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Twelve Chickens

The death of a student made Tracey Lin Edou wonder about the relevance of the middle school lessons she was teaching in Gabon. See Chris Smith’s review of Shambles in Southeast Asia: The ESL Page, Essential Teacher, June 2007.

I learned about Michel’s death the day after a rainstorm. My students had walked from miles around in plastic sandals and then washed off their muddy feet at the pump outside the Catholic middle school where I taught math and English. The sky was scrubbed free of clouds, brilliant in its intensity. Our class, a group of about sixty students in a large room filled with wooden benches, had no fan or air conditioner to ward off the scorching heat. Students sweated in their perfectly ironed uniforms, and my armpits were long since drenched through. As I took attendance, I noticed an empty seat. "Where is Michel?" I asked in my accented French. The students stirred.

"He died during the night," one of them answered. He had died of malaria, which had come on in the evening. Just the day before, he had been taking notes in his math notebook like everyone else in the class. We didn’t have textbooks, so my students carefully wrote down everything that I put on the board. Chalk dust flew as I taught fractions, decimals, geometry, and algebra. I was lucky not to be one of the physical science teachers. They had to draw diagrams of experiments because there was no laboratory.

Michel’s empty desk seemed to mock me as I carried on my lessons. Why should these students care about how to find the image of a triangle across a line when they could die the same day?

Lessons Not in the Book

I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Gabon, Central Africa, sent to teach students who would otherwise not have had a math teacher. I was sent to Mitzic, a large village with sporadic electricity and no running water. Having been in college in the United States just months before, I thought that I was well prepared. After all, I had read Peace Corps literature, taught summer school in the capital city of Libreville, and gone through cross-cultural training. None of that prepared me for the experience of working with people who lived in extreme poverty and whose main hope for escaping it lay in the education of their children.

In Gabon, most villages had primary schools, with one or two teachers for all grade levels. Unless the village was lucky enough to have a Peace Corps school made of solid cement, schools were built out of tin sheets, wooden slats, or even hardened mud. In the tropical storms, roofs flew off and walls caved in. Most schools didn’t have any restrooms: students had to dash to the bushes to relieve themselves. When the teacher was absent, students went home.

After six years of this dubious education, students took a test to pass into secondary school—the same test taken by students from the cities, who had books and one teacher per grade level. If they didn’t pass the test, they either had to repeat that grade or drop out of school. Since getting a job in Gabon depended on having a diploma, dropping out meant living the life of a peasant, so many students repeated grades over and over.

I taught the children who had made it into secondary school. From eleven to twenty years old, they were working toward the next diploma, which guaranteed them entrance into high school or at least the possibility of a job. Only larger villages had middle schools. Often, students were from villages a good distance away, so they moved to Mitzic to live on their own. To get by, they had to ask relatives for rent money or do odd jobs. They wandered to the homes of their friends or family to get food, sometimes going for two or three days without food except for odd pieces of fruit that they could pick off of trees.

In Need of Basics

Michel had not been from an especially poor family. His mother worked, though his father was not around. He had been sleeping in a bed next to his younger brother when he started to shake from malarial chills. His mother had rushed him to the hospital, but no doctor was there. The on-duty nurse was ready to admit him, but there were no medicines in the hospital, and the pharmacy was closed. Michel died from lack of medicine.

Realities like this often intruded into the classroom. One of my female students, Annie Collette, had one withered arm from childhood polio. Another boy, Mathias, had epilepsy. When he fell between the rows of desks, the other students dashed out into the soccer field. They were convinced that epilepsy was contagious. I got him a glass of water once, and even my colleagues told me to throw the glass away. It wasn’t worth the risk, they told me. When ebola struck Gabon, I took time away from fractions to talk about how contact with primates could make human beings sick. It was scary: they were trying so hard, but there were so many illnesses that they were vulnerable to.

And that was just the beginning of their problems. Algebra was nothing compared to their needs for food, a place to sleep, school supplies, and clothing. Their desperation led to widespread exploitation. My own colleagues, for example, often traded good grades for sexual favors from the prettiest girls in class. Our teaching schedule was Monday through Saturday, but we each had one day off. One of my students, Patience, was absent every Thursday. I eventually learned that she was meeting up with one of my colleagues on his day off. He gave her some money for school supplies, and she was one of the two girls who passed his class for the trimester. The vice principal impregnated his wife and a ninth-grade student at the same time. Another colleague, the French teacher, went from girl to girl each term. Almost all of them did it.

Sometimes, we sat in class and looked out of the slatted windows to the horizon. The sky grew black, and the trees waved in the wind. Slowly, we saw the white mist of the approaching rain. The rain slammed into the tin roof, and students moved away from the windows to the center of the room. Since it was too dark to see and too loud to talk, we sat as the roof thundered above us, not as teacher and students but just as people.

We smiled when the rain let up a few minutes later, and we turned back to our work. After all, though we were close in age, my students knew that I was there for one main reason: to teach them what they needed so that they could progress in their lives. "If three chickens lay three eggs in three days, how many eggs will twelve chickens lay in twelve days?" I asked them. They couldn’t get it. Can you?

Tracey Lin Edou ( spent ten years living and teaching in the Central African state of Gabon and is now a middle school math teacher in the United States.