As many of the readers of this blog know, I am in Dakar because I am engaged in human rights and development praxis around Senegal’s Gender Parity Act. My big project has been to launch the 4th World Initiative’s first major program–financing innovative solutions for bridging the gap between controversial human rights legislation in Senegal and Senegalese society. As of last week, I’ve awarded 8 scholarships to students preparing to enter high school in the Dakar area–5 girls and 3 boys–thanks to generous donations from my network of family and friends-turned-microphilathropists. For 7 of these students, their scholarships will be accompanied by leadership training with ImagiNation Afrika. By now, you may be wondering what any of that has to do with the law in general, or “Parite” more specifically.
Senegal’s education system is in crisis. It’s not that the teachers aren’t dedicated, even though they have to leave their classes unattended all day in order to strike when the government forgets to pay them. But they don’t teach critical thinking. They teach rote memorization, and convince the students that the smartest among them are those who can memorize and regurgitate the best. Thinking or behaving outside the box is not rewarded. In fact, just yesterday, someone told me that even my head full of dreadlocks is considered inappropriate for school because it’s not “correct.” When I asked “Why?” the answer was simply, “just because..it’s not correct, quoi!” Right. Not correct because it’s just not. Yes, yes, of course.
The failure to teach critical thinking by present-day teachers in Senegal has had an impact upon Senegalese zeitgeist, and Senegal’s powers-that-be have no incentive (or so they think) to push for a more engaged, creative, feisty society, for citizens who think for themselves might not accept the n’importe quoi their government pushes off on them everyday. And the religious leaders? Who wants a potentially rebellious flock? No one, that’s who. Smarter citizens lobby for competent representatives and meaningful legislation, and they spur their own durable socioeconomic, cultural, and political development.
When the 8 year old was a 6 and a half year old, I took charge of his education and enrolled him in private, Catholic school. To my shock and horror, I found out upon arrival in January that he was repeating first grade. Impossible, I thought. He is practically a genius, and loves knowledge because he not-so-secretly believes that he was born to be a “grand quelqu’un.” His father and grandmother decided to enroll him in another private school that was less expensive ($39 a month instead of $50 a month) and closer to home. The quality of education? Also better, they claimed.
So, why then, could the then-7 year old still not read? He could only recite words that he recognized from memory. I was horrified, and quickly became frustrated and scared, as I didn’t yet know that schools only taught by rote here. After a fellow American ex-pat let me know what was really going down in Senegalese schools, I knew what I had to do. And so I began teaching him phonics. And then I began teaching him skepticism. Why? How come? For what? Says who? To what result?
Four months later, the now-8 year old is ranked #1 in his class, and loves to show off his ability to put long words together…in French or Wolof…using phonics. Not only that, but as of a few days, he’s also been learning multiplication and division, and because he now knows how to think for himself, he doesn’t have to wait for Maitresse to tell him that “deux fois sept egale quatorze.” He figured it out for himself.
And deux fois dix?
“Hmmm…harra***….deux fois dix…vingt! Deux fois dix egale vingt!”
“Waaaaaaaaaw waaw! Waye yawe, danga mouss!”*
He blushed and giggled so hard that he had to hide his face in his shirt in order to keep his smile from falling out of his face.
“My mind is amazing,” he proclaimed, not too humbly at all, puffing out his skinny chest. “I learn things now and I know how to use them later. What you taught me is good.”
“Awww, c’est gentil!” My turn to blush slightly.
The 8 year old, who is also a nutcase, didn’t hear me. He was too busy singing to himself and simultaneously shrieking with laughter. “deux fois douze egale vingt-quatre! waaaw waaw! deux fois treize egale vingt-six! waaaaaaaaaw waaaw waaaw! deux fois quartorze…ca fait vingt-huit!”
“WAAAAW WAAAW! Dama mouss!**”
*Yes! You, you’re a genius!
** Yes! I’m a genius!
*** hold on