Friday, February 6, 2009

my first project

One of the initial realizations that I made here in Minnehaha (AKA "Water World") was that the 12 men of the town's artisana desire tutoring in English. As this seems to be an initial "foot-in-the-door" activity for many volunteers, I went along with it. After all, as per PACA, their wish is my command.

Wednesday was my first "lesson," and let me tell you, it was shaky. Not having a command of the language surely impedes your ability to teach it. Let's just say there was quite a bit of confusion. I was thanked afterward, and I could tell people were happy. Oh well, I felt good because at least I started something.

However, this afternoon was much different. I spent yesterday and this morning preparing my lesson (including purchasing small spiral-bound notebooks for each of the artisans). Upon arriving at the artisana, I started writing simple phrases such as "How are you," and "What's your name?," on the ill-supported chalkboard that I stole from the neighboring neddy. When I finished writing all of the phrases, I recruited the artisana supervisor, whom I will call "Shep," to assist me in the Arabic translations (Shep studied English extensively in high school and still has a remarkable speaking ability...some 25 years later).

But what happened next was unforseen. Shep had basically taken over the lesson, with me pretty much just standing there (at that point, Emily was working one-on-one with another artisan on his pronunciation of the word "night," which was coming out repeatedly as "nice"). Shep was fielding questions, providing the pronunciations for the English phrases, and even introducing other vocabulary that wasn't included in the lesson. I was there for confirmation on technical questions about English, but that was pretty much it! When all the questions were answered, and everyone was practicing/repeating random English phrases, Shep gave me the piece of chalk and took his seat among his students. Bravo Sir.

Those of you who aren't familiar with sustainable development or Peace Corps' approaches to development may initially think that this was a bad scenario. However, as a Peace Corps volunteer, my goal is not to barge into some place and take hold of the reins and single-handedly run a dictatorship. This is not "my way or the highway." Ultimately, my goal is to be a inspirer....a "change agent" that will identify strengths of an organization, a co-operation, or in this case, a artisana, and help those people realize their abilities and harness them.

I feel like today was a victory in the name of sustainability. Over time, as Shep's confidence and sense of self-purpose improves, his ability to lead his woodcarvers to English literacy will likewise improve. Emily and I are here to ensure that this happens, not just in English teaching, but in any activity that we begin. Happy Peace Corps volunteers are those who know, after they have returned to America, that their labors are still producing fruit. This is what it's all about.

Now, I'd like to share a humorous anecdote about Moroccans learning English:

One of the artisans, whom I will call "Benny," has a extraordinary desire for English vocabulary. He already knows and employs "Give me money," "Let's go to souq," "chicken," and "cheap tomatoes." The other day, as I entered the chamber where the artisans work, I saw a large stag beetle on the ground. As I didn't know the word for "beetle," and I forgot the word for "bug," I felt like this huge insect would be a good conversation starter.

Of course I got the vocabulary that I was looking for, but I also got a really nasty smell on my finger (apparently this was a stink bug or something). As I exclaimed in disgust that I had a "nasty" smell on my finger, Benny's ears perked up as he quickly asked me for the English word for "xansa" (nasty). I told him and he practiced it for a little while. All of the sudden, he stopped chopping at his bowl. He called over to me and said, with a smile, "cheap tomatoes nasty," which of course caused us both to laugh hysterically. I can't wait to see what he'll be saying 22 months from now...

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