Getting Schooled in the Congo

Exactly 3 years ago I wrote about an idea to start a video pen-pal arrangement between a school in Congo and a school back home. A friend of mine took me up on it and today this vision is a reality! In fact if it weren’t for her optimism, patience, and clever ideas, it never would have happened. I’m indebted to her and her fifth-grade son who worked hard to make sure it did.

The idea is to email me a letter once a month or so that her son’s class has written, along with some photos. The letter will end with two questions for the Congo kids to answer. I’ll translate the letter into French, print everything out, and deliver the package to the school. The Congo kids will write a letter in reply, answering the questions and posing two more, and taking a few pictures as well. I’ll translate into English and email everything off to my friend.

At first I figured these packages would have to go through a liaison. In the past us ladies have sometimes had trouble getting permission to go beyond our pearly gates and out into the big bad world beyond. So I was thrilled to learn that the social department paved the way for me to go to the school myself, along with a coordinator. We went twice last week, what a treat! I always enjoy school visits so much; it’s refreshing to see these kids so eager to learn, and in conditions that back home we’d consider intolerable. (But they aren’t.) If they’d let me, I’d totally work there. Probably for free. I’d even gladly walk the 2 kilometers to get there — half the distance some of the kids walk each day to attend school.

This particular school is in really good condition, at least compared to others I’ve seen. (Like these photos from my post 3 years ago…) It was built in the 1970s and is large, clean, organized. Every child has a seat and a desk! That’s huge. The company’s social community fund has really helped improve conditions for most if not all the schools on the concession in recent years.

When my coordinator and I arrived, we met with the school administrators who were so incredibly welcoming, telling me several times how much they appreciate that my friend and I want to do this and how excited the children are for this opportunity. They gave me a tour through most of the classrooms, and inside each one the students would greet me in the same well-rehearsed way: by standing and chanting in unison “BON-JOUR-MA-DAME” in four long syllables, then re-seating and resuming their work. I get the impression they are used to lots of visitors. Only the first graders continued to steal glances at me over their shoulders during their lesson.

first grade munchkins

first grade munchkins

The second graders were studying French and reading, taking turns to pick up individual words written on large cards to match them to a longer phrase written on the chalkboard. The third graders were converting liters into deciliters, centiliters and milliliters. The fourth graders were studying fractions, using bread rolls to demonstrate. One student got up to tear the first roll into thirds, another tore one into fourths, then the teacher used the pieces of bread to quiz the class which is bigger: one third or one fourth? Two thirds or one half? In each classroom, the students were very active and involved, nearly everyone raising their hands to be the next volunteer to get up and write on the chalkboard. If they were correct, the rest of the students clapped for them. If not, someone else volunteered to go help them.

second grade language class

second grade language class

As I left each classroom, the students stood again and in unison chanted: “AU-RE-VOIR-MA-DAME.” Very polite, very formal. Sweet.

Finally, on to the fifth-grade class that my friend is paired with. They welcomed us in, asked me to discuss the background for the project and the plan itself, then listened to me read the letter from her son’s class in English, then in French, using their photos as visual aids.

Your new pen pals live here, in Kansas

Your new pen pals live here, in Kansas

After reading the letter and looking at the photos, the kids had a chance to ask questions. The first was “What is the name of the school?” It’s Silver Lake, I answered, lac d’argent… but argent like metal, not money. Slight cringe. Next, “What is the name of the teacher?” Oh sorry, I don’t know, but we can certainly ask. Next, “What is the name of the administrator?” So cute, these guys… their administrator was standing next to me in front of the class, and honoring their elders is so important! The last question was the sweetest: “Can our new friends come visit us here?” Aww. I hated to have to say, unfortunately, that it’s just not possible; it’s too far away. And to help dispel any myth that our streets are paved with gold (a coworker of Seb’s from Ghana once told us that many people literally believe that), I added that it was also too expensive. “How expensive?” one of the adults in the room asked, a little too excitedly in my opinion. I repeated his question, everything was in French and I wanted to make sure I was hearing him right before giving a number. Yep, that was indeed his question, and the other adults nodded that they’d like to know, too. Gulp. Awkward. Everyone knows that us expats travel in and out a lot, some people every six weeks and then back again in two. They already think we have more money than God, will this just make it worse?? Well, nothing I can do but be honest. Around $3,000 per person, I said. “Oh!” the adults responded. “Yeah it’s way too expensive for them to visit.”

