Education in an African Context: 'Behind the Veil'

Posted: Sunday, May 23, 2010

Hassan wakes up around 6 a.m. every day. After breakfast he catches a 30-minute bus from his town in Balbala to Djibouti City.

He attends anywhere from two to six hours of English class, then repeats the 30-minute ride back home for dinner and to study. Around 7 p.m. he puts on a nice shirt and pants, and walks to the private English school where he then teaches English classes himself to his local community. He finishes around 10 p.m., leaving barely enough time for some rest before going to bed so he can repeat the whole cycle the very next day, six days a week.

And so goes the typical day in the life of one of my students; who I'm beginning to understand lead lives that really are not so typical at all.

There is also Filsan. She is the first in her family to go to school; however instead of support, her family treats her with jealousy. She is often denied bus money to go to school, and is sometimes even locked out of her house, having to sleep over at friends' homes. I can still see the tired bags under her eyes to prove it. But despite this, she diligently comes to class. Every week. And she takes her tests, and turns in her homework. Every week. Because for Filsan her education is worth it.

What drives these people to work this way, to live this way? This is the question I've been grappling with recently. I guess you could say these personal stories that I've been encountering here have been quite humbling for me. Hassan is one of my university students, and he invited me one evening to visit the private school where he taught after class. As he was going to school himself almost 25 hours a week to study English, it was perplexing how he actually had spare time to teach others.

At his school, I observed cramped classrooms assembled with the same corrugated metal as the surrounding shanty towns, and desks and benches of nothing more than irregularly shaped wooden boards haphazardly nailed together. However what I also discovered, while watching Hassan teach, were classes full of energetic and motivated students, many who had a higher level of English than my own university students. I also observed Hassan employing many of the same teaching techniques with his students that I used in my classes. I was taken off guard by everything, and I didn't know what to think.

The story of Djibouti and education is like two heartbroken souls finally finding love in each other late in life. Colonization by the French, and later its own independence, brought access to education closer to its people then ever in its history. However the acceptance of this shift has come slowly. This nation of half a million has traditionally been a land of nomadic camel herders, and that history has not provided the country with a foundation of a solidly educated population. Enrollment rates for high school alone are only 26 percent, and fall to a mere 7 percent at the college level. Even then, these schools are understaffed with qualified teachers and overcrowded with students. Education in Djibouti truly is, a "developing" process.

After Hassan's classes we sat in the "office" of the school director. The private school is taught by five teachers, all formerly students themselves at the private school, all currently studying English at the university, and none who were older than 25. The students at the private school all come from the surrounding community, and range from public school students wanting some extra work on their English, to students who are unable or can't afford to go to a regular school to learn. I asked Hassan if he earned money for teaching here. "Yes, but only a little," he replied. "This is really more of volunteering, because after I graduated from this private school I decided to return and help out."

One of the other teachers asked me if I had my PhD, or just a master's. I was at a loss for words. How could I tell them that I only had a bachelor's, had only taught English for two years before, had never taught at the university level before Djibouti, would not even be qualified to do it in my own country, and was their same age?

It brought to mind another story, of my university colleague Houmed. At 32, Houmed lives with his parents and 12 other brothers and sisters in the same small home. His dream has been to get a PhD, but he lacks the funds. To solve this he spends half the year in Djibouti teaching at the university, where he takes on a double load of courses so he can obtain a scholarship for pursuing his studies in France the second half of the year. On top of all this he is also balancing the family responsibilities that come with being the oldest sibling.

 He works harder than anyone I've ever known, and has more strains on his life, yet you wouldn't know it by his face or his demeanor, because he always brings good humor with him and seems to always be in good spirits.

I was beginning to be struck by a notion: Djiboutians, like most Africans, are not oblivious to their surroundings. They are aware that their country is considered "developing" and the connotations that come with that label. They are aware that their population is undereducated, that an annual average salary of $450 is insufficient, and that an average life expectancy in the mid 40's is not good. But what I've also discovered is a population fiercely dedicated to the pursuit of education, and the pursuit of their dreams. That behind the statistics and the unfavorable conditions, and behind the veil of obstacles, are people who understand more than anyone I've ever known the importance of education in the quest to improve their lives.

So when I ask myself again: what drives these people to work this way, to live this way? I think of stories like Houmed, or Hassan, or Filsan. I think of stories of people like these who help me to understand that the will of a Djiboutian to work towards a hope, a goal, a dream, despite having challenges, but simply for the shear hope of achieving it, is a will stronger than I or many others could ever possess. And the realization that the fact I am in even in my teaching position is in large part because of my privileged upbringing, lets me know that I owe it to them to be as good a teacher as possible. Because they deserve it.

0x2022 Philip Dierking is a Juneau resident working as an International Foundation for Education and Self-Help (IFESH) volunteer in the east African country of Djibouti, where he teaches English at the only university.

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