Never saw me as the preschool type? That’s because I’m not. Yet here I am…
Technically, I’m here as a teacher trainer and curriculum supervisor – meaning I teach the teachers what to teach, then show up and monitor to make sure they abide by the curriculum and abide by preschool rules.
No, I don't actually teach. Unfortunately, neither do the people paid to do so.
It’s like this…
Preschools, as I might have mentioned before, are a newish concept over here. Education with the aim of actually educating children is kind of a foreign concept in the first place. Teachers choose the profession – which involves completing the 10th grade and one year of training – because it’s better than working in the machamba. Much better – because you don’t have to do much beyond show up occasionally.
The challenge for me is being culturally sensitive while still attempting to make very necessary changes. There are certain things I have had to acknowledge are simply the result of my overly-paranoid American upbringing and are simply never going to happen here. In other areas, change is simply vital – to the survival of the school in some ways and the survival of the children in others. My sanity is already a lost cause.
Goal One: Adult Supervision.
Right now, I don’t even worry about the teachers actually teaching all the time – just be with the children! This is a strange concept because culturally they don’t supervise their own flesh and blood children at home – so why on earth would they do it for some stranger’s little boogers?
As such, I often find myself running between the two classrooms, kitchen/office and the new playground equipment, searching for the teachers (with such a simple campus you’d think it’d be difficult to hide…but they manage).
Remember the Saturday morning cartoon Recess, and how the kindergartens ran around in loin cloths and war paint with spears? For starters…
A typical afternoon looks like this: I’m sitting in the midst of the 3- and 4-years old, peacefully singing the alphabet song, when Teacher 1 says she needs to use the casa da banho. That’s fine – but wait, where has Teacher 2 gone to?! This means I will be alone with the little boogers for a minute. This doesn’t look good.
Minutes after Teacher 1 leaves, the room is in chaos.
The kids have raided the toy area, are bouncing off the naptime mats and, of course, engaging in their favorite activity: hitting each other.
“Nao lhe bate!” (Don’t hit him!) is my useless battle cry. A few kids who don’t speak Portuguese settle for taunting me in Xangana. One particular devil child stops hitting him and hits me instead. They know they can’t get away with it. Unlike the other teachers, I refuse to hit them back.
Finally, I run outside and to the 5-year-old classroom and stick my head in the door to beg help from Teacher 3.
Three girls have decided the dry-erase board isn’t near as much fun as the human canvasses of their classmates. A group of boys are taking turns using each other’s heads for soccer target practice. Two kids have another by the arms, one on each side, trying to see if they can pull him apart. A few others are testing the strength of the bars on the windows by dangling from them.
“Whew,” I say aloud. “No blood.”
I go teacher hunting.
I stick my head in the kitchen. The cook is there with Teacher 2, who has been MIA for an indeterminate amount of time. They pause their conversation and buttering bread for snack time to look up at the interruption.
“Hey, can someone, um, stay with the children?”
Teacher 2 looks shocked. “Can’t you see we’re busy here?”
Accompanying the children to the casa de banho is another thing Louise and I try to drill into the teachers every week during planning, and another thing that more often than not falls to us. Which really wouldn’t be a problem in an American preschool. But here’s a little different.
First, a word about the casa de banho. This is not a bathroom. Safety positioned 50 meters from the classrooms por causa de stench, the casa is a two-room concrete structure hovering over a pit that I don’t care to think about. The two sides each have three 6-inch holes cut into the floor with outlines indicating where to put your feet in order to avoid any, pardon me, misdirection. Stalls? Toilets? Toilet paper? Same place as the sink with running water, soap and electricity in general – only in my dreams.
Usually when I approach the casa de banho there is already a flock of students waiting patiently for help with buttons and zippers. First problem: When there is no teacher, there is no one to assist in this endeavor. And this doesn’t stop them from taking care of business.
Second problem: Inevitably, I will catch someone trying to sneak behind the casa de banho. Inevitably, that leads to me finding a small herd of children already there, taking care of business right there in the yard.
“No!” I shriek in Portuguese. “You have to fazer xixi (direct translation: make pee) inside the casa de banho!”
Typically this results in fiendish giggles, more taunting in Xangana, and me standing there, powerless to do anything but, no pun intended, let nature run its course.
I can’t blame them too much thought, because the casa de banho is usually pretty gross, thanks to children missing the hole – often by as much as three feet…
Moral of the story: These children need to be accompanied to the bathroom. Period.
As with any school, there is lunchtime and naptime. Remember bringing your Barney mat and pillow every day? Same concept, just a little different here. The capulana covers are mainly to keep the flies off faces.
There’s a breakfast in the morning and lunch in the afternoon. Lunch: rice. Everyday. Usually with something on top, but not necessarily. Breakfast: pepina (direct translation: porridge). Actually, I won’t lie, I look forward to the porridge.
Yet for all its problems, the school represents an incredible accomplishment, and I can’t begin to describe what an improvement it is over normal circumstances. The school is free for OVCs – Orphans and Vulnerable Children. About half the children are orphans. We don’t know the number that are HIV positive. But for several of the kids, it’s pretty clear.
Being an orphan here is not like the states. Rather than being placed in foster care, children are usually given to relatives. And they earn their keep. For the first few months here in Chokwe, I thought it was very interesting that our neighbor, a fellow teacher, had a young male empregado to do the washing, cooking, cleaning, etc. for the family. Then he told me that he was an orphaned relative. It’s the story of Cinderella, without the fairy godmother, prince or happy ending at the palace. But again, it’s infinitely better than the alternative.
These children are in such a situation. So to be able to go for free to a place where they can learn Portuguese, reading, writing, and receive two meals (even if it’s just empty carbs – again, better than the alternative) is truly a blessing. It’s like children are ultimately seen as expendable around here – especially children under 5, whose life expectancy is dismal.
And while some of them are little brats, there’s a lot that are I simply want to take home with me. I don’t pick favorites. But I do like one or two better than all the others. They're cute.