Sunday, July 01, 2007

It's all politics

The school improvement project at the nursery school is complete. The Kerewan Nursery School now has a cement wall, a completed toilet, brand new furniture, painted classrooms, and mats for story time! The community is so proud. So this is good news, but of course with any new development there are politics involved.

To build the cement wall, the workers had to rip out the old metal and wire fence. None of the old fence was standing. It was either scrunched down to the floor or gone missing. This scrap metal and wire is very valuable around town. People are always looking for materials to build fencing around compounds, farms, or gardens. The metal rods can be sold to the iron smith workers in town. Everyone at the school was very excited about selling these materials and generating income for the school. The money could go to staff salaries, repair of the windows, seeds for a school garden, learning materials, or food.

So here is where the politics come in. There is PTA for the nursery school. The PTA is made up of mostly old men and some women. The chairman is an old blind man, but still walks and talks like he’s young and fit. He actually flails his arms about whenever he talks, so you always have to be weary and take cover. Bruama took me to meet him when I started working at the school in October and I hadn’t seen him since. He didn’t come to the community meeting we organized in November. He never initiated any sort of meeting. I haven’t even seen him stop by the school. Bruama went to him every time there was a new project. He kept the chairman fully informed at all times.

So the first time I see the chairman come by the school is to pick up the scrap metal and wire. He mumbled something to Bruama about taking the wire before, but we shrugged it off. He wouldn’t really come and take these materials away from the school, would he?

Bruama and I are team teaching one Friday morning a couple weeks back. Bruama steps out for a minute because we have some visitors. He comes back really upset. I ask him what’s going on. He tells me the PTA chairman is here to take the metal. What!!, I say. He tells me to leave it be. I run out and greet the man and then firmly tell him in Mandinka that he cannot take these materials without a meeting. He claims that he owns these materials, which were donated about ten years ago from a foreign organization. He claims that he will help sell the scrap wire and return all the money back to the school. Bruama doesn’t trust him, I don’t trust him, and even Mbaa Suwareh (school nanny of sorts) doesn’t trust him.

They tell me to not push it, to let it be. I am fuming. I said to myself, “This not fair! This school has no money! This is a great opportunity and now we are going to watch this man steel it away from us, just because he is an elder, just because he is the PTA chairman in name only.” So I break all the rules of Gambian culture, respecting elders and all. I get in this old blind man’s face and yell at him (in Mandinka). I take the wire out of his hands. I tell him you can’t take this. Let’s have a meeting and talk about this. We have all worked so hard this year; he can’t take it away from this school. He tells me that I never come see him. He tells me that he cuts the grass once a year. He tells me that he can remove Bruama right now if he had to (which he can’t). I tell him that he never comes to the school. He never supports this school or its staff. And Bruama was the first head teacher to go to you often and check in. I call Carson, who is at the high school 200 meters away, for back up. We are both there pleading and screaming for him not to take it. I felt so alive. I didn’t care what major boundaries I crossed and shattered. I refused to let this hierarchy of respecting elders be used as a crutch, as an excuse for corruption.

I called my counterpart, Mr. Kebbeh, at the REO. I remembered the Gambian rule to always have an intermediary in a confrontation. That’s the one rule I followed! He is third in command at the education office and highly respected in the community. We were telling the chairman to wait, to sit and wait for Mr. Kebbeh. But he want to get the metal and go. So Mr. Kebbeh finally came, after all my nerves were shot. He came on an old one speed bike, in his Friday prayer outfit, reading specs hanging the tip of his nose. He did a great job. He explained everything to the chairman and to me. He apologized for my behavior to the chairman and explained that my culture confronts people about issues that we are not fully decided upon.

The chairman eventually ended up taking the wire, but agreed to meet about how to spend the money. Bruama and the vice chairmen will be in charge of selling the scrap metal to the ironsmith. So we will be able to account for half the money. Who knows if we will see that money generated from the selling of the wire? But in the end, we had to respect the fact that this school a community school. And community members are stakeholders also. But these kids come first!

Totally embarrassing myself and making a big stink about this paid off in the end. Now the ward councilor of Kerewan is involved. His role is pretty much similar to that of a city councilor back in the states. He went to the Village Development Committee (VDC) chairman about this issue. The VDC is sort of a steering committee that has the last say in the development of the community. It’s a pretty big deal. Bruama just got nominated to the committee, he is so honored! So the ward councilor and the VDC chairman went to the nursery school PTA chairman’s compound to intervene in this matter. He gave them the run around, saying that the money will go back to the school. They told him that he will be held accountable for every cent. So now all the top dogs are involved.

I later asked Bruama if I embarrassed him that Friday morning. I told him to tell me the honest truth. He said I didn’t. He thanked me for standing up to the chairman, for raising a flag, for letting the right people now how wrong this is.

I’m here in this place, trying not to go with my American instincts, each and every day. I am not supposed to judge. I am not supposed to stir things up. I am glad that the one time I went with my American instincts of fairness and justice, it turned out ok. There are so many structures in this culture that keep people from speaking up, from proving people wrong. The older you are the closer to Allah you are, and therefore the most right you are. This holds so much value in some areas of life here: all the elderly live with their families in the compound. They are listened to and are taken care of, a stark contrast to our way of treating elders in the states. But when it comes to stealing money from a nursery school, I don’t care who it is.

So I fought it. I fought for these kids, for these teachers, and for all the parents who care about creating a culture of literacy. I walked home that day and felt truly a part of this community. I have this weird identity as a foreigner-but-not-a-tourist here. It allows me to break the rules without any personal consequences. I walked past the market. I saw the road crew setting up to steam roll the street where all the vendors sit. They were cutting down a tree and throwing the heavy branches on these women’s tables. I yelled at these guys. The women clapped and laughed. We then chatted about how their new spot was right next to the drain ditch and was not safe to walk around. I guess I gave a voice to these women. And that’s what is all comes down to, giving a voice to those who aren’t empowered enough to have it.