no babies. Because many older children are in charge of younger ones, it’s not uncommon for a child to walk up with his or her very young sibling, who then does what babies do – play loudly or begin crying or running around. While some students are easily distracted by the flow of life and noise around them, others are studious and attentive, sometimes even shooing away latecomers to class who are talking or playing too loudly.
A normal class
We’re currently studying time – past, present, and future, days of the week, months of the year, and the way the verb IS changes in relation to time. We’re also learning the alphabet – they love the alphabet song – and one vocabulary word for each letter. I leave my lessons up on the blackboard between classes so that the literate children can study. I’ve also asked that the literate children help teach the others when class is not in session. This helps cement the lesson in the minds of the teaching child and extends extra tutoring time to the other children.
It is a grand experiment and one that I’m enjoying the opportunity to create. I look forward to applying what I develop here and using it to teach children in the US language.