Sunday, April 22, 2012

Things Fall Apart

 Let me start by saying - "don't fear" - as they say here in Uganda!  This isn't going to be a bummer of a blog post!  Things aren't falling apart for us here in Uganda!  But I recently finished reading Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe with some of my students and wanted to tell you about it!

Things Fall Apart was one of the books we chose to read with the book clubs that we began this term.  It was one of the two clubs that actually survived the entire term, and although only seven students were involved we had a wonderful time reading, discussing and sharing ideas!

The basic story told in Things Fall Apart is about a village leader of a tribe in Nigeria, the culture of the people there, and the things that happened to him that ultimately led to his demise (no big surprise there, I hope, given the title!).  The book was written in 1959, and tells stories both about the village and the coming of missionaries to the region.  (apologetic note: for the literary folks out there, I realize that I have just grossly oversimplified one of the most famous pieces of African literature, but you'll have to forgive me)  Although I wasn't sure if the reading level would be appropriate for the students here, I thought it would be neat to read an African author with them.  That, and the fact that the library had about 30 copies, was the reason that the eight of us embarked on one of the most famous novels to come out of Africa in the mid 20th century.

Crazy chocolate cake and a good book!
Let me first say, I didn't love the book.  But, I loved loved LOVED what came out of reading the book with seven of our students here.  They thought it made perfect sense while I was confused, they found parts hilarious that I completely overlooked, they related to the stories and characters in ways that I never could!  Over the course of the last eight weeks, I watched them completely come out of their shells!  What began as timid and tentative more or less question and answer session truly became discussion somewhere near part 2 of the story!  By the end, there were even some heated arguments and strong opinions on some of (what I think are) the book's major themes - colonialism/missionaries, male/female relationships, the clash of modernization and new ideas in a traditional society, the role of individuals and dissenting ideas in a tribal culture, etc.  Reading the book together also gave us the chance to talk about English vocabulary that was brand new to them, and gave me a chance to practice some of the things I learned in my literacy classes during grad school (thanks Hamline) and the intentional focus my last job had on promoting literacy (thanks Harding)!

page corner bookmarks for each kid!

Last Wednesday I had all the students from the club over to my place for our final meeting and discussion of the end of the book.  I made them my gradma's recipe for "crazy chocolate cake" and make each of them a book mark with their name on it.  They were in the midst of studying for exams, so I didn't expect them to stay long.  But we got to talking and before I knew it we had spent over an hour eating cake and discussing the demise of Okonkwo.  As I sat back and watched them discussing (and at points arguing), I thought to myself - this is it!  Sucess!!!

Although it might not seem like a huge deal, the club feels like a big success for a few unique reasons.  One is that there is absolutely no culture of reading here.  In fact, out of the seven students involved in the club, not a single one had ever read a book before on their own outside of school.  One girl even described how she used to see books that looked big and thought she'd never be able to read one, but now that she has finished this book she knows that she can.  All of the students loved this book, and successfully starting, finishing, and understanding it gave them a huge boost of confidence and a new interest in reading.

Another reason this just feels huge, is that discussion isn't really encouraged here.  Despite the fact that teachers know in theory that discussion is good, in Uganda there tends to always be a right and wrong answer (and the wrong answer almost always leads to some level of humiliation for the unfortunate pupil who put it out there).  It's a test focused culture, and creative thought is really, really not valued.  Young people aren't valued for having a different view, and most aren't willing to offer up their ideas on anything for fear of making a mistake.  For example, during one of the first meetings of the club, two of the students had a small disagreement about a character's motivation for doing something.  It wasn't explicitly spelled out in the book, and it was really anyone's guess as to why the character did what they did.  But, in the middle of the discussion, one of the girls turned to me, exasperated, and said, "but MADAM!  Tell us the answer!!!"  I tried to explain that there isn't a right answer this time - that part of the joy of reading is putting yourself in the shoes of the character and forming your own ideas.  Yet, 8 weeks later, nobody felt the need to "but MADAM" me - they were all more than content to argue out their perspectives and really stand up for the ideas they had about the novels content.  This, to me, is big!  Not only having the comprehension to form an opinion about the book, but having the confidence to defend their idea, even as they consider the ideas of their fellow group members - a big deal for Ugandan students.

