Life On Mars?

Published by Brian on

It finally happened. Mawu and all the other voodoo spirits made the decision, and the oven that is West Africa has been cranked up. The good news is that all of my bucket baths are now with nice warm water. The bad news is that the last thing I want is warm water. I live in fear of the power (and therefore my fan) going out, because that means I’ll sweat through everything in matter of minutes. Good news is that I can now easily get hot water for doing laundry, getting thing real nice and clean.

This week is the last of the first semester, so last week we calculated the students’ final grades. My older students actually did pretty well this semester, most of them got passing marks. The younger ones had more of a struggle, one class featured 13 out of 50 students get a passing grade, and that’s with me dropping the lowest quiz score. The main reason for their poor performance is that they’ve forgotten everything we did last year, so when we do something that assumes prior knowledge they aren’t able to do it. Thus far they have also refused my suggestion to review their notebooks from last year.

The big secret in Beninese education is that most students should not pass to the next level. They are simply not prepared to move on to the next grade, but the system passes them along in an effort to appear successful to outsiders. The main way they do this, at least at my school, is by giving every student a grade on behavior and factoring that into their GPA.

Last week the teachers and administration met to propose conduct grades for the students. In theory every student should be given an individual grade based on how many times they’ve been written up for offenses, but for various reasons my school doesn’t really keep track of individual students and their behavior well enough to do this. Therefore what we do is decide on one grade for the entire class.

So at our meeting we all sit down and talk about our general impressions of behavior at the school and then each teacher proposes a conduct grade for the classes they teach. Translated into American style grades, most teachers proposed A’s or B’s for their classes. I, however, was proposing C’s and D’s for my classes. The administration was more inclined to giving them a better grade, although I was successful in getting my worst classes lowered by a letter grade, so I consider that a small victory.

Oh! You Pretty Things

The other week I had a meeting with the school administration and the parents’ association to talk about our school building project. Like many of my meetings here, at one point it turned into people taking turns lavishing complements on me (always an uncomfortable experience). I was sort of struck, though, by what they were complementing me for.

I’ve come to realize that complements are a way of showing cultural values, in that obviously people point out what they consider to be praiseworthy in giving complements. Similarly, people don’t really complement what’s common or expected, you tend to focus complements on some unique trait of a person that you think sets them apart.

I think it’s pretty telling the complements that people give me here. I get a lot of complements like, “you are always working, you work so hard (which is definitely not true),” “when you say you will do something, you actually do it,” and so on.

To me, people single out these things to complement me on because they view them as qualities that are lacking in Benin. I’ve found that a lot of Beninese people are very self-critical (often unfairly) when it comes to their work ethic, or they’ll lament that Beninese people don’t prize honesty in word and doings the way westerners do (culturally there is more of an emphasis on telling someone what they want to hear because they don’t want someone unhappy).

Jean Genie

After struggling to get back into form, this last week our girls’ soccer team finally started showing up. Following Christmas break we were having trouble getting girls to show up, due to some internal drama amongst the girls and miscommunication. Last Wednesday we had 30 girls show up though, which is about as many as we can realistically hope for.

The other coach and I got together a few weeks ago to get some pennies made up for the girls to use at practice. Whenever we had scrimmages it was getting pretty difficult to tell who was on which team. At first we had the girls bring headbands, so it would be headbands vs. non-headbands during scrimmages. But many of the girls would forget, and it just really didn’t work. So we went to the market, got the cheapest plain-colored fabric we could find (I think it worked out to something like 60 cents a meter) and then found a seamstress who agreed to make up 24 pennies more or less at cost (something like 80 cents a penny).

It’s nice to have something to differentiate teams during scrimmage, and also the pennies sort of serve as jerseys. Even the boys’ team at the school doesn’t have practice jerseys or anything, so it’s another way for the girls to take pride in what their doing and help boost their confidence.

As far as their skills are concerned, they’ve gotten a lot better. They have mostly moved away from pack soccer, understanding the concept of positions. Things will start getting difficult the next few weeks though, since the school will be starting the inter-class tournament. All of the different classes (we have 11 at our school) organize a boy’s team and compete in a tournament to see who is the best in the school. Games are held during the only time during the week when there aren’t any classes going on, which also happens to be the time our girls club meets. This will make it more difficult since we won’t be able to use the big soccer field, and the girls will be easily distracted.


Big things are happening at our school. It’s well on its way now to being a respectable secondary school by local standards. Our classroom project is humming along; I’d guess there is still probably about a month of work left to finish up, but that will depend largely on two factors.

First, how fast can we get sand to the school. In a cost cutting move we decided to have the sand brought to school by students. It’s normal to give students hours of work as a punishment, typically it’s weeding or sweeping or whatever. So in theory students given hours should gather sand from nearby and carry it to the school. This is not a particularly fast process though, so we’ve had some hold up there.

The other hold up has been a declining work ethic in the laborers. It’s the hottest time of year, so I can see why they wouldn’t want to work between noon and four o’clock or so. But, if that’s the case, they should probably show up before ten in the morning (I’d think seven or eight would be a nice, cool time to start working), and should not spend half their time dicking around with students. Last week I had to have a word with the foreman about this (also fun fact, learned a couple of weeks ago that the foreman is illiterate when we needed him to sign something).

In addition to our school project, we actually have a few other projects going on right now at the school that are helping to make it more respectable. The mayor’s office forked over some cash to build latrines, which should be finished any day now. There have also been rumors that the school will be getting solar panels (it’s currently not hooked up to the electricity grid), which are being donated by some company with ties to the government. You gotta love election year funding.

Finally, I’m starting to work now on a project to bring trashcans to the school. Like everywhere else in Benin the current solution to the garbage problem is dropping whatever you don’t want on the ground and then forgetting about it. What we’re going to do is buy some of those metal oil drums (that way you can easily burn the trash when it gets full), cut them in half, and then have a contest with the students to see who can come up with the best designs/slogans to paint on them. The goal is to have trashcans with images/slogans about how to avoid malaria, or why education is important, or whatever other message the students can think of around the campus. It’ll help keep it clean, and a little public art will make it a more appealing place.


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