White folks, a school and recess.

20 05 2012

One hundred pairs of wide brown eyes stared at us like we had just landed in their corner of Ivory Coast from the moon: Two women with pale skin, smiling.

The classroom.

These two strange-looking women were accompanied by a third woman, carrying a leather handbag, who looked like they themselves did, or rather like their mothers, just better dressed. And better fed.

We felt a bit like we were in a zoo: the grown-ups showed us what was there, in the classroom, and the hundred kids got to take a good long look at what had just walked in the door.

The question was only – which of us was the caged animal?

Perhaps they had seen white people like us before, but likely only men, and only in a position of power. A foreman on a rubber plantation where their parents worked as day-labor, or a buyer for the cocoa that their parents harvested on their smallholder farm. In both cases the white man determined what they would eat, and if they could afford to go to school, or to a doctor. Today or tomorrow. Or never.

The principal of the rural primary school about 150 kilometers east of Abidjan opened his doors wide for the visitors from far-away Europe. The children stood for us, bade us good morning in unison, and then sang for us. And they stared at us. It was a strange feeling, being greeted like royalty, or the President.

A goat munched serenely on weeds near the flagpole. A natural lawnmower today, lunch (if necessary) tomorrow.

The schoolyard (with goat and woman).

The school has three classrooms for the 180 kids currently enrolled, a small office for the principal, housing for the teachers – including solar cells on the roof for electricity – and a water well in the barren schoolyard.

The youngest kids looked to be about 6 or 7 – the age where most children in most countries start school. But the one or the other stood much taller than her comrades. A teacher told us later that these were the kids who lived farthest away, and whose parents didn’t let them begin first grade until they were 10 or 11.

Some kids, the principal said, just do not show up during the harvest of whatever crop their parents or neighbors farm. Other children attend for a year, but don’t come back when the new term starts. The teachers are used to this, and have no choice but to accept it as part of this traditional, agricultural society, where child labor (and child slavery) is not uncommon. Often the parents are illiterate, and don’t know better.

During our visit, the principal promised the kids that if they are really good students, and work very, very hard, then someday they can get on a big airplane and fly to where these two strange-looking women came from.

The older kids laughed, knowing full well this was something that maybe a single lucky one of them might experience in a lifetime. The younger ones seemed more bewildered than anything else. They didn’t seem to find this funny – or a state to which they would really wish to aspire. An uncomfortable, confused silence followed. We kept the smiles pasted on our faces so that we didn’t have to say anything – because we had no words at that moment.

At mid-morning a small child ran out of one classroom, grabbed a stick and banged on the rim of an old truck tire that had been stripped of its rubber, hanging on a wooden frame in the middle of the schoolyard.

The bell.

And then we saw what happens at recess at probably every rural primary school in Cote d’Ivoire. And all over the world.

180 kids + break-time = boundless energy.

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