Sunday, December 5, 2010

Is it really ours???.....Forever?!?

I’ve been working with L’ecole No. 5 in Tchekpo.  It’s a poor primary school on the outskirts of the village.  The first week I was in Tcheckpo.  Dovai and Kaisai came to me in the market and asked me to go for a walk with them to see their school.  They are both teachers at the school.  I had met Dovai before.  He is very involved in the community of Tchekpo, and I might say a very shrewd man.  By shrewd I mean that he not only knows that I might be able to help this school, but he also slowly and systematically gets me involved.  He went to the Men as Partners Conference with me, and he is also helping me with the Womens’ Marche Groupement.  Dovai is a good man, whose only ulterior motive is to help his community.  He’s  thin, a small framed man with delicate features.  He used to be a Muslim.  I don’t know why he is no longer Muslim. He looks a little bit like E.T.  He has two wives.  One wife works in the marche, one works at home.   I hadn’t met Kaisai until that first day we walked to the school.  I have met with him many times since.  Kaisai seems very sweet, and shy.  He never looks me in the eye.  He is always looking down at the ground.   Sometimes I bend over and look up, so that he has to look at me, and he does, but it’s very fleeting.  What’s interesting about Kaisai is that I saw him in his classroom teaching.  In the classroom Kaisai is a different person.  He is strong and commanding and animated with his students.   In our meetings however, he always lets Dovai do the talking.  They seem inseparable; Dovai and Kaisai.  I always see them together.  Brothers, for sure. They are very connected.  Sunday they brought photos to show me, and they left a photo of themselves with me.  “A cadeu (a gift),” they said.

The kids watching a video of themselves

Dovai and Kaisai took me to their school.  There is one building, and three paillots (huts with thatched roofs).  The school holds over 200 children, has four teachers and the principal, Mr. Hunon.  I didn’t meet Mr. Hunon until later.  Dovai proceeded to explain to me, as Kaisai looked at the ground, that they need a new school building.  That was at the top of the list of a long list of needs/wants.  They need help.  The teachers all volunteer their services.  None of them are paid.  He showed me the logs the children sit on for benches, and told me they have no books for the teachers or the students.  Could I help them?  I told  Dovai and Kaisai the Chief had asked me to help with the Lycee (high school.)  They scoffed. “ It starts here,” they said.  “This is where the greatest impact can be made.”   I agree.  This first meeting was a short meeting.  A rather strategic meeting on their part (or on Dovai’s part, and one of many to come that would compel me to do whatever I can to help.)

a path on the way to L'ecole No. 5
Dovai had asked me to come during the school day the next time, so I could see the children, and meet the principal Mr. Hunon.  I went on a Wednesday morning, and walked the three miles, proud of myself that I made it there on back winding roads, through unstructured neighborhoods, without getting lost.  As I approached the school, throngs of children in khaki colored uniforms were running, playing and laughing.  It was their mid-morning break.   Mr. Hunon, the principal was sitting on a small wooden chair, at an even smaller wooden desk, under a tree that offered shade in the middle of the school yard.   There were two wooden benches to the side of him.  He had some paperwork on his desk and was talking with one of the parents.  He acknowledged me and without smiling he motioned for me to sit down on one of the benches.  Then he went back to speaking to the parent who was sitting next to his son .  The son had a, I don’t know maybe guilty look on his face, as Mr.  Hunon and his father talked…undoubtedly they were having a serious conversation about the son.  When the discussion was over, Mr. Hunon stood up, and without smiling, shook the hand of the father, and the son, and sent them on their way.  After Mr. Hunon finished his conversation with the parent, he spoke to a couple children, and then, finally turned to me.  Dovai introduced me to him.  The first thing out of Mr. Hunon's mouth was,  “how can you help us?  What can you do for us?  People are suffering badly.  The teachers are suffering, the children are suffering.”   I was a little taken aback that he asked me these things so brusquely, and so quickly.  Mr. Hunon is a tall, handsome man.  He looks like he always has something on his mind, and even though he is stern with the children, you can see how much he cares, how he wants things to be different.  He doesn’t smile a lot, and he doesn’t laugh much.  I would guess it’s because of the harsh reality that surrounds him.   He ends every meeting with, “Please help us, I beg you, I BEG YOU, please.  The children are suffering.  The teachers don’t get paid.  I’m the only person who gets paid.  There are no books.  Look at this!  He makes a wide circular sweep of his arm towards the school and the children.  “I beg you, I beg you,” he says.   The thing that strikes me, is that he’s not at all the type of man who would easily choose those words.

