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Barbara Follows

Barbara Follows, M.Ed

"My philosophy is that every child is unique and, whatever their differences, every single child matters."

The Strategic Plan for Inclusive Education

Did you know that the sex organ on a male spider is situated at the end of one of its legs and that the ears of a cricket are located on the front legs just below the knee? I may have no television and unreliable radio and internet but the local paper provides me with an eclectic choice of news and information!

In The Namibian this week I was surprised to see a photograph of a group of bored people sitting on chairs and the floor, accompanied by the caption: "Election officials waiting for vehicles to be released from Government garage in Windhoek."

What? The reason that we now have very limited transport and cannot reach the many distant outlying schools is because of the November elections? I had no idea that that was the explanation. But looking on the bright side, maybe Government mechanics are working overtime to ensure the reliability of the fleet and they will return in good working order!

Meanwhile, perhaps we will have to resort to hiking (hitching lifts).

I met with a Peace Corps volunteer recently who told me about his Namibian hiking experiences. These volunteers, who are mostly American, are not allowed to purchase cars, as this is considered not a safe country to drive in. Therefore they have to run the risk of being mugged whilst hiking or injured when driven by mad taxi drivers! He told me of accepting lifts from all manner of people, but there were two that were most memorable to him.

The lift that he shared with a dead body: "I didn't know where to put my bag."

Then another time with a freshly killed cow: "I spent the journey on tip toes clutching my belongings to my chest out of the blood."

Attentive boyThe volunteer works deep in the bush with orphans who are very cut off from the modern world and, for instance, have never even seen a tarred road. He took a laptop with him to his placement, and although he has to travel many miles to recharge, it is worth it for its entertainment value. One day he showed the children the DVD of Jurassic Park and they marvelled at the animals that they now thought existed in America, as they have no concept of fictional film. The American volunteer had to, of course, then show Superman, which proves that Americans are superheroes who can fly and perform great deeds whilst saving people from terrible consequences.

Looking back on the year

So now, at the end of September 2009, what is the summary of my year here? The key to a successful VSO placement is sustainability, and as I prepare to leave Namibia it is uppermost in my mind. What will happen when I am gone? How can the movement towards Inclusive Education continue? Before I left the employ of the Ministry of Education it was intended that the Strategic Plan for Inclusive Education 2009-2010 would be finalised. Every department had promised to submit its targets, which would assist towards the goal of bringing Inclusive Education to the region's schools. The aforesaid Namibian newspaper has as its slogan "Telling it like it is", and that is what I intend to do in this, my final letter.

During June I gave training for management staff of the ministry, followed in August by information on writing targets, then individual guidance. The stage was set, I thought, for a successful launch of the Plan. But then my colleagues were told of the date of my impending departure, and instead of rushing to complete their tasks or arranging meetings to take advantage of the few weeks I had left, they withdrew behind "previous commitments" and pressure of work - thinking, perhaps, that the volunteer lady would soon be gone and the extra pressure of implementing Inclusive Education would go with her.

The majority of the Namibian people that I work with are still, understandably, hugely affected by their colonial past. I am white, a woman and of advancing years, therefore I am outwardly respected, listened to, politely questioned, and outcomes and deadlines are agreed - and then placed at the back of the queue of things to do. Because, in reality, they have either not understood, actually do not concur with the proposals or consider other demands more pressing to complete. So they say "Yes" when they mean "No". I understand that this is also common practice when doing business in places outside Europe, North America and Australasia.

Children in classHowever, it does not make it any easier to work with. This attitude is also evident in schools, where learners are not encouraged to question or voice their opinions or, indeed, made to feel that their opinions matter. It also leads to a blame culture in that if a task is not completed it is always because of the fault of something or someone else.

It must be remembered, though, that Namibia is very young, with inadequate means of communication and is a developing country. Part of its development will mean the letting-go of old ideals and customs; being proactive, not just reactive; becoming leaders, not only managers. Leaders who are not afraid to expose their own weaknesses can see the big picture and plan for the future. Perhaps in asking my colleagues to write their part of the Strategic Plan for Inclusive Education I was asking them to think like leaders, and at this still early stage it was a step too far and a misjudgement of their personal professional development.

So what about the training that I have been doing with school principals and teachers? It was always going to be an uphill task, bearing in mind recent research in Namibia, which found it unlikely that the Dakar Forum goal of 2000 to attain Education for All (EFA) by 2015 would be reached: "The ultimate aim of EFA is to ensure that children receive an education that enriches their lives, expands their opportunities and empowers them to participate in society. Much of what currently passes for education fails to meet the criteria." (UNESCO, 2008)

I have been pleased that many of the Namibian schools that I have worked with have been open to ideas to assist their learners. Comments received after training, such as those below, have been very gratifying and exciting:

  • "You have opened my eyes."
  • "Now I know how to reach my learners."
  • "I will try to talk less and listen more."

Girl in classroomThe door to the future, which we have started to push open, will need ongoing support and encouragement, and I am leaving that to my Special Education colleague at the ministry, to my VSO replacement and to the educationalists here that are now converted to the idea of Inclusive Education! I am cautiously optimistic but recently was abruptly reminded of just how far Namibia has to go to achieve education that is child-centred and prepares for the challenges of adulthood.

I visited a prestigious school which has a long list of ex-students who are now acclaimed politicians and businessmen. But even here, where there are adequate resources and staffing, there seems to be little attempt to teach the learners as individuals either academically or emotionally. One teacher said that he had seen that his classes learned more and responded better during practical activities and discussions. He noted that this was particularly true for the learners who did not achieve with more traditional methods. But his hands were tied, he said, as he can only allow this occasionally, as otherwise he would not complete the syllabus. He and the school have not yet reached the level of understanding of a teacher in Lesotho who proclaimed on a DVD illustrating Inclusive Education in that country, "We cannot sell our children short just in order to finish this book called the syllabus!"

At the Namibian school, those learners who are not learning with the traditional talk and chalk method followed by silent writing are offered additional tuition after school – via the same process! During normal class time clarification by questioning of the teachers is not encouraged, as it wastes time and disrespects the teachers. If this all sounds to you reminiscent of Dickensian England, then you would be correct. Learners are set in direct competition with each other by frequent testing and publication of their placement within the class. Failure to achieve is the learner's fault and parents are called in to address any behavioural difficulties.

The VSO web page (www.vso.org.uk) says that: "Volunteering means that you have the chance to really make a difference to the way that others work, for the rest of their lives." So what difference, if any, have I made? This is difficult to evaluate, and my feelings on the subject change day by day as different events unfold. But then, providently, a local person deeply involved in education said to me:

Children in classroom"Our teachers will continue to destroy our children, blaming them for not being able to learn, not teaching them as individuals, calling the learners 'thick' and 'stupid' until these teachers realise the relationship between academic performance and emotional wellbeing and the importance of differentiated learning. But it will happen, just as it did with the introduction of HIV and Aids teaching. To begin with, the volunteers who came to introduce us to that concept were laughed at and mocked. Now Namibia is deeply committed to that teaching and it is central to our way of thinking. You have begun the process for Inclusive Education and it will be built on, but it will take time."

Yes, education development in developing countries is a long process of continuous improvement, and I feel privileged to have helped Namibia take some steps along that path.

(Published in SEBDA News, issue 20, winter 2009/10)