Under New Management?

29th February

Out here it is not always possible to get a 100% accurate picture of a situation, mainly due to misunderstandings / mistranslations etc., but as far as I can work out, today is an important day in the history of the Award Scheme in The Gambia. I have referred before to some previous management issues, which I will not dwell on here, but today seems to be the official handover of authority to the Interim Management Committee (IMC).  I gather it was only yesterday the various members of the IMC got letters calling today’s meeting with the Government Minister, so there has been a hustle and bustle this morning and classes were finished for the day at 11:30. There is a definite tension in the air: there is uncertainty about what decisions have been taken and may be imposed on the staff, who feel that great strides have been made in the last year. Hopefully, things will work out to provide the greatest benefit for the greatest number.

Another reason for excitement is that at 4:30 The Gambia play Algeria at football in the Stadium across the road from the PIA. The crowds – even at 1:30 – are beginning to arrive and there is a definite buzz in the air. The smart (though probably partial) money is on a 2-1 win or the Home team. I think this is part of the lead up to the 2013 African nations cup. There are drummers, dozens of people wrapped in the national flag, whistles, car horns and so on.

I had Year 1 ESOL first thing and maybe I should describe how the first class of the day starts. The students arrive in dribs and drabs. Punctuality is seen as desirable, but transport difficulties have to be taken into account so the class slowly swells between 8 and 9 for an official, though elastic, 8:30 start.

The earlier arrivals sweep the classroom floor, dust the desks and clean the blackboard before writing the date on it. One girl (“my” classes consist of 18-19 year old girls) goes and gets a bucket of water. This, along with a cup, then sits covered in one corner of the room for anyone who is thirsty. As the girls arrive, they greet each other and always say “Good Morning Mr Morrison”, to which I politely reply. The “real” teacher may have left work on the board from yesterday and the girls, more or less unbidden, copy down the task which is probably homework: they then sit and wait for the teacher to start.

There is a lot of copying from the board and fairly uninspiring material, but this is due to shortage of suitable stuff, I think, rather than a lack of professionalism. Any small change from the routine of close reading (which was called “Interpretation” when I was a boy), dictation and vocabulary lists is greeted with enthusiasm. We have discussed life in Scotland, the way that Gaelic nearly died out and the Loch Ness Monster: my attempts at drawing “Nessie”, a vase with a flower in it, bagpipes etc. always cause some amusement. The girls I had did not appreciate that this was an unusual day and only came round once every four years. I explained about our leap year traditions and caused some amusement when I pretended to be hurt that none of them proposed to me.

When making lists in Word the other day, we made up a set of class rules: one they came up with was “No vernacular”. I was impressed with their knowledge of this word, which reflects Gambian schools’ insistence on speaking English in class. It was this that led to me talking about Gaelic, making the point that though it is important they learn English, they should never lose their own vernacular language. In fact, it seems that most of the students can speak several, if not all, of the local languages. These are Wolof, Fula, Jola and Mandinka, along with some other less common ones.

Obviously, English language skills are vital, but I think that limited ability in it detracts from learning IT. I am encouraging the IT teacher to consider making the earliest exercises available in the vernacular: it’s hard enough being faced with a Word processor for the first time without doing it in a foreign language!

I have arranged to go to Kerewan on Friday. I will be travelling with Alesana, the senior youth leader. He is a larger-than-life chap full of bubbly vivacity. I proposed a visit, got official sanction from Mr Sarr, and hope to be there and back in the day. We want to have a look at the site, meet Mr Minteh , local teacher and Award Scheme co-ordinator, and pay a courtesy visit to the village elders. It will be good to get a clear picture of the situation there. Alesana is going to organise a local squad to clear the site of grass and brushwood in time for the IRA team’s arrival. There is also concern that a big snake (wild gestures with hands and rolling of eyes) is on the site and it has to be encouraged to “migrate” with “chemicals”.

Just as I was uploading this blog in the computer lab, various important visitors came in – meeting is clearly under way – there were smiles, so I hope things go well.


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