I told him that this is not what I’m in Tchekpo for.  I went on to say, “the primary reason I’m here is to help small businesses, but that I would think very hard about their problems, and see if there is anything I can do.”  I asked him to put together a list of things that he needs and wants with costs.  David my tutor, and a teacher at the high school wanted to help and get involved when I spoke to him about it.  He suggested we form a committee to make our mission official, so we did.  David, myself, the four teachers, Mr. Hunon and a parent are the officers on the committee to help L’ecole No. 5.  I’m hoping to find a group or association or church to help us raise funds.  They need close to $10,000 to buy all the books they need for the children and teachers, and to pay the four teachers salaries for one year.  This would also pay for the wood to build more desks and benches.  They dream of building an additional school room. 

The week I met with Mr. Hunon, I happened to receive an email from my thirteen year old niece, Hannah in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  She said that she and her class would like to do a service project with one of the schools…did I think that was possible?  Hannah also suggested that it would be fun if we could possibly do a video skype later in the year, so that the kids in each school could see and ask questions of each other.  I thought it was a great idea, but didn’t see how it would be possible since Tchekpo doesn’t have electricity or internet, but Solomon lives right down the road in Taglibow, and he is an I.T. specialist for the Peace Corps.  He thinks we can do it with his internet phone.  We’re checking it out.  It would be a great cultural exchange, a wonderful learning experience for the kids here in Africa and in Ann Arbor Michigan.  We have this tentatively planned for February.  I applaud Hannah for her initiative, and her good humanitarian ideas.

I go to visit the kids classrooms at Lecole No. 5,  a couple times a week, and will continue to do so.  It’s a delight every time.  The children love it when I visit.  I video-taped each class, and the following week I returned and showed them the video’s on my big screen computer.  They were just awed with seeing themselves on video.  Now, when they see me coming down the road, they run to the openings of their classrooms and start chanting my name.  How fun is that! 

Karen, the mother of my sons partner,  has been sending me packages with unique and interesting things for kids.  Karen has a huge heart and is a former teacher.  The things she chooses to send always create a lot of interest and excitement with the kids.  I tell them when I have a new shipment "from Karen."  And they start showing up at my door.  Little stuffed animals, puzzles, inflatable globes.  Karen seems to be enjoying it.   I try to dole it out to just the right school or child.  It’s amazing…..amazing, how excited they get over these things.  Adults and children alike.  I gave the inflatable globes to three different primary schools, and I gave one to David for the high school, David keeps the globe at his home and takes it with him to school every day.  Karen also sent a life-size puzzle of the human body.  I’m giving it to the Biology Department at the high school, after I use it for my Adult English Class, and after David uses it in his high school English Class.  It’s a fun way to learn the words for different parts of the body in English.  When I showed the Biology Teacher, he couldn’t believe it.  He’s so excited.

These schools only have blackboards and a few books, but the teachers are first rate and prepared.  The class structure is quite organized and advanced.  The kids in the high school do have paper and pens, but the kids in L’ecole #5 each have a little slate and chalk.  These kids are smart, they love school, they love learning.  In spite of the limited resources in these schools, I believe, from what I’ve seen that they could compete on the same level maybe higher, with kids of the same age in schools in America, in math, science, history; certainly languages.  The high school teaches German and English.  David, a Togolese, and my tutor has a Masters in English.  The kids speak and understand English very well.  He is a gifted teacher, and in the classes I monitored, they did not want the class to end when it was time, and kept asking questions, or asked to sing a couple songs to prolong the class.  They kept asking for more.  When I told David I thought he was a gifted teacher, he beamed.  It made him happy.  He loves teaching.

I am looking for ideas to help raise funds for L’ecole #5.  If you have any ideas, please let me know.  Don’t send any money, maybe we can somehow form a group in the U.S. to help.  I don’t know.  I have several projects like this that I’ll be blogging about.  $10,000 is a LOT of money.  It’s mind boggling what that money will buy.  Help educate over 200 kids for one thing, and pay the teachers who are now working for nothing.  If you met Mr. Hunon and these teachers and these kids……you would want to help with the little they are asking for, knowing what a difference it will make in their lives.  I just keep thinking of Mr. Hunons words.  I’m begging you.  I beg you.  People are suffering.  Look how crowded our classrooms are, look what the children have to sit on.  We need help. 

The most recent gifts Karen sent were two fabulous soccer balls and an air pump.  One is bright red, and the other is bright blue.  Last week when I went to Lecole No. 5, I put the red soccer ball in a sack and took it with me.  Mr. Hunon saw me coming and walked out into the school yard to greet me.  I could see the kids watching us through the openings.  I handed the sack to Mr. Hunon, and he pulled the red ball out.  His eyes lit up, and he had a big, genuine smile.  All of a sudden you could hear the kids clapping and chanting and roaring, and I mean roaring…. with laughter and happiness….. They could see the soccer ball.  Mr. Hunon, said, “you’ve made the children very happy.”  He said, “is this really ours…….forever?”  He meant it.  I shook my head yes, it’s your schools…forever.  I told him that the gift was from a woman named Karen who lived in Kansas, and that she had been a teacher in the United States.  He asked me to please thank her.  I have these moments here.  The gift of the red soccer ball was one of them.  Just a moment of delightful surprise, happiness and contentment.   

