As Michael mentioned in a previous entry, we distributed solar-powered lanterns to 4th/5th graders in 9 different villages (5 of which have FAVL libraries) and plan to track their reading habits. During this phase of the project we went down to each school, explained the project to the students and randomly picked 80 per school to participate. After having the parents sign letters of consent, we returned to the villages to conduct a series of tests (written, oral, questionnaires) to evaluate their reading levels and habits. After another random drawing, 40 received the solar lamps and the other 40 got vouchers for new children's book.
The trip definitely got off to an interesting start. Upon arrival to our home base in Bereba we were warned that it was the "temps des masques," where men wearing African masks sneak up on people, chasing them, throwing stones and heavy sticks, whipping whoever gets in their way. Young children, the elderly and, unfortunately for me, even foreigners who don't know better aren't spared. (It's no joke. Last year an elderly man was chased, pushed to the ground and fractured his wrist. Several years back a PC volunteer in a neighboring village was slashed so bad he needed stitches). The two day event is supposed to be some sort of cultural tradition to call for rain, but if you ask me, it just seems like an excuse for people to hit one another without risk of punishment. Those first two nights I slept with one eye open, wary of flying rocks coming my way. Luckily none of us were hit, though we did have masked men visit us twice in the middle of the night, jolting us awake and leaving me jittery the rest of the night.
Luckily the mask situation didn't impede on our work. Leaving Ouaga, I was stressed and worried about the project but was immediately calmed by the amazingness that is Dounko. From the start he took charge and was both efficient and productive out in the field. Initially I had estimated 10 days of testing, if not more. But the team: Dounko, Alidou and myself (along with the teachers at each school and, when they could help, Donkoui and Alison) often worked 12 hour days and were done after one week. Exhausting, yes, but we were all grateful to finish early.
The study itself was interesting. I had participated in a similar study that evaluated student's reading levels in Ghana back in October. I was surprised by the drastic difference (in a good way) of the reading levels here in rural Burkina compared to Ghana. In Ghana, most students I encountered couldn't read simple phrases. There were several students here in Burkina that couldn't read the alphabet, numbers, nor simple phrases; but they were few. The vast majority of the children we evaluated could read. The big issue that we encountered, however, was that only a handful of the students could actually understand what they read. In other words, the students could read a paragraph just fine but when you ask them questions, you realize they have no idea what they just read.
Unfortunately we ended on a horrible note: our last school was the most depressing and, quite honestly, left me angry and disgusted. There was not a single positive thing to say about the school environment in the village of Bereba. The students were by far the worst readers; the vast majority couldn't get through the first page of the oral test (focusing on letters/numbers/simple sentences). Not only that but they were rowdy, disobedient and disruptive...though one had only look at the teachers and school director to see why. During our 6 hours at the school the teachers showed up for about 1 ½ hours, choosing to sit and chat outside instead of teach. The director spent his time beating students who weren't in class, even though the teachers were nowhere to be found. From the start the director was angry with us because his son was not one of those randomly chosen to get a lamp. When we explained that we used the system of random drawing so that all students had a fair chance to participate, he responded that he was the director and should therefore be given all favors and free gifts. Dounko refused and from that point on the director did all he could to cause us problems/failures (like telling teachers not to help us, giving students the wrong information so they wouldn't come on the right day, etc). Again, it was not a nice way to end our research.
Despite the negativity surrounding Bereba's school, overall I was very pleased with how this phase of the project went. It was so fun to see the smiles on the children's faces when they received their lamps, though it was hard having to exclude so many others. Depending on their numbers drawn, the sounds of cheers or tears trailed from the rooms. At the schools I witnessed dedicated (and successful) school teachers, blossoming school gardens, hardworking students, and school administrators (minus in Bereba) genuinely happy to see their students given tools to help them succeed.
The experience was great for me too, as it has given me a lot of ideas and a better understanding on the areas to focus on during FAVL's reading camps this summer.
nothing but smiles...