Friday, July 1, 2011


David, Me and Mr. Hognon

My sister Jody, Mr. Hognon and the teachers of L'ecole No 5 are the heroes in this story.

Jody and her grand-daughter Hannah
I knew in the corner of my mind that my sister Jody would sponsor a project in Tchekpo even though we had never discussed that fact. I started talking to her about L’ecole No. 5 soon after I arrived here. She intently listened, asked many questions, and I think immediately understood that she could do something significant here. It took us many months, but her heart and her mind were so open to this, that while it seemed to take a long time the project flowed rather effortlessly. Working with Jody on this project will be one of the most joyous memories and endeavors of my service here. I’m very, very proud of her, her generosity, and her loving heart.

Contributing generously to worthy causes is nothing new for Jody and her husband Mike.  Volunteering her time and energy and being a community activist is just part of her DNA.  Their children and their grandchildren continue the legacy.  Volunteerism is a daily part of their lives.

I think Jody said “yes, I want to help” before I even knew what we should do. She certainly said yes before I knew HOW we were going to do it. Her faith in me and this project was so motivating. She knew contributing to this project would have a huge impact on these children’s lives. Jody gave few directives, but they were wise ones. The rest she left to our Tchekpo L’ecole No. 5 Committee.

“Adojowa….You and your sister have made the children very happy. I don’t know how to thank you and your sister.”

Mr. Hognon
That’s what Mr. Hognon says to me every time he sees me now. He takes my hand, smiles at me very sincerely and says. “Thank you, thank you so much. Thank your sister. Tell her how happy she has made the children. The teachers are happy. I’m happy.” There are several remarkable things about this. The first being, when I met Mr. Hognon and started to visit his school on a weekly basis, he never smiled. He was stern and really almost rude. Not almost rude…he was rude. He is a very big man, by African standards, well over 6ft tall. He’s a big, proud, African man. There are many paradoxes to Mr. Hognon. The first paradox is that he looks very out of place as the principal of this little African rural primary school. He just doesn’t look like a principal of a grade school. He looks more like a linebacker for a professional football team. When you see the little children hanging on every word he says, or trailing behind him in hopes that he will say something to them or give them a task, Pied Piper comes to mind. A very big, gruff Pied Piper. He towers over all the children, not to mention their parents. He literally has to bend over when he walks into the thatched roof classroom so he doesn’t hit his head. Seems like the kids would be intimidated by his voice, demeanor and his size, but they are not intimidated. They are not afraid of Mr. Hognon. Oh they jump when he says jump, but not because they are afraid. They jump because they want to please him. They respect him. It’s very obvious. Another paradox is how he plays and communicates with the children. He always has the sound of strictness in his voice, but his actions are playful. He teases them, and jokes with them. When he leads them in a song he gets right down on their level….singing and clapping his hands, walking up and down the aisle getting everyone involved. I think each child that comes in contact with Mr. Hognon feels like they have his undivided attention. They would do almost anything without complaining to have their moments with him. It’s abundantly clear that the children sense his commitment to them.

Mr. Hognon and the children of L’ecole No. 5 for certain captured my attention and stole my heart. How could we help them? How could we not?

Mr. Hognon is the primary reason I made L’ecole No. 5 my pet project for the year. The education of the children of L'ecole No. 5 was the motivation. There are so many needs here, and so many people ask for help. They are all legitimate requests. Unfortunately I have to pick and choose where to put efforts and resources. What will have the most impact and what is sustainable after my two years are up? If you’ve been reading my blog you will have seen a few stories about L’ecole No. 5 and also about Mr. Hognon. The children and teachers of L’ecole No. 5 have touched me deeply.

Mr. Hognon has been principal of this school for five years. For five years his mission has been to motivate teachers to teach without being paid and to teach over 200 children without any books or tools. Mr. Hognon begged me on a number of occasions to help him. He said many times, “We are suffering. The children are suffering. Look around….They have nothing. The teachers don’t get paid, the children have no books. They sit on logs. Please, please help us” Mr. Hognon never once asked for one thing for himself.

There are five primary schools in Tchekpo and one high school. The other four primary schools and the Tchekpo Lycee (high school) receive some support from the Togo government. Some support…not very much, but some. Schools that are recognized and supported by the Togo government receive books for the kids to use. Not books the kids can take home, but books that can be used in the classroom. The teachers at the government supported schools are paid a salary, albeit a very meager salary. L’ecole No. 5 was not supported by the government until this year. L'ecole No. 5 was started by parents in that particular area of Tchekpo; because they needed another school….the other schools were bursting at the seams and too far for many children to travel to. This year L’ecole No. 5 was finally recognized as a public school, but the only funds it gets, is that it pays Mr. Hognon (the Director’s) salary. There are four other full time teachers who do not receive any salary. L’ecole No. 5 has one stucco building and four paillots (open structures with thatched roofs.)There are no books, not one; and very few desks. Most of the children sit on logs at long tables. Each child has a little slate and a piece of chalk and that is their primary learning tool. No rulers, no books, no pencils or pens or notebooks or crayolas or paper to draw and write on. Just their slate. They all wear khaki colored uniforms, usually very dirty, often just hanging half on them. Most of them don’t wear shoes. Research shows that uniforms are ranked very high as a reason for kids staying in school in Africa. Uniforms give them a sense of belonging.

The teachers have only their chalkboard as their teaching tool. In spite of this the children learn so much and seem so bright and extraordinarily happy. They are eager to learn. The classes are very organized and orderly. They are taught Science, Math, French, Social Studies (Geography) and Togo History. The teachers spend many hours before and after class drawing elaborate illustrations of the topic of the day on their chalkboard.  Perhaps it’s a picture of the human heart and how it pumps or maybe a diagram of a sentence in French, or a map of Togo. I’ve seen all of these things beautifully illustrated on the chalkboard. So beautiful and intricate that I wonder how they can bare to erase them for the next day’s lesson.