Next term we plan to read Chinua Achebe's followup novel, No Longer At Ease, and hope to see if we can't get a few more students excited about reading.  (The principal has made broad public statements that all 500 students should be involved, but we'll be satisfied with something in the middle!)  We also hope to have some times that the reading club members can bring children's books from the library to the primary school across the street and read aloud to them.  I'm excited by the enthusiasm of these seven, and really hope that we can see more good things come out of the book club in the terms to come!

In Peace Corps, we're always talking about sustainability.  So, I have to ask myself - will the book club continue next year when I'm back at home?  Probably not.  But, will at least seven students have a new passion for reading and a new confidence that they can do it?  I think so!  Through reading Things Fall Apart, I saw lots of "things coming together" for seven special kids!  Success!

Love and miss you all,

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

422 Days = Cautiously Optimistic

As I write this we have been in Uganda for 422 days, 1 hour, 55 minutes. The past year or so has been many things and until recently none of those things were busy. But as I speak I am sitting typing this blog during my third week of evening lab times, piloting a lab assistants program. Emily and I have been overwhelmed by all the initiatives and clubs we are trying to start that are actually working. We knew that if we were going to get clubs, and study session times off the ground we would have to do it this term. So, going into the latter half of Term 1 this year we find ourselves cautiously optimistic about the next year!

The Primary Teachers’ College schedule is hard to navigate for anyone; much less overly excited Peace Corps Volunteers. Therefore, we kept asking if we should start clubs now or wait, and the answer was always to “Start Now.” So we would try to start and fail because of any number of things, including slashing, games/sports, worship, school practice, impromptu school breaks, and many other things. So we thought that with a new school year and new students we would try out our ideas. So, during the orientation week with 1st years we plugged so many things it sort of felt like we were introducing a new club everyday.

We have started about 5 book clubs, 3 of which have been successful. Emily has started a Girl’s Life Skills group, where she has so far covered HIV/AIDS, Reproductive Health, and other important life skills. She has also started back up her math help time in the evenings. And I have started a Computer club made up of about 16 students who will be helping in the computer lab during class time and evening sessions. In addition I have been co-teaching this term and it has been really rewarding. The coming year will definitely be busy if these things continue and grow when the second years come back.

As we look ahead to the coming year we are cautiously optimistic about more than just our work at the PTC. We are optimistic that our original VSLA and second one started recently with staff at the PTC will be successful and no problems will arise. We are optimistic that relationships that we have built in our first year at site will continue to flourish and open new doors in discussing culture with our Ugandan neighbors. We are optimistic that our garden will continue to thrive as we transition back into a dry season in about a month. We are optimistic that our bikes will be able to be ridden multiple times. Our time in Uganda is going great but as with most peoples Peace Corps experience we are optimistic that the next year will fly by and we will be returning to 819 Edmund before we know it.

We are so excited to have so many extra things this coming year too. In May my parents will be here for a couple of weeks to get the full Uganda Peace Corps experience (well maybe not the full one). Then in June Emily’s mom is going to be visiting us again as she travels to Kenya to teach at the theological seminary there. Then we are super excited about a trip we just planned to Italy, France, and Spain in August. It will be our first time out of Africa since we arrived, our first time in that part of Europe, and my first time in Europe at all. It is a once in a lifetime trip, and it will feel exponentially (Can you tell I was just doing my college algebra homework online?) more rewarding and lavish coming from Uganda. Then finally in December/January we will get to visit America, and see what has changed before we come back for good. Those are all the things that are happening for sure, in addition to a few more possibilities in the works. So far it seems that our school time will be busy, and our breaks will be just as busy. We hope those things combined will make my cautious optimism about the next year flying by a reality.

Our first year at site has been so rewarding in so many ways, and makes me excited for what year two will offer. In the next couple of weeks we have to say good-bye to some of our better Peace Corps friends from the area, Jean and Hayley. Jean has been practically our next-door neighbor for the last year, and we can’t believe that our year with her is over. We have shared so many experiences with one another, and we will miss seeing her multiple times a week. Our Peace Corps friends are such a valuable support to us, and we will miss those who are leaving. The first year at site would also not have been possible without the support of our family and friends at home. I say this while eating Starburst Jelly Beans sent in one of many care packages that our family at home has sent us. We can not describe all the ways that the support of family and friends at home has helped us get through hard times and also allowed us to share victories.

Well with that all said we cannot wait to continue to share the next 365 or so days with ya! We will try to make sure that we keep you updated on our blog/vlogs, and by talking to you all. We hope that everyone had a great Easter weekend!

We love and miss ya,

Ryan KJ