Pictures from Senegal

Thursday, August 19

English Camp

I recently spent a week living out of the Peace Corps house in Dakar in the name of teaching English. Organized through the Embassy, a local University, and an organization promoting the English language (or so I assume), Peace Corps Volunteers were matched with 14-16 year olds who’ve formed groups outside of their normal classes to learn English in their free time on weeknights and weekends.

I was assigned to a middle school in an area technically just outside of Dakar, though only the snobbiest of locals would say such a thing, with 3 other PCVs: a 3rd year and 2 girls from the latest batch of installs who’ve be here since March. We were given cab fare (from the organizers of the camp?) to get out there and back each day, an excursion that took 15 to 30 minutes depending on: the traffic, general area knowledge held by the driver, and our ability to describe our destination in French/ Wolof.

I missed the prep day held before the camp due to “cough” illness so I had to rely on the 3rd year for direction as to our official roles in the camp. My impression was that we were facilitators. There were Senegalese teachers attending the camp… and I assumed they were in charge. Ha. As my Dad would say, “To assume makes an ‘ass’ out of ‘u’ and ‘me’.” So the first day of camp was a shit show. We stood there in front of the kids asking each other what we should be doing for the next 4 hours. We made up some camp rules and started teaching them songs. Anyone caught speaking a language other than English was made to sing “I’m a little tea pot” in front of the whole group.

Later we broke out the girls and boys into different groups to try talking about gender specific issues… but in my opinion this proved too be difficult as we had not yet gained their confidence on the first day. When asked what they wanted to be when they grew up we got one of 4 answers (as if we’d given a multiple choice test): doctor/ nurse, teacher, policeman, or pilot. None of them could really answer the question of what they had to do after high school to become these professions. I’m hoping they just didn’t understand our English.

After a break, we discovered that we’d really been assigned two different schools of English kids and this was the first time the groups had met. So we decided to pair them off, each with someone they didn’t know, and ask them to interview and then present their new friend to the group. The last question they asked of their new friends was “what do you want to ask the Americans?” This seemed to be a hit (finally!) and we all had a good time answering the questions for the kids. Admittedly they weren’t all easy: What do you think about Obama’s health care plan? What is racism like in the States?

At the end of the first day, I attempted to push for organization but was asked if I was “having a bad week” cause why else was I so uptight? Right. So day two was another shit show. We decided to make morning warm-up a daily thing consisting of ‘Head Shoulders Knees and Toes’ and Simon Says. We then stumbled through some more songs and an awkward hour or so of explaining baseball before sending them off to play soccer. Later I taught a small group to do the hustle and fox trot, while other groups learned more songs and different games. Not all that bad for some impromptu work, honestly.

By day three we’d collectively come to the realization that preparation and organization would make the camp that much more fun. After morning warm-up, we organized alternating groups of singing- which I swear they loved and that’s why we kept on teaching them- and making a personal flag art project. We brought in a bunch of old magazines, markers, colored pencils, and glue for them to decorate a one page paper with pictures that represent themselves. Then they wrote a few sentences on the back explaining their pages. We took pictures of all of them (which were later printed out in black and white and glued into the corners). The activity was well received. Day four consisted of morning warm-up, a session on Rock Paper Scissors, and trading between outdoor games like Steal the Bacon, Red Rover, and Freeze Tag, and indoor session on American slang.

The final day was meant to be a party. We were given a significant sum of cash to purchase supplies and with it we made cold pasta and fruit salads and bought juice and sprite, cookies, chips and dip, and candies. We played music and hung out eating. The kids also stood up and explained their personal flag art projects to their fellow campers. Later we took pictures and exchanged contact information. At the end we stood in a circle and each gave our favorite and most challenging aspects of camp, plus what we were looking forward to in the future. It was at the point we realized the epic failure of the first day's "future career" session, as we discovered actual desires to be come translators, presidents, engineers, lawyers and teachers. The campers then started to cry; it was time to say goodbye.

As frustrated as I was in the beginning with general lack of organization (but really, why am I surprised?), in the end the experience was a good one. I’ve already received a number of texts from the campers practicing their English. I have mixed feelings about participating next year- mainly about the time commitment- but I suppose I would do it in a heartbeat if I knew I could have the same group of kids again.

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