The first day of school is attended by 13 of the 19 students and 1 of the 5 teachers. Laxmi asked me if I’d like to teach. “Yes, please!” So I taught all day, about an hour with each class, and this gave me a chance to begin to assess the levels of English so I could actually plan some lessons properly. The little ones were the best, because they had no inhibitions about communicating across the language barrier, and just automatically imitated and guessed my meaning,and threw themselves into songs & rhymes with actions.
On the whole, I think my time in Chitre was worthwhile, both for what I learned about the local culture, and the support I was able to give to the teachers and students in their English learning. I enjoyed problem solving and being creative to find ways to teach with almost no resources and a big language and cultural barrier. I loved seeing the children’s faces light up with the pleasure of learning. And I remembered that it wasn’t just music teaching for which I had once had a passion, it was the learning process itself, regardless of subject matter.
And even though it was difficult to really make much difference in only 2 months, I hope that the presence of a different teacher, with different approaches & an unquenchable enthusiasm for getting into the classroom and teaching might have had a stimulating effect on both the students and the teachers. Technology in the mountains
In an effort to meet the teachers’ request for help with pronunciation, I recorded set texts and rhymes from their textbooks onto their mobile phones so they could listen whenever they wanted to (we couldn’t get tapes for their tape recorder anyway). The fun part of this was that I learned to use new technology in a remote village in a developing country – I had never used Bluetooth before, but it was perfect for sending the voice recordings to each teacher’s phone!
One aspect of local culture that I really had the chance to experience thoroughly was the very laid-back attitude toward education and work.
I had been forewarned that strikes, teachers not attending, and other disruptions to regular school classes might be frustrating, but living it as a reality was still a challenge.
After the rather slow start to the school year, we had a couple of national public holidays, but school classes seemed to be finding their rhythm and I had a sense of momentum. But then one day I found that the teachers were still talking in the staffroom when I came back at 11am from teaching my first class. It turns out that the high-school in Sikha, and primary schools in surrounding villages had cancelled classes due to a strike, the Chitre teachers had only heard on their way to school, and so were having a rather prolonged discussion about whether to cancel school themselves.
Partway through my second class, as I went to get something from the staff room, I was accosted by students in the classrooms I passed, wanting my attention, and then when one of the boys ran up to me crying and wanting help with a fight, I ran out of patience and suggested to the head teacher that a decision ought to be made whether we are having school or not, because I wasn’t going to play nurse and mediator and also teach! So they decided to teach, and we were off school the next day when the strike continued.
It must have only been about a week later that Lila announced that there would be no school for the next 9 days, as a national school holiday had been called in the week leading up to the release deadline for the constitution that had been something like 6 years being drafted, and then there would be another public holiday for National Day. I wasn’t sure why constitution-drafting necessitated school closures, but the closest I could get to an answer was that everybody in the cities was very stressed! We were actually so far from anywhere, we could have done what we wanted to, but the teachers were all happy to take more days off.
And then, after having managed to fill those 9 days with long hikes, reading, visiting the local weaver and cloud-watching, I found the return to school would be delayed by yet another day for a local festival (the goat curry picnic).
There was at least one more “local festival” day off before my 2 months was up, though I didn’t see any evidence of festivities that day, and suspected that it was to make up for the strike day earlier when they actually stayed at school!
I’d taken three novels with me, and calculated that if I only read 15 pages a day, they would last the 3 months. But school was cancelled so often, and there was only so much time I could spend out walking, I ended up reading the English-language newspapers I’d brought with me as possible teaching aids and source of pictures. I ferreted out all the crosswords and have never been so persistent with solving them in my life!
So I learned to watch clouds, enjoy seeing the potato plants grow and flower, see the rhododendron flowers finished and the summer flowers come out, watch the huge butterflies and the chickens and the buffalo and listen to the birds, and life slowed to a meditative pace.
I also watched the rhythms of crop-planting and tending, and of vegetable collection. Almost every day, the men took the buffalo to the fields and some of the women would put a huge doko (basket) on their back and head off 1-2 hrs into the forest. They would return with whatever was in season, sometimes bamboo shoots, ferns and mushrooms while I was there, but mostly what I came to think of as smelly veg.
The smelly veg plant was abundant, and was being collected, and pounded, and boiled, and dried or pickled in every village and along every path I took. And it turned up in most of my meals. I helped to spread a batch out on the tarp to dry one day, and grew to hate the stinky smell as it dried. But by the time it was rehydrated by cooking, it was simply tasty, if not terribly nutritious!