Bonjour ! Today is Tuesday, 4 October 2011 and I am in N’Djamena, Chad. I am using the AATF-Northwest blog to recount my experience as a “conferencière” (speaker) for the Department of State’s US Specialist and Speaker Program. In my first post, I described how I was awarded this honor and how I arrived in N’Djamena, the capitol of Chad. In this bulletin, I will describe the Embassy and the schools that I visited today.
Sharon Blaine, the Public Affaires Officer with whom I am working, brought me to the Embassy Monday morning for a security briefing and to introduce me to the staff. This was my first embassy visit and I was impressed by the amount of security that protects our soil in foreign countries. Upon each arrival, cars pass through special gates and are searched for explosives or tampering. It is a detailed routine that I have come to appreciate each time I enter the grounds. The Marine who provided me with the security information is a congenial man with a solemn position. I shared with him that my grandfather was a Marine in World War II in Italy and acknowledge my gratitude for his service. After the security briefing, Félix (a Chadian who works for the Embassy’s Public Affaires office) presented me with an updated schedule of the schools that I am to visit. Six school visits in four days plus the ISCAM (business school) and a meeting with female teachers who belong to a local women’s group make for an eventful schedule.
Monday night, I had the pleasure of attending the German National Day celebration at the German embassy, staffed by two Germans! I met the German ambassador by chance. He was speaking French and I asked him if he knew anyone at the party. With great humor in his voice, he informed me that he was the ambassador and that it was his party, so he knew everyone! Sharon presented me to the American ambassador, an amiable person. Diplomatic introductions aside, I reveled in the heat of the night, the lightning storm, and the copious amounts of meats and sauerkraut. Smechlich! It was an educational, but overwhelming, day and I looked forward to a good rest that night.
My travels around the city and to various functions are conducted by the embassy carpool. The gentleman (All Chadians) who brave the outrageous streets of N’Djamena are pure geniuses! There is a “code de route” here, but no one, except the embassy drivers, follows it. The few paved streets are completely overrun by motorcycles, trucks, SUVs, and people. I will ask the drivers if I may take their pictures. However, I imagine that they wish to keep a low profile, considering their connection to the embassy.
Tuesday! Mardi merveilleux! Although I had wanted to begin the day well rested, I stayed up late working on the blog, my lesson plans, and chatting with friends. At 2:3o Tuesday morning, I finally closed the laptop and my eyes! My alarm at 7:45 rang too early for my tired mind, but I can function quite well on adrenaline!
At the embassy, I prepared the gifts for the students at the “Lycée Assomption,” a private Catholic school for girls. The ride to the school was longer than expected. We left the paved roads and typical city dwellings and entered an environment that I have never experienced. The residences were beyond modest… Trash heaps abounded throughout the streets and young children were out in the heat of midday.
Bricks and other building materials littered the area. The dirt road to the school was riddled with potholes that rival Québec!
Upon arrival at the school, Sharon, Ali (the photographer), Féix and I were met by Soeur Marthe (Sister Martha). Her contagious and charming beam reassured me that the voyage to the school was worth the tailbone shattering. As I entered the school, dozens of students crowded around me; each girl with a shy smile and a friendly handshake. As it became apparent that there was a visitor, the group swelled into a hundred students. Sister Marthe lead us into the community room where I was to present. It was a humble room with chairs, a stage, a blackboard, a microphone! The microphone was most appreciated! As Sister Marthe calmed the students down, a remarkable rush of emotion came over me.
Looking at the 200 students gathered in the room, I grasped the reality of the situation. These students had come to see me, Catherine Ousselin, French teacher from the Midwest and Northwest. I could have never imagined that my life story would lead me to this moment. This feeling compared in no way to the numerous presentations that I had given in the past. Although they were important and meaningful learning experiences, this moment put those presentations into a powerful perspective. The students that I teach in Mount Vernon are students of lower social-economic status. They yearn to raise themselves and their communities through education. However, none of my students live in the situations from which these girls come. There is no comparison to the poverty that faces these students in the United States. Whereas my students enjoy my quirky teaching style and, at times, take their education for granted, these young women appreciate the smallest of luxuries such as electricity in the classroom and the small gifts that I brought them. Tears welled in my eyes and I had to turn momentarily from the group. My joy and anticipation had come to a pinnacle. It was time to begin!
Sharon Blaine introduced me to the students in beautiful French. Her well chosen words calmed my nerves and invigorated my enthusiasm. Perhaps the minimal stage and workshop experience that I have prepares me for this moment. All eyes fix on the stage, anticipating the first words of the speaker. I took the microphone and greeted the students who replied in perfect unison. (Hint to my students: Watch the video! This is how to reply to the teacher when he/she greets you.)
My presentation was to engage the students in TPR commands in English. My theme was animals and their actions. It was a powerful feeling as I went through the body parts with the girls. They giggled loudly when I directed them to touch their ears and wiggle them. The giggles lead to raucous laughter as we swayed our hips. They must have thought that I was rather silly, the American teacher who tried to shake gracefully. Our lesson continued with drawings, vocabulary, recitations, gestures, and songs. I rewarded each student who drew the board or who wrote out the vocabulary words with the donated gifts. Remarkably, the participation rate soared! Our session ended with a few rounds of, “Head, shoulders, knees, and toes” and Charades with animals. I was soaked with sweat; my voice was raw, but radiant with joy. The students and I discussed the importance of imagination and creation at school and the necessity to finish a diploma. One student offered me a sweet farewell saying, “Please don’t forget us.” I reassured them that there was no danger of this. We exchanged addresses and smiles.
Exhausted and with dripping hair, I returned to the embassy to meet the Chargé d’affaires, the second in command at the embassy. He hails from Michigan, a kindred Midwest spirit. I feel a bit culpable for leaving a sweat mark on his chair. However, I feel that it’s a sign that I had worked hard.
After my visit, I returned to the hotel for restorative purposes: shower, nap, clothing change, and lunch! My second visit was organized with the “Lycée Hérédité,” a private, non-religious school of nearly 1900 students. The driver took the same route as the morning. I managed to snap a few quick pictures of the neighborhood, but I understood that the residents of the area did not wish to be used a tourist fodder. The arrival at this school was a bit unnerving. There were no students in the courtyard and the local seemed closed for the day. Baye, another office employee, inquired about our visit. We were directed to the Provisoire (school headmaster) who seemed somewhat surprised to see us. He informed me that the students had left for the day, but that he hoped that they would return for the presentation! Understandably, I was disappointed. I had built up my energy to share a similar presentation as the morning. We waited for nearly an hour for the students to return, but no one did. The head master offered me a fizzy drink and some excuses, but it seems as though he was not explaining the entire situation. After a half an hour, the “directeur fondateur” entered and stated that the embassy was to have sent an official letter stating my visit and its purposes. The sweltering heat and lack of fresh air dampened my spirits.
Baye and I decided that it was best to leave. It was suggested that I make time in my schedule to visit again. I offered a vague promise to consider the idea, but in reality, I have no extra time on this visit. The school knew that I was coming and yet dismissed the students early for the day. As my chauffeur and I agreed, the results of the day were 50%. However, I would weigh the morning’s visit much stronger, therefore balancing the results to a fantastic 90% perfect day!
Questions pour moi? Questions pour les élèves ou professeurs à qui je présente? Ecrivez-moi un message ici, sur Twitter (@catherineku1972) ou par courriel : firstname.lastname@example.org
Merci encore de m’avoir suivie ! Je vous promets un nouveau bulletin demain !