In October PHARE trained over 280 pedagogical advisors from the 70 teaching academies in Mali on the balanced literacy approach and the use of interactive radio programs in primary schools. This past week representatives from the PHARE program disbursed throughout the country (though only as far north as Mopti due to insecurity) to monitor the pedagogical advisors as they conducted trainings of over 16,000 primary school teachers. Oumar, one of the PHARE drivers, Sarré, the leader of the PHARE training team and Bouacar Diabaté, a representative from the Ministry of Education and I had the chance to visit 7 teaching academies in the Sikasso region; here's some of what I saw.
Sikasso équipe (l to r) Diabaté, Sarré, Oumar, me
While the pedagogical advisors deliver the balanced literacy training and instructions on the use of interactive radio shows I sit in the back of the classroom and take notes on the presentations. I will Sarré to catch my eye and motion my head to convey 'please say what I am thinking so I don't have to.' The critiques and evaluative comments are not complicated but are at times better delivered Malian to a Malian. I find myself writing and underlining - engage, interact, make learning fun! With the radio sessions the advice is usually to let the radio do the teaching and to not talk over the narrator. The training in Kolondièba, a gem of a town 60 km off the paved road, takes place in an empty primary school classroom. Sarré, Diabaté and I observe one of the sessions and discuss the budget with the director of the teaching academy and his accountant before crossing the dusty courtyard to sit in on a 1st grade class. PHARE programs, as of November 29, are broadcast on the national radio ORTM each day at 10:30 and 11:10 am and so we sit in on this classroom to watch PHARE in action.
In this row of a building there are three classrooms of normal size filled to an abnormal capacity. 4-5 children crowd into benches made for 2. 70-100 children crowd into a room built for 30-40. Is this what they mean when they say 'education for all'? The first grade teacher seems to not notice his classroom is overflowing with children and expresses his sincere pleasure that we can be there to observe the 10:30 radio program. While he continues to set-up the classroom for the upcoming lesson - alphabet board, song-of-the-day, and radio, I look out at the bright little cherub faces and do a quick bench/student calculation. With 28 desks and at least 4 kids to a bench I find there are over 100 6-7 year olds in this classroom. The kids return my interested look and, elbows in each others faces and little legs squished into one another as their tiny sandaled feet swing on their too-high desks, I remember what I am doing here. I am learning a lot with PHARE - namely how important it is to be passionate about what you do. Working for and with people so dedicated to their jobs is inspiring and I see how critical it is to be a part of an organization where the end-result matters. The radio lesson begins on time and it is immediately apparent what a true success this program is. The children - once doomed to spend 3 years learning the alphabet - will now learn it in under a week, two at the most as evidenced by their grasp of the letters after only a couple days of the program being broadcast. The teacher who before says he felt unprepared and without the resources to teach now has them.
At the end of each observation Sarré and Diabaté make encouraging remarks about the leaps and bounds being made by the USAID/PHARE program thanks to teachers and the bright future of education in Mali. I, in an effort to be brief and avoid too much gawking at my Bambara, throw out an 'i ni ce, i ni baara-ji' ('thank you,good work') and wave. We then welcome questions and comments from the participants. Oftentimes we hear the complaint that USAID/PHARE doesn't provide batteries for the radios or can USAID/PHARE distribute the snazzy wax-printed fabric Sarré is sporting to all teachers? USAID/PHARE is a $31 million dollar program. That is a lot of American tax-payer money funneled into one program for one country. When these questions inevitably come forth, and even sometimes when they do not, Sarré puts on his serious face and his big-bear voice. He pulls me over to him and I look at an incredibly interesting spot on the back wall of the classroom. He tugs my shoulder and says 'Americans care so much about the children of Mali - children they've never met I remind you! - to give their tax-money to programs like this. I think we can do something to find money for batteries!' I begin to feel like an arbitrary symbol of Americana as a non-tax-paying (or at least not much) citizen in this room of second-hand NY Yankees caps, Lacoste thrift store shirts and Obama paraphenalia. I hope the people who sent these things paid their taxes. Sometimes after Sarré finishes his speech there is an awkward round of applause - his voice erring on the side of theatrical- and sometimes I just continue to stare at the back of the wall. I put a smile on my face that says 'I-don't-attach-strings-to-this-money, I'm-just-here-because-I-like-your-country-and-living-in-Bamako' and say a silent thank you that the speech is over. After all, I've only ever paid enough taxes in my life to fund one of these training's pause-cafés.