I wish Karen and Hannah could have been there that day.  More to come on Lecole No. 5………


Probably an average of three village people drop by my house every day.  Some are friends, and some are new people just wanting to introduce themselves.  They often have a look of hopeful expectation, I think just hoping that I’ll give them a little gift or a bite of American food.  Some come for help and advice.  Hunon-Koffi was the latter.

Hunou-Koffi is about seventeen.  He attends the highschool.  He has come over to my house a couple times just briefly to introduce himself, and I saw him at the market and then again at the high school.  Honestly, he has the face of an angel.  He has been telling me, preparing me that he wanted to talk to me about some “things,.”  He asked me a couple times when it might be convenient for him to come to my house.   H.K. (as he will be known going forward) speaks fairly good English, and is President of the English club at the high school. H.K.’s legs are crippled.  He gets around on rusty old crutches.  Never saw anyone look so dignified.

I don’t know what caused his legs to stop working.  I don't know if he had polio, or what exactly is wrong.  He pretty much drags his legs behind him.  His legs and feet are small, just from lack of use I think.  The last time he came over (walked, drug himself...probably 2 miles) it was mid day, the hottest part of the day.  He was soaked with sweat.  I got him a drink of water, and he downed it in 10 seconds.  But he's always smiling, the sweetest smile, and I've not heard him complain once.  He just tells me what his life is like in a very matter of fact voice, as if he is talking about someone else.  He stays very technical about it.  I think he does not want pity or to be felt sorry for.  Recently he once again drug himself to my house, which I'm sure is just par for his day, but to me, his ability to get from one place to another looks dauntingly difficult.  

Honu-Koffi's crutches
He told me he'd like help with three things.  First, his school fees were due the next day and the school administrators told students who didn't bring their money, not to come.  H.K.’s family is poor.  His father is a farmer.  H.K. is the oldest of seven children.  Second he showed me his crutches, and how rusty they were.  He said he didn't want a three wheeled bike.  It’s like a big tricycle. (I see several of those in almost all villages for crippled people.)  They pedal them with their hands.  He doesn't want a bike, because he wants to keep as many muscles as he can.  He just wants better crutches.  There's a lot more to all of this...I asked a lot of questions about his diagnosis, family etc.  Believe it or not this is the short version.  His third request was, he just wants so badly to continue his education, and of course come to America.  If there was anyone in this whole wide world who deserved and needed help, it's this boy.  Never once is there any tone of pity in his voice, not even slightly, even as he showed me his legs and how they work.  But there is a desperation.  I see how he looks deep into my eyes, wondering if I will be able to help him. I think he’s wondering if he should have a glimmer of hope, and what that must feel like to him.  

I explained to H.K. we'd take one thing at a time.  First his school fees.  I told him I would talk to the school.  He should go to school, but not stand up when the other kids who haven’t paid leave.  He seemed relieved.  I did talk to David, my tutor.  I called him after H.K.  left.  It was a 30 second conversation.  I said “David, Hunou Koffi came by, and he doesn't have the money to bring tomorrow, is there anything we can do about this.”  David said “yes.”  I told David H.K. would go to school tomorrow, and David said, “yes, good.  We'll figure something out.”  So....yayyyyyyyyyyyy #1 - done.  The high school wants me to teach several hours a day, three days a week.  I won't do it, unless they let this boy finish without any more fees.  I don't know how to help him with the rest of it, though I've started investigating.  I think there are some NGO's in Tesvie that could help with the crutches, and as a matter of fact, I just got an email from a friend whose daughter works for a Medical Supply company.  She told me they would donate some crutches  #2 - done.....but I wonder if he could be helped so much more.  I feel compelled to find a group that will sponsor this remarkable boy. 

H.K. stopped by the morning I left for a week long Peace Corps Conference in Pagala.  It was about eight in the morning.  He wanted to show me that one of his rusty crutches had indeed broken, and he needed to get it soddered.  He has found a man in the village who will sodder it for him, but he didn’t have any money.  I didn’t have any money either…just enough to get to my conference in Pagala.  I told H.K. to take the crutch to the man and to tell him I would pay for it when I returned in a week.  It’s only a matter of time though, before the other one breaks from the rust, and then the one we just fixed.  I think H.K. has been soddering the ends back on for quite a while, and I think the crutches become a bit shorter each time.

So...I couldn't stop thinking about him, and how someone smiles through all this, and what his life must be like, and how stupid Lindsay Lohan is.  haha.  I don't know.  Anyway, on my way to Tesvie the day after I met with H.K. I couldn’t stop my tears.  I can’t decipher my emotions.  I think mostly just awe that every time he takes a painful step he smiles, real smiles and doesn’t complain.  How does that work?

I think Hunou-Koffi will help me understand the wonderment of the human spirit.