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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."

That's Africa, Baby!

It is the end of November, with temperatures in the 40s, and after five hours of working on my laptop writing contributions for Compensatory Teaching for Lower Juniors, I am ready to stretch my legs and have lunch. Across the road from the ministry is the Cosdec restaurant. This is sited at a college where learners (pupils) who have not completed Grade 10 (end of compulsory education) have the chance to study a vocational skill. One of the learners in my region, who is in grade 7 (12-13 years) but is 21 years old in the new year, is hoping to take up a year's placement there being trained in hospitality skills.

ClassroomThis girl has been at her present school for 15 years, with them somehow managing to hide the fact of her constant repeating status and not asking for help with her limited academic progress. It was her sister who took it upon herself to travel to our offices and tell us of her concerns for her sibling. The girl is stuck in a pattern of behaviour, with her teachers having low expectations - unfortunately, an all-too-often repeated example of integration, as opposed to inclusion.

So, back to the food dilemma. The restaurant is part of the students' training, and excellent value for money, but I decide that I could do with a walk and so trudge across the sand for ten minutes (a long way in this heat) to the Total garage. There, I can buy prepared food that is warmed up and the local paper, The Namibian, which is supposed to be non-partisan. I say "Mwa lepo?" ("Hello, how are you?") to the security guards around the ATM and receive a cheery "Eey, naaw meme" ("Fine, thank you and how are you, lady?"), to which I reply "Eey, naaw tete". Then they say "Eey, naaw" again and I say... but never mind, you get the drift.

On my return, sweating profusely, I decide to eat lunch in the entrance area of the office block, as it has air conditioning. But as I open the door I see two feet sticking out from under the reception desk and that the cushions of the two chairs have been removed. Oh yes, the customary "snooze under the desk hour" – better not disturb! As I walk to my office, I see another body sleeping on the floor. Sleeping is something of a national pastime at any time of the day - but understandable in some circumstances...

A VSO colleague came back from a workshop yesterday thrilled to bits because the appointed special needs facilitators of the schools she had been working with had reported back how they had been using ideas from her last workshop on inclusion. Did these teachers receive more money or status for their added responsibilities and qualification? No, my colleague had put up a chart with all their names on and had given them smiley faces for each achievement, with a gold star if they had shared it with another teacher. Five gold stars and they could earn an animal rubber stamp.

Did these teachers rise up and protest, looking at each other in disbelief, at such an acknowledgement of their work? No, they cheered and clapped each other with big grins on their faces because someone had told them that they were doing great and they could see the difference their new way of teaching was having. Success indeed, especially when teaching in your second, third or fourth language.

CountrysideConsider this with the fact that many had walked 10-20km to an asphalt road and then hitched a lift to be at the workshop. Plus, they do this dressed in clothes that we might wear to a wedding or an interview, and the women often wearing heels! I have no idea how they manage to walk in the sand so far in them. When lunchtime came, they lay down on the floor and slept because they had no food to eat and they were worn out...

Practising inclusion is difficult enough in the UK with our support systems, but here in Namibia it is hugely problematic. After a basic training course, the teachers are largely left to their own devices, often in very rural locations (for rural, think scrubland, sand, heat, no roads, electricity or tap water). Plus having to live in huts next to the school during the week as it is too far to walk home. Their occasional visitors from the ministry are more often than not there to inspect rather than to advise. In my region alone there are 190 schools spread across hundreds of kilometres with 400-1,200 learners in each. There are Regional Advisory Teachers and Counsellors (Special Education Advisers) but they are very thinly spread and often have hardly more knowledge on inclusion than the teachers. That is why I am here!

So, when I consider the compensatory manual that I am helping to compile, with what I worry is very rudimentary advice on differentiating the teaching of reading, writing, spelling and maths, I begin to understand and ponder at the enormity of the task ahead for the wish of the Namibian Government to fulfil the words of UNESCO's Salamanca Report, 1994: "Education systems should be designed and educational programmes implemented to take into account the wide diversity of characteristics and needs."

This manual is needed because most teachers only know how to teach by following the syllabus (with books if they are lucky) and informing from the front. The pace is often that of the slowest child. School begins at age 7, Grade 1, with daily English lessons up to age 10. Then in Grade 4 all lessons are conducted in English. This creates big problems – for the teacher with limited English and for the learner with special needs. At the end of each grade a test is taken and, if not passed, the learner stays in that grade, repeating the lessons as before. The learner is only supposed to repeat once, but sometimes that ruling is not followed exactly (as we have seen). Also, they then have to move up a grade (transferring but not passing) without the knowledge of the previous grade.

We are often told, for instance, that "Oh, my grade 5 learner cannot read." But, when assessed, they can read a grade 2 book. The teachers are very surprised when we suggest using grade 2 books then and the pupil doing similar work but at a much lower level. This is where the manual comes in, with its various ideas for teaching the basics.

Female teachers' toiletI marvel at how keen the majority of the teachers are to improve their teaching when faced with such extreme environmental obstacles to improving learning. It puts a different perspective on "creative teaching"! I am trying to address some of these obstacles with the workshops I am planning for teachers (three days) and principals (one day) on "Inclusion and Learning Support". A daunting task, especially without my books, research papers and journals that I have left in the UK! Still, the internet works - sometimes.

In order to run workshops you have to be funded by someone or something. The venue, outside speakers, the catering, accommodation, stationery, copying, electricity used, water, toilet paper all have to be paid for. In reality, the funding is always inadequate, especially as four nights" accommodation is essential with the distances that teachers have to travel, most often by foot and hitching. Thus, forget the outside speakers, sometimes the catering (bring your own) and organisers start collecting cereal boxes as soon as possible for making resources. Occasionally there is a source of income, if you can prove that your workshop is fulfilling a necessary need.

Enter the British High Commission, which regularly offers a few thousand Namibian dollars to help fund workshops. Hence it is that I am in the process of obtaining quotes for stationery. No, sorry, a quote, as there appears to be only one source. I travelled to their nearest shop the other lunchtime and asked for a price list to go with their catalogue, which seemed to be missing the aforesaid item. This was after I had failed to find an online shopping site and after they had failed to reply to my e-mail. I won't say who they are, but if you are ever in Namibia, they seem to have little competition in the field of office stationery.

In almost four months here I have found that whenever you ask a direct question there is almost never a direct answer. Thus my conversation with the man behind the desk went something like this:

"Can I have a price list please?"

"I can tell you the prices."

"Thank you, but I would like to take one with me."

"Who do you work for?"

"The Ministry of Education."

"I will get you a catalogue."

"Thank you. This is more extensive (blank look) er... has more in it, than the one I have... er, but I don't see a price list."

"Send us the order and we will give you a price."

"I don't know what I want to order unless I know the price."

Blank look.

"Look, I may see a choice of pens. I don't want the cheapest but I don't want the most expensive. How will I know?"

"We will tell you when you send the order."

"But I want to look at a price list."

"We don't have one."

So there you are. As for the foibles of the catalogue, with items maybe having reference numbers, maybe not, descriptions that leave you none the wiser or even no descriptions, I think I will leave that to your imagination.

To help in coping with the frustrations of trying to work effectively in such a laid-back country the American Peace Corps volunteers just say T-A-B: "That's Africa, Baby!"

Now I find we have no venue for the workshops, because... ah, well, T-A-B!

Ka ende po nawa (Go well).

(Published in SEBDA News, issue 18, spring 2009)