June 5, 2009

Confessions of a futon revolutionist

I'd like to lead off with a big thank you to the people who write me or send me packages; even small notes make all the difference out here.

It's been a while since I've written, so I'm hoping to make some sort of amends with this post, so forgive my wordiness, it comes as a result of my recent lack of proclivity towards writing.
Winter is here. It's been chilly; I don't think I've seen anything above 50 degrees F in a few weeks. I did buy myself two blankets, one for wearing during the day, which helps with my indoctrination into the local culture. The other blanket is a pretty garish leopard spotted thing (the reverse side has a giant lion on it) but it keeps me nice and snuggly in my cold little rondavel. More so than the cold of winter, it's the shortened daylight that I feel. My rondavel and school sit between two mountain peaks, and both sit partially on a mountain, so the sun peeks out at about 8:30 and hides itself at about 420. School starts at 7 and ends at 4:30, so my daylight hours are rather limited, which is quite a bummer.

Fortunately, school goes out on winter vacation on the 12th, until August, so I will be able to enjoy the short daylight hours plenty. My next quarter will actually begin July 20th, when I'll be teaching poetry to the Form C's for two weeks before beginning teaching all my other classes. Hopefully there will be a new teacher at my school when I return, so that I can stop teaching 30 credit hours/week, which is definitely cutting into my effectiveness, but after being approached by the teacher (since departed) several times to explain what an electron is (as in the basic high school definition of the thing that orbits an atom and has a negative charge) I volunteered to teach science (no chemistry or physics since junior year of high school, and I can tell you I wasn't exactly an academic inspiration to my classmates at the time).

All this teaching means that I have a lot of marking to do, it being exam time at my school. The marks this semester, due at least partially to my over-abundant schedule, have been fairly disappointing. Fortunately, when marks are disappointing, and you've included open-ended questions, you do get a little bit of enjoyment:
(Following a diagram of a microscope)
Question: (c) Which one of the sense organs is aided by this instrument?
Answer: Sperm
Let's just say that there's still a lot of confusion regarding sexual education with my form B's (aged 14-20). I do accept some responsibility for the copiousness of sexually related answers to open-ended questions on my exam: I did teach sex Ed. This quarter. Let me just say that I felt resource-less, as I literally only had an overly technical bio dictionary and what I could recall from high school sex Ed. This means that I felt a little amiss about some of my answers regarding menstruation. Fortunately the kids were not nearly as immature as American students and were very intently interested on what I had to say, as it is definitely a cultural faux pas to talk about sex with your parents or teachers, or for those same authority figures to address it with anyone. The children were initially resistant to asking questions until I told them they could submit them into a jar (OK . . . plastic bag) that I put in the front of the classroom. At this point they decided that it was perfectly OK for them to write down the questions, hand them to me, and have me immediately read them and answer them, as it was really only the speaking of certain words they felt was forbidden to themselves

Unfortunately, this was not the most interesting part of teaching at Tebellong Secondary School this quarter. That would have to be the fight that occurred about two weeks ago. One of my Form C students, Chabana, who is not a high-performer, but otherwise has been fairly non-descript in my classes, got into a fight. He hit another boy, Suntaha, because he wanted to get seconds at lunch before others had gotten their firsts. Suntaha, a Form D student, is in charge of making sure this doesn't happen and did not allow Chabana to get more food. Chabana took a swing, and a fight broke out. Suntaha, a bigger, older boy, clocked him in the mouth a few times, I didn't see this, but I did see the blood gushing out of his mouth. At this point in the fight I was still in the staff room marking papers.
I stepped outside after several teachers had already gone outside (I looked around and found the staff room suspiciously vacant) and saw the two boys on the lower part of the ground fighting, while literally the entire school was watching from the upper tiers of the compound. Chabana was clearly enraged as the majority of the school had sided with Suntaha, both on principle and because he was the better fighter, and were thus laughing at Chabana.
I was confused as to why the teachers were taking no action, assuming I was missing out on some cultural precedent (it wouldn't surprise me to find out they have a "let them fight it out" mentality... as they essentially do). Finally, another teacher, Ntate Sekonyela, walked down to intervene and I followed. The two of us pulled the kids apart. Suntaha, who I had taken out of the fight, walked towards the office building calmly. Chabana, held by Ntate Sekonyela, was much less sedate. He shook free of Ntate Sekonyela and he did not seem upset and did not try to restrain him, so I grabbed him and he seemed to calm down, so I let go of him. At this point he darted up the steps, directly next to all of the other teachers who had been watching, picked up a rock bigger than a fist, and threw it full force at the now running Suntaha, as he fled to the staff room. Unfortunately, Basotho are notoriously good aims with rocks and he managed to wail Suntaha square in the back. I ran to catch the boys, now fighting in the staff office, with 'M'e Tembe caught between them. I tore Chabana away and outside. 'M'e Tembe came quickly outside, covered in her own blood, with an incredibly vicious, unsightly cut above her eye (I swear I could see her skull). She was immediately rushed down the road to the hospital, fortunately my school has a truck and the hospital, one of the best in the district, is a ten-minute walk from my school. Needless to say the boy was expelled and will not be returning.
Violence in Basotho schools related to food is far from uncommon. This quarter, one of the closest high schools in my area had a food riot. The students, upset that they were only being fed cabbage and papa (essentially corn meal) when they wanted a little more diversity (my school has cabbage and papa on Monday and Thursday, Beans on Tuesday, Samp [dried corn with water added to it] on Wednesday, and Soup [featuring soy] and papa on Friday) decided the appropriate action would be to take stones to all the windows in the area, including the teachers residence, and even beat-up a few teachers. Another school, Eagles Peak, which is the closest school to me, closed its doors two weeks before the end of the quarter, for fear of the same thing happening. This means that they will be testing their students for this quarters work in two months. You don't have to be a teacher to understand how utterly ludicrous this is.
That's not to say that everything is bad at my school. I hosted a meeting at my school about a month ago and was able to essentially take beatings off the table. I wish I could take complete credit for this, but I feel that most of it lays with the wonderful examples set by the previous PCVs at my site, Meg Stockhausen and Todd Ellick, who did not use corporeal punishment, and the terrific class that Janice and Karen led on the subject during my phase III training. While I'm not going to pretend that kids aren't hit by some of the teachers during class, we set a strict punishment plan for various offenses that involve no beating and very limited alternative corporeal punishment. The alternative corporeal punishments mostly involve cleaning up the school premises with shovels, which rely upon consumption of time after school rather than grueling work. Otherwise the students sit for detentions and have to write letters, the latter turning out to be quite an intense punishment for non-native English speakers.

Other than school, a whole lot of nothing has been happening. Minus getting dropped off a few hours from home well after dark in a closed town by myself with no more public coming, life has been largely uneventful. This of course will change shortly, as Danie, my wonderful girlfriend, is flying in for a two-and-a-half-week visit this month.
Till next time
One Love
Brett Burk/Teboho Nthako


Scott Porbansky said...

Brett, I miss and love you. I am glad you are healthy and well.

the wrong arms said...

it's funny because I'm going to be gone practically 3 weeks, but I'm only with you for 2 and a half. so much time travelling that it just disappears. LOVE YOU. SEE YOU TWO WEEKS FROM TODAY!

Anonymous said...

I shouldn't say this, but 'M'e Kori and I used to tie kids up behind the truck and drive down the mountain and across the river if they misbehaved. Hope things are going well. Give my love to the Nthakos and staff