NOTE: It’s been ten months since the evacuation, and COVID-19 cases continue to rise every day. I’m still grounded in Memphis for the time being, though I’m making plans again. I wrote this blog back in January after moving to my third year, urban site. At the time of evacuation, I had started work on a grant for some really exciting remote teacher trainings and was just starting to get in the swing of things. But I never published this essay.
The reality of my new living environment, and how much it contrasted against my first site, was still troubling. I’m thinking about this again now, as COVID-19 has invariably changed the landscape of our schools and shaped the lives of our young people. As seems to be the case, those who will come out on top will probably not be the ones who were left at the bottom to begin with.
Written January 25, 2020 from Diego-Suarez, Madagascar
I’m finally in my new assignment, in my new home: a room in a unit in a compound behind the offices for the Direction Regionale de l’Education Nationale or DREN. Think of him as the state superintendent for public schools. I’ll be working closely with the English librarians here as well as the nearby Centre Regional de l’Institut National de Formation Pedagogique, the local teacher’s college.
My first week on this campus feels a lot like how I always imagined, when I was younger, what Peace Corps would be like: people were excited to meet me, dedicated to helping me get settled in my home, and scheduling meetings with me so that we could talk—in English—about my scope of work. They had even identified potential projects for me, all of which sound exciting and doable. But more on that later.
The difference between my arrival at my third year site and my arrival at my first year site couldn’t be more night and day. In fact, I can barely remember my first few days in Beramanja. I know I cooked on the floor, and my host brother brought me some really weird yogurt-y fruit that I had never seen before (but ended up enjoying). I remember various people came into my yard to meet me and, as I could barely speak Malagasy then, sat on my porch with me in silence. I remember getting pulled out of my house one morning before coffee to attend a teacher’s meeting, wherein I sat on a bench in a classroom with a pounding headache, sweating, while my new coworkers argued and yelled about which time slots they wanted, and probably a lot of other very important things to which I could in no way contribute.
Yet even as my language improved, the unpredictability and improbability of teaching at that school never went away. Classes were frequently cancelled due to rain, funerals, meetings, parties, holidays that never showed up on the school calendar, sports events, and, during my first year, a three-month teacher strike. I was slightly comforted talking to my fellow PCVs in other sites who experienced similar things. So, for the sake of integration, I learned to accept the unpredictability and not let it get to me. After all, everyone else was accepting it.
There are great, supportive teachers at my old site, as well as eager and curious students. So why is it so widely accepted that the quality of their education should be less, and that infrequent classes and school cancellations are just a part of it?
It dawns on me now that perhaps my third-year site, with its English library and connectedness, is the exception, not the rule. Of course, an urban site does not dictate a supportive environment any more than a rural site dictates an unsupportive one. Sometimes it can be quite the opposite. Once again, we see the injustice of birth: is it true that a child born in a rural village has less opportunity to go to college than a child born in the regional capital? Or is it all about who they know? I honestly don’t have the answers. But I’d like to find out.
My new environment and scope of work feel so different: I have space here, and privacy, and workspaces. I’m working with adults now, not children. I’m working with colleagues who speak excellent English. It’s going to be a different experience, for sure. And I’m grateful to have it.