So There I was...
ready to start day one of the Kamenge Institute for Future Quaker Leadership, a grand African name for a three-week English intensive covering Biblical theology, Quaker history, tolerance and environmentalism.
In the Central African milieu teachers are supposed to be strict - A variety of strict that Americans haven’t seen in generations. They say it is “The Belgian style” but then they blame a lot of things on the Belgians. In the lower grades teachers manage 1-100 student ratios with corporal punishment that would make the CIA blush - force a rowdy 8 year old boy to kneel for an hour on broken glass and bottle caps? Classroom management. In the upper grades they expel students for the slightest provocation. They discourage questions. Thinking for yourself is the last thing that they want you to do. They speak the truth and expect to see it back on the test. There are no textbooks - so students write their own, comprehensive notes. They grade so tough that 50% is passing and you are likely to be at the top of your class if you clear 70%.
I am famous at Kamenge for being soft, and I intended to turn the teaching model on its head - I wanted them to THINK. I wanted all their questions and I planned to present them with questions that had no answers. Everyone who attended would pass. But before doing that I had to establish at least a modicum of respect. So with the help of a Kamenge elder named Joel I attempted to at least give the appearance of rigor. The Institute was announced at Kamenge for a month in advance. Student criteria were published. We made an application process. We gave an admission exam - I did want them to start with enough English to benefit from my teaching.
Thirty students sat for the exam. They were expecting grammar, spelling and construction questions. They got three short essay questions asking them to imagine a better future for themselves, The Friends Church and the country of Burundi. They were a little confused. Teachers did not usually care about their imaginings. I had to promise confidentiality before they would honestly assess their church and national leadership. I was already getting looks.
My students were attending on their only break of the year. Many of them were simultaneously studying for their national exams - the extremely difficult test that would determine if they were admitted to university. Some were already University students and Bujumbura U. had scheduled their own break intensives. I discovered that my students were planning to try and attend both - coming to my class one day and getting notes from the other class and then reversing it on the next day. I was concerned about them jeopardizing their actual academic future for my enrichment opportunity. I counseled the most promising to prioritize their other work - but they were not dissuaded. I felt the deep and sincere pressure to make what I brought them worth their sacrifice.
Twenty-Seven of them passed. Their names were posted in the church yard on Saturday morning. On Sunday Morning they were called up to the front of the church to be blessed along with their new strange teacher. After church, Joel reported that quite a few young people had come up to him and asked if it was possible to be admitted at this late date.
Showing up late is pretty much standard operating procedure here. Joel and I both hated to say no, but we had agreed that this was going to be our respect earning strict point. The door was closed.
I fully expected to turn a few away on Monday morning. I steeled myself to the task. I told Daniella that I was going to be tough because equality required me to treat them all the same, and to respect those who had followed the process. Dani agreed that this was right. I was ready.
Only one extra showed up. His name was Victor. I prepared my best kind but stern words. His supplicant attitude and posture were perfect. Dani whispered “Be strong.” The other students were watching as he approached me. Victor made his initial plea in English that was tentative and sub-par. I reminded him of the process. He said he had been up country and had not heard the announcements until yesterday. I told him that we were making no exceptions. He looked discouraged. He stared at the ground and then took a deep breath and looked up at me and made this speech, in perfect English.
“Teacher - I understand what you are saying, and I respect your rules. But teacher, when I heard about this class yesterday my heart leapt within my chest, and I knew I had to be here. Elder Joel explained to me that this was not possible, but this morning when I got up for prayers my heart had not changed. So I have come. Teacher, you may chase me away, and I will go, but do you see that low wall there? If you send me away, I will go to the other side of that wall and sit and try to catch what you are saying. But teacher, I beg you, please may I sit on this side of the wall?”
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Three weeks later we had a closing ceremony during morning worship. I was celebratory, but tough, two levels of certificates were given. In the African milieu, certificates are extremely desirable. Those who had attended 90% of the class days were given a certificate of completion. Those who had split their time were given a certificate of participation. All were pleased.
After worship I was invited to a special celebration with the Kamenge elders - reports, speeches, coke - Kama Kawaide (things are as they always have been). I intended to praise these young people to the hilt and asked that the elders consider adding a young voice to the elders bench. My students were asked to send one representative. They chose Victor.
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