Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Oh, public school. You can be a cruel, cruel beast.


Very rarely I have a day which causes me to think, "if submitting my resignation to Peace Corps didn't involve a 10-hour bus ride to the capital, I would quit right now."   Today was, as one of the musical-loves-of-my-life James Taylor would say, "a day that you can't explain."  It started off well with a trip to the health center, where all the nurses and nurses' aides were gearing up to go out "en brousse" (to the bush) for the annual, nationwide meningitis vaccination campaign.  I decided to follow the team led by the new head nurse, Brice.  Our territory was EPP (Ecole Primaire Publique - Public Primary School) Gansosso, where all my neighbor kids go to school.  I have only ever spent time in high schools here, so seeing where the younger kids (supposedly) learn was a little shocking.  The class sizes of fifty students typically found at the high school level could be considered a luxury.  I spent about two and half hours in a classroom of five and six year olds and one teacher.  Guess how many of them there were - I dare you.  One hundred and three.  In one classroom. So that alone was discouraging, but then we started the vaccination paperwork (no parental consent involved, apparently).  Each child received a little yellow card filled out by both Brice and myself.  An alarming number of the children didn't know their last names or their ages.  It's funny the first time a kid of about six claims to be twenty, but after that you start to wonder how they're ever going to learn in this environment. If your child has a learning disability, you might as well just pull him out of school.
Now, there's many things I like about Benin, but sadly today involved two things I really cannot stand: corporal punishment and what often seems like a total lack of compassion.  You can imagine if there are 103 children in one room, someone's likely not behaving.  As such, the schoolmaster is constantly ready with a rubber whip in hand.  Or, as he did today, he might just tell a kid to beat the offender for him (a cop out if I ever saw one).  Witnessing the latter proved to be my breaking point.  Whether or not I should have done this, I don't know, but I told the teacher to come outside with me and explained that while I'm in the classroom, he's not going to hit the kids.  Either that, or he takes them outside because it's violence, and I don't want to see it.  I probably was really out of line, but I've tried for a year and a half to understand the concept behind teaching with intimidation, and just......no.  The teacher/headmaster guy wasn't super offended, I don't think, and was kind of like, "Whatever.  She's here for two hours.  I suppose we'll oblige her."  What I see as a lack of compassion came into play once the nurses began vaccinating.  Public service announcement to the team of nurses today: some kids are afraid of needles.  It's okay.  It doesn't mean they're weak and deserved to be ridiculed or, worse yet, slapped.  I don't even like most kids, but I also don't think they deserve public shaming for something they can't really control..  I've witnessed thousands of babies receive their shots here in Benin; I guarantee vaccinations are not given with the gentleness American parents would expect for their children.

Following all this was a trip to the high school to pick up some paperwork.  I try to avoid that area when school lets out because it's also next to two primary schools.  This translates to hundreds of kids spotting me and screaming, "batoure" (white person).  If you've read this blog, or I've talked to you at all about being here, you know how much I hate being called this.  I know it's not usually meant maliciously, but seriously kids.  If I tell you DAILY to call me "madam" instead of "batoure," you could maybe oblige me once in the twenty-seven months I'm here.  I'll say it again, I know it's not  meant meanly, but imagine if every single time you left your house, the neighborhood kids screamed "white person" at you.  It can be maddening.  I've tried every single approach that have worked for other volunteers, but I'm beginning to think that people just don't care enough to change.  Womp womp.

On the way home I spotted in bushes a dog sitting perfectly still with a frighteningly solid stare at something  in front of him and......what looked like slobber on his mouth.  I really, really hope we don't have a rabid dog in the neighborhood.   Maybe he was just pondering what to have for dinner.  But rest assured that in any case, I've received all the rabies pre-exposure vaccinations, GENTLY given by our Peace Corps Medical Officer.

Tomorrow's a new day, thank God.

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