Theoretically, the Government of Lesotho awards grants to each high school in Lesotho so that every high school has a certain amount of government-paid teachers (the number is proportional to the amount of students at the school). In the past, St. Rodrigue High School was not awarded their full grant money, and thus, had a shortage of teachers. However, in 2007 or 2008 (Sister Tsiki, the principal, cannot remember the exact year, and it is difficult to do proper research from here) the government finally granted St. Rodrigue money for 20 teaching positions. These grants not only help St. Rodrigue pay its teachers, but also ensure secure teaching positions for the teachers at St. Rodrigue.
The awarding of these grants marked a changing point for St. Rodrigue High School, which being “in the boonies,” so to speak, once suffered from a perpetual shortage of teachers, who preferred to be in more convenient and happenin’ locals. These grants, ensuring enough Basotho teachers at St. Rodrigue, also marked a momentous change for the Grinnell Corps program in Lesotho; whereas fellows once filled vacant teaching positions, making them full teachers like the rest of the staff, fellows now find themselves dispensable as teachers. We often now do not teach our own classes. Instead, we work closely with our Basotho colleagues to team-teach (an interesting, and sometimes trying experience); we work to share classes that already have teachers, rather than taking over teacher-less classes. Thus, we are finding it necessary to redefine, both for St. Rodrigue and for ourselves, what our role and purpose is here. After much thinking and discussing, and after working closely with the girls, I have realized that our most important role here is also our most obvious role: it is the diversity we add to this place, our differing backgrounds, the knowledge and experiences we bring from far beyond the mountains of Lesotho. While this was once secondary to being highly necessary teachers, I consider the differences we bring to now be our primary role here.
For me, the significance of this role has been most marked in my literature classes, discussing stories and poems with the girls. In my Form D class (which I share with Sister Angela—we take turns teaching short stories from the book we are reading) , we are reading a book of short stories called Games at Twilight, written by Anita Desai. Anita Desai is an Indian author, and these stories are set in various cities in India. I happened to have studied in Delhi during my senior fall at Grinnell, and spent three months travelling around India both before the start of and after the completion of my study abroad program. This experience gives me a much different context for understanding these stories from Sister Angela and from the students, and means that I can offer a unique perspective when Sister Angela and I discuss the stories outside of class, and when I explain what is going on in the stories to the girls. I can show the girls pictures of things like the Jama Masjid in Delhi and the Gateway to India in Bombay, I can explain to them what jalebis and halwa taste like, I can explain to them that a lotus is a sacred flowe¬r in Hinduism and show them what yoga is. All of these things help explain the stories and aid the girls in understanding their meaning. For example, in several of the stories, various characters are made happy by baby boys. Sister Angela asked me why it was always baby boys, rather than baby girls. We discussed the preference for baby boys in places throughout India, and what we thought this added to the stories and what Desai was trying to say. This helped Sister Angela understand the stories more deeply, and gave us a point from which we could share our different perspectives about the meaning of the stories.
On Tuesday, the Form Bs were cramming for their literature exam during lunch. One of the short stories they read in class last quarter (before I was here) is called A Man Dream’s Dreams, written by Siko Ka Mjali. In this story, Sipho dreams that all six of his daughters will be educated and that the youngest daughter, Nomsa, will be an attorney—the first female attorney from the town. The story begins with other men in the village gossiping about how Sipho is a fool, “enrich[ing] other men’s kraals by providing them with learned wives” and that Sipho cannot dispute “the fact that our girls have to leave us sooner or later to fulfill the biological purpose for which the lord created them.” As I walked down the hall, some of the girls stopped me to question me about the story. They did not understand why the village men were making fun of Sipho. Lesotho is a country where girl’s education is more common than boy’s, especially in rural areas. Many boys spend their days taking sheep, cows and donkeys out to graze while their sisters are in class. When I explained to the girls that many places are different from Lesotho in this regard, that in many places boys are educated while girls stay at home, they were taken aback. Understanding this fact, which they had not discussed when reading the story with Mme Tsolo (she may have known this fact but not have considered it as important to understanding the story), helped them to have a better grasp on what they were reading.
