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,

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