Ali Brown 4

Ali Brown, Grinnell Corps: Lesotho 2004

Friday, Jan. 4, 2013 2:23 am

Here we have another late report. Apparently Africa is still in my blood and I am still doing things slowly. I am back in the States. So is my luggage. So is Lauren. The latter two almost didn't make it. Just as my luggage was lost when I arrived in Lesotho last January, it was also lost when I left Lesotho this December. Just as Lauren realized her money belt was missing when we arrived at the Joburg airport last January, she realized her ticket was missing at the Joburg airport the day we were leaving this December. But in the end we and our luggage arrived back in the States. Now I am sitting here in a coffee shop with wireless internet trying to think about Africa while strong Wisconsin accents echo in my ears. Because the accents are so thick I have trouble understanding what the people are saying - it's almost like I'm still in Africa.

People keep asking me, "SO, how was Africa?" I haven't figured out how to answer that question in a clever and witty two to three sentences yet. I usually wait a moment or two, tilt my head upward toward the ceiling, put on my most profound-looking face and say, "It was good." At this point the other party decides that I have lost my command of the English language (which is not entirely untrue) and leaves me looking like an idiot studying the ceiling. At least they save me from saying, "Will you borrow me your pen for a moment?"

I've never lived in a place I had to leave knowing that I may never see it and its people again. Sure we all graduate from Grinnell and are sad to leave, but we know that we will be dragged back at some point. We know Grinnellians will continue to infiltrate our lives. But, I don't know about St. Rodrigue. Unless I can trick someone else into paying for the plane ticket, the chances are pretty slim that I will see Lesotho again in the near future.

Of all the things that I had to leave, I think it was hardest to leave the students - these students I have gotten to know, in whom I have invested my time, who have amazed me, made me want to cry, made me laugh - they are going to go on with their lives next year and I won't be there to see their struggles and successes. I don't know how teachers do it year after year, coming to know and care about a group of students only to say good-bye to them a year later. And there are routines and skills that took me a year to build, to develop and now I won't be there to sustain them. There are students who I know have a chance at making it to university and I want to be there to continue to encourage them. There are students who I know will never make it to university, but who I have watched gain confidence in themselves, become proud of things they have accomplished. I want to be there to continue to emphasize the value of their successes no matter how seemingly small. I suppose this is what it means to be a teacher.

Another question I have been asked, "So, was it worth it?" Another long pause and a contemplative look and I answer quite brilliantly, "Yes." Little scenes flash before my eyes. One example is the way that the students would sometimes alter their standard greeting when I walked into the classroom. Their usual greeting goes like this:

Class: Good morning 'M'e Aliiiii. (said with a drawn out raised intonation at the end of Ali)
Me: Good morning B2's.
Class: How are you, 'M'e Aliiiii?
Me: I am just fine. How are you?
Class: We are very well, thank you, 'M'e Aliiii.
Me: Good.
Class: (say little prayer)
Me: And you may be seated.
Class: Thank you 'M'e Aliiiii.

Now if on that day, let's say the students have found out that I have a visitor from "America" and I have not brought this visitor to meet them then the greeting will go as follows:

Class: Good morning 'M'e Aliiiii.
Me: Good morning B2's.
Class: How are you, 'M'e Aliiiii?
Me: I am just fine. How are you?
Class: We are NOT WELL!
Me: Good-What?!
Class: (say little prayer)
Me: And you may be seated.
Class: Thank you, 'M'e Aliiiii.
Me: Now what is the problem?

The class erupts into chaos as 45 students try to tell me how I have wronged them.

Now one particular day, let's say on Wednesday November 3, 2004, I went into class with my heart heavy (like most democrats, I would assume), and when they asked, "How are you, 'M'e Aliiiii?" I was the one to say, "I am NOT WELL!" It amused me to no end to see their startled little faces. Following my little outburst, we talked about the politics in the United States briefly and then they began to tell me about the politics of Lesotho. Virtually everyone had an opinion on the matter- a very strong opinion. I put an end to the discussion before any physical violence occurred. After school a few of them came up to me and told me some more about their political system. I loved to see them demonstrate knowledge about a topic in which they felt invested.

During my year at St. Rodrigue there were times I questioned whether the students were improving at all, whether my presence was helping or hindering them. A friend who has just finished her first semester teaching was telling me that she can't see any improvement in her students yet. I told her that I thought half a year was too soon to judge. So future Lesotho fellows take note, I know I saw small changes in the students by the end of the first term, but I couldn't have said that I thought their English was better, that they understood me better. But they were learning. By November I was coming home every couple days impressed with something my students had done that I know they couldn't have done a year before. My students put together a newspaper (full of errors but still readable). My maths class demonstrated through a competition that they knew how to communicate with each other, to work in a group. I found myself spending 3-4 minutes on directions as opposed to my 15-20 in the beginning of the year. I consider all of this progress when I remember that I started my year unable to communicate what I meant by, "What is your name? What should I call you?"

I find myself just wanting to write about various students' accomplishments. Some of these accomplishments might seem small, but the small accomplishments need to be celebrated. At some point while in Lesotho I realized that I had to adjust my expectations, expectations of my students as well as myself. No matter how much I would like to believe that all of these girls could go to University if they wanted to, the truth is that most of them won't. But that does not mean that they can't feel successful, or that they are failures. These students that I got to know are amazing. Some of them have gone through so much to be at school. Some of them are living with no parents. But every single one of them is able to take care of herself in a way that most American girls do not. The girls living at the hostel live on their own, cooking and cleaning for themselves every day. It is not just school that defines them. They demonstrate their abilities in many ways.

I am so glad to have had this opportunity to teach in Lesotho. While not always perfect, it was a wonderful experience. I think it is an exciting time at St. Rodrigue right now. In the last few years the students results on their tests have improved, the volleyball team won the national championship, and they now have a computer at the convent! Sister Armelina, the principal, is always looking for ways to improve the school. She is progressive and always open to new ideas. I found her to be an excellent resource, comfort, and partner in the effort to educate our students to the best of our abilities. People are often asking how they can help the school so I just wanted to mention some of the things that Sister Armelina is trying to work on for the school. She is trying to get funding for stoves for the girls' hostel, a school vehicle, teachers' housing, and a computer for the school. One of the things that she wants to try to change is the way the library works. She is looking for help on how to reorganize it and how to use it to run extra-help sessions during the day, almost as classes. I also think that the school would benefit tremendously from a school newspaper or newsletter and Sister Armelina is enthusiastic about the idea. If I was able to stay longer that is one thing I would want to continue to work on.

To those of you who have read my reports during the year, who have sent me mail and packages, who have answered my phone calls, and sent me good thoughts across the Atlantic, thank you. To those of you who are applying or going to St. Rodrigue, good luck and enjoy it!