Sarré with students in one of the classrooms we observed
The teaching academies, all constructed from the same blue-print as far as I can tell, have small overnight rooms tucked into the front of their compounds for teaching-related guests to stay. Each afternoon we check the rooms where we spent the night before to make sure we've collected all our belongings and then we pack them into Oumar's truck. I settle into my unofficial seat behind Sarré, passenger side, and try to find a comfortable position. Diabaté gets in next to me and immediately pulls his radio the size of a Penguin classic book out of his boubou while Oumar flips the tape in the deck. Diabaté draws the radio close to his ear and tunes it to a station playing anything concerning the recent elections in the Ivory Coast. Usually a heated debate ensues about the better candidate - Diabité is for Allasane Ouattara in the South and Sarré is a staunch Gbagbo supporter*. Oumar makes a joke that he's going to take the off-roads and laughs at himself. An unfortunate trip out to one of the multi-age classrooms down a long, bumpy road early on in my time with PHARE resulted in an unplanned rest stop when I got sick inside the car. Oumar still thinks it is funny. I laugh with him not because I think my tendency towards car sickness is humorous but because I like the way he recalls details and people and that I am already a part of his memories.
I readjust in my seat as the road bends in an effort to avoid the harsh sun reflecting through the window and onto my skin. We pass groups of Chinese and Malian men in sun hats standing in the shade of tractors on the road. Every 200 meters there's a detour as heavy construction continues on this vital commerce trail connecting Mali to the Ivory Coast - and a port to the Atlantic Ocean. The dust kicked up by 18 wheelers on the detours make the trees, shrubbery and high-grass lining the off-roads appear as though they have been dipped in a sepia setting. Just beyond, the crisp blueness of the sky draws a sharp contrast with the green mango-tree leaves left untouched by the red-dirt that finds a way into the folds of our clothes, the creases in our skin. The smell of diesel exhaust sucks into the car as Diabaté rolls down the window and 'Whooosh!' yet another plastic bag gasps out the window. I turn back my head to see where it lands. The wind catches it up, up, up and I see the shiny black plastic rain cloud in the otherwise cloud-less, clear, blue sky, catch on the branches of a tree.
In Sikasso Oumar unloads three chickens from the roof - a gift from one of Sarré's nephews in Yanfolila - and hands them over to the guard's wife to cook for dinner. I sleepily drag my tote bag √inside and set up my mosquito tent in my 8x8 ft cinder block room. Students from the Institut de Formation de Maitres (IFM) where we are staying call to one another and their voices waft through my screened window, mixing with other noises from the city. Motorcycles, metal spoons striking metal pans and the bass from loud speakers all become a chorus - their sounds harmonizing to the the tune of a small, Malian town. After dinner Oumar cuts into a watermelon bought this afternoon on the side of the road - one of hundreds spilling out from a road-side stand. He calls me outside to pick a slice and through the screened door I follow his voice and the lingering smell of fresh, cold watermelon in the air. I sink my teeth into the crisp flesh of the melon, juice running down my chin and onto my t-shirt. I just hung up the phone with my mom who says it is close to 20 degrees Fahrenheit in Virginia Beach. I look up at the moonless sky hanging above me and shiver.
See more pictures from the trip here!
*Gbagbo, the incumbent, declared his victory while the international community cries out for the validation of the real winner, Ouattara.