It’s amazing what the teachers are able to accomplish with nothing. We can only begin to imagine what they might be able to accomplish with books and dictionairies and tools to teach. This would be our task. What should we do? How will we do this?

First, we needed to find an NGO (Non Governmental Organization or a non-profit organization) who would manage and administrate any funds, and oversee the Committee to help L’ecole No.5. David my French tutor and my community partner and friend helped with the organization of this effort. We chose BorneFonden and BorneFonden agreed to assist us, pretty much pro bono.  Mister Douthe (our BorneFonden representative,) calls David my lawyer, in jest. “Where is your lawyer?” he always asks. “He’s coming,” I would reply. David is really not on the committee, but he goes with me to every meeting and assures that I understand them and that they understand me, and that we all understand Jody’s wishes.

BorneFonden is a Swedish NGO that does a wide variety of work to help children and schools throughout West Africa. BorneFonden has a regional office in Deve which is what you would call a ‘suburb’ of Tchekpo. It’s about ½ hour moto ride from Tchekpo. Mr. Douthe is the Regional Director of BorneFonden. He is Togolese, born and raised here in Tchekpo. He was quickly on board to do whatever necessary to help L’ecole No, 5. He has done an outstanding, professional job in his role as administrator of this project.
Mr. Douthe

Once BorneFonden agreed to administrate our project, a committee was formed. We formed a committee with Mr. Hognon as President, Mr. Douthe (BorneFonden), Mr. Amouza (The President of the Parent/Teacher Association) for L’ecole No. 5, and me. We opened a bank account, created guidelines for the committee, a wish list for the school and a budget. All of this information was sent to Jody. We wanted her to be an integral part of this process. Jody put her stamp of approval on the plan, and we were off to the races.

The first thing we did was agree that each of the four teachers be paid a year’s salary. We paid them 45mil (about $100) a month for nine months. This is a pittance. As a volunteer I receive 150mil a month, which is about $300. I often find it difficult for me (one person) to live on that amount. These four teachers are married and have children. They were thrilled and in disbelief that they would receive 45mil a month. Mr. Hognon received nothing. Not one cent.
A very happy Mr. Hognon
The second thing the committee did was decide how we would go about choosing and purchasing the books and supplies. Mr. Douthe(BorneFonden) wanted to oversee this, but I persuaded the committee to give Mr. Hognon that honor. Who would know better what books and supplies to buy for these children? Mr. Hognon traveled to Lome and got bids from two different bookstores. He brought the proposals to the committee and we approved the best one. Two weeks later the books were delivered to my house by the seller. Mr. Hognon was at my house the moment the books arrived. Boxes and boxes of books. Rulers, a globe, two beautiful, huge dictionaries. The entire committee stopped by that day at one time or another. Such joy, such excitement, such happiness. Mr. Hognon told me he was so excited about the delivery of the books that he could not sleep the night before. He could not stop laughing, and smiling the day the books were delivered. Big, gruff Mr. Hognon…giggling like a schoolboy. Mr. Hognon, David, me and the seller unpacked all of the boxes of books and checked them against the purchase order. I cannot adequately describe the joy we all felt. It welled up in us. It was a wonderful, wonderful day. I couldn’t wait to tell Jody all about it. And I did. I could also hear her joy. She understood.

The day the books arrived they were brought to my house to process. The next morning 10 or 15 children started showing up in my yard and on my porch. I didn’t know why. They all had this look of excitement on their face. I greeted them and smiled and waited for some sort of explanation as to why they were there.  Then Mr. Hognon showed up. He had sent the children to pick up all the books and tote them to the school. The kids all came in the house and they could not believe their eyes. It was so much fun seeing them looking through the books, examining the globe. Showing each other the treasures they had just been given. Mr. Hognon supervised the repacking of the books and the children placed the heavy boxes on their heads, and proceeded to walk the mile or so to the school.

I can’t wait for school to start next year. I can’t imagine what it will be like for Mr. Hognon, the teachers, the students.

This is just the beginning…the tip of the proverbial iceberg as they say. Next on the wish list are desks for the children. We are getting bids on desks right now. The committee without provocation told me that they want to have the name Jody DeBacker stamped on the front of each newly built desk. Right now most desks are donated in some fashion by BorneFonden, and BorneFonden is stamped on the desks. Most desks for schools are built/made in the regional capitals like Lome. We decided to get bids from carpenters right here in Tchekpo so that we could keep the money in this community and provide jobs for people here. We are hopeful that Tchekpo might establish itself as a builder of school desks for all of Togo, and actually create a business.

There will be some money left over after the desks. The committee will decide how best to spend it. We’ve talked about different things. There will once again be no salaries for teachers next year when school starts again. They want and need a building, sports equipment, more supplies.

We are in the process of establishing a relationship between L’ecole No. 5 and a primary school in Ann Arbor Michigan. We are hopeful that this school will, in a sense adopt L’ecole No. 5, communicate with them, send them supplies and become a sister-school. This idea was the brainchild of Hannah DeBacker…none other than Jody’s granddaughter. The apple indeed does not fall far from the tree. We hope this will become a sustainable venture and relationship.

My sister’s generosity will have an enormous impact on all of these people. They will never forget her. They will never forget the day the books arrived. They will also never forget the kindness and thoughtfulness shown by Americans. That’s what the Peace Corps is all about. Teaching people to help themselves. Spreading peace around the world through acts of kindness.

Thank you Jody.

No comments:

Post a Comment