The next story I discussed with the Form Bs was KBW written by Farrukh Dhondy. KBW stands for Keep Britain White. This story outlines the racism faced by a Bangladeshi family living in Devonmount Estate in the Borough of Hackney, “the worst estate” there is. The story is told from the perspective of a white boy who befriends Tahir, his neighbor, and whose father is accepting of the Habibs, contrary to general feelings that pervade the neighborhood. The story ends in a violent attack on the family and presents the repercussions both for the Habibs and the narrator. I asked the girls to tell me what they DID understand about the story. Nothing. I started out simply, or so I thought “Well, you know Britain?” I asked them. A chorus of no. Well, Britain is a country in Europe…you know, at one time Lesotho was a British protectorate?...it is in Europe. It is a place that very long ago in the past had mostly white people living in it. Here, the girl’s lack of historical knowledge (they do not study history, social studies or world geography) becomes incredibly difficult: how can one explain racism without ANY historical context? Understanding racism is critical to understanding this story. Many Basotho in rural areas do not think a lot about racism because they have not experienced it directly. This may seem strange considering Lesotho is a country completely surrounded by South Africa, a country marked by racial oppression. However, Lesotho’s independence, the historical presence of just one ethnic group (this is changing now, especially with the growing presence of Chinese in the country), and its isolation from the outside world has meant that racism is not identified or discussed by many people here. This story and the differences between our skin colors gave the girls and me an interesting jumping off point to discuss this issues. Though the lack of historical knowledge makes it seem more obscure to them, using examples and talking to them about immigration and current events helped them to understand the plot of the story more clearly and brings up issues that the girls get exc ited to know more about.
On the other side of this, I have found also that I can learn from my co-teachers in the classroom, and that where I can bring in the outside world, they understand this place and the experiences of these girls in a way that I am unable to. Last week, the Form A girls, who I team-teach with Mme T’solo, were reading a poem called The Bat. Our syllabi are national and we do not have a choice over the things we teach, only how we choose to teach them. The poem is as follows:
It’s late in the afternoon,
A convenient time for strolling,
Opposite my way
A la-di-da African lady,
Captures my attention.
Sharp as bear’s,
Hold a cigarette
That frequents the mouth.
Skinny hips in tight fit
Swing like wipers of a car.
Identifying her wasn’t easy
For I found her too artificial
To belong to the Western World;
But also too ridiculous
To be an African.
Then I ask myself:
Will Africans ever be African?
This is a poem I felt relieved not to have to teach. Either Mme T’solo or I could teach that “long nailed fingers/sharp as bears” is a simile or that “Will Africans ever be African?” is a rhetorical question. But our reading of this poem and our ability to understand it comes from different contexts; whereas I would find the sexism in this poem to be unavoidable, that the dichotomy presented between the West and Africa to be problematic, Mme T’solo was able to teach this as a poem about a woman who lost her identity. Mme T’solo is an African woman who sometimes smokes cigarettes, paints her nails, and wears tight clothes, but she is neither artificial nor ridiculous. She still identifies as a mosotho woman and as an African woman. As an African woman, Mme T’solo can talk to the girls about what it means to her to be African, what it means to her to be an African woman and about why this author perceived “the bat” as having lost her identity. This is something I would feel uncomfortable teaching the girls, and not necessarily what I would think of when reading this poem on my own. It would be inappropriate for me to try to teach the girls what it means to be African. However, this poem presented Mme T’solo with an interesting opportunity to discuss identity with the girls. Additionally, this is the meaning that they will likely be expected to produce in their zonal exams.
I have similarly found that my Basotho colleagues can help me digest and work through the different lenses that the students and I use to view the stories. For example, I have found with the Form Ds that my experience in India also means that there are certain references and events in the stories that I easily understand, but have an incredibly difficult time contextualizing, explaining and making sense of for the girls. For these girls, most of whom come from villages without electricity (which means no TVs or computers), who have never crossed the borders of Lesotho, and who do not study world history, social studies, or the outside world at all, this is not always a simple task. Discussing the stories with Sister Angela outside of class helps me to gain an idea of what the girls will know and what will confuse them, and to gain ideas for explaining certain themes of the stories. She can ask me questions about words or ideas in the story, and then she can give me similar ideas or words that exist here in Lesotho.
For me, team teaching has thus far been a positive experience. Ultimately, when team teaching works, the different perspective we bring balances and compliments the intrinsic understanding the Basotho teachers have about their own culture. We are able to ask each other about parts of the poems and stories we don’t understand, and share and discuss the themes we are thinking about. In the absence of the internet or other resources, this dialogue is especially important. We are each other’s resources. The differences in our training and backgrounds mean we value different elements of what we are reading, and find different pieces of the stories and poems significant. We learn from each other, and the girls, in turn, learn valuable and different things from both teachers.
Any good Grinnellian knows there is more to education than your test score or your grade (this can be easy to forget at St. Rodrigue, where the world revolves around exam scores). Our role here has changed, but it is just as valuable. Our role is now to work with our Basotho colleagues to present multiple and differing ideas to our students. Without the Grinnell fellows, St. Rodrigue would be a different place and the education that the girls’ receive would be absent of the diversity that we confront them with in and out of the classroom.