Then I asked if I could take photos of the children, and they agreed. You’d never guess by their photos that they were happy or excited, but remember this is part of their culture! It’s very proper to look as serious as possible in photos. The first three groups came out like this:

no smiles here

no smiles here

nor here

nor here

starting to wonder what I'm laughing at

starting to wonder what I’m laughing at

By the fourth shot, I just couldn’t help myself. This whole time in the classroom I’d been smiling constantly, so hard my face was starting to tremble. I’d giggled involuntarily from time to time. And here I am taking photos of these super-serious students, smiling and saying “oh that was good!” and it just felt wrong. So I came out and told them — hey, back home we smile and say “Cheese!” to hold the smile on our face for the camera. I used the English word for “cheese” in my otherwise French sentence, but explained that it actually means fromage. So as I took this last photo, one clever little chap in the back shouted “Fromage!” excitedly just before my camera snapped. Awesome!! And it worked – almost everyone smiled.

Fromage!!

Fromage!!

Cuties.

These kids attend school just half a day. At first I was disheartened by this, but then thought, well maybe they get a lot done, with greater focus? At least as far as the basics go — reading, writing, arithmetic? Maybe they have fewer breaks? Certainly they get plenty of exercise already. I don’t know. It’s difficult to compare. It’s entirely possible that we’re the ones who’ve got it backwards, like in this clever cartoon:

school kids in Congo vs USA

“Did you know that in North America, children must stay seated all day long inside classrooms? That if they move too much or make too much noise, they’re given medicine to calm them down? Their only manner of exertion is to play video games and almost all the food they ingest is altered and stuffed with chemical products!”

“That’s horrible! We should totally create an organization to come to their aid.”

And there it is. My hope — my suspicion, actually — is that the kids back home will learn just as much, if not more, from their new pen pals over here in Africa as we will from them.

11 comments

  1. I am so glad you are able to interact with the school children. They seem so sweet! You are putting your education degree to good use.

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    1. Thank you Michelle! Seb keeps telling me if students back home had been this sweet, this polite, and this interested in learning, I would probably still be a teacher! 🙂

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  2. Hey, Jen, this is fantastic! I know what a feat it was to get the powers that be to let you do this and it is truly a credit to you and your competence that you were able to get approval. It should be a fabulous experience. I am so happy for you (and for all the kids on both sides of the Atlantic who will profit from this exchange.) Little starts like this have a way of leading to bigger and bigger things too. It actually fits with the community-group-leveraging model that was in the HIV/AIDS project that I was working on when I left. Dr. Jean at ISOS took it over – any idea how that is going? There may be a way to collaborate with them and the schools on health awareness issues….. Just thinking out loud here…..

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    1. Hi Lauren, great to hear from you again! Sorry, I haven’t heard anything about the HIV/AIDS project… 😦 We’ll see if this thing grows bigger, I’ll keep you posted!

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    1. Thank you Uncle John for your support! I remember your comments on my original post, from 3 years ago, hoping that the idea didn’t fall under the radar. It didn’t!

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  3. Hi Jen. So glad to see you are back to blogging; I’ve missed your stories! And I still like your geography lessons…..Love, Mom

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    1. You’ve always been good at geography, Mom! I love looking at maps, maybe that’s why I talk about it a lot. I didn’t know much about Africa before moving here… in fact I remember a coworker in Morenci from Mauritania who had to explain to me where that was, I was incredulous I didn’t already know!

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  4. Loving your blog’s Jen, the pen pal thing is a great idea, for both sides. I have lots to catch up on and I am sure I will enjoy them all. You have a way with words that is both interesting and funny. Maybe one day you can turn this into a book for the world to read…..

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    1. Haha, I keep telling Seb in order for me to sell a book someday I’d have to have some kind of REAL adventure… i.e. dangerous… so I keep trying to get him to take me to Kinshasa or Virunga! By the way, if you’d like to do a similar pen-pal exchange with students back in Australia, I’m sure we can set that up!

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