experiences of learning and teaching

075: Crowning Achievement

“Hey, Warden Burger,” Neal’s voice called across the school yard.

Chelsi’s ears twitched at the designation.  It didn’t feel in poor taste given her general mood and the state of things, but is just sounds so unbecoming beside the fact that I’m running an environmental education camp for children.  “What?” she yelled back, feeling that mood of her flaring up.

“Good morning,” he replied cheekily.  She closed the distance between them, approaching the porch of the school block.  “Do we get two eggs today?” Neal asked, as Oliver Twist might have, but with all the sass of one in false hardship.

Minding the reality of their situation, her temper cooled and she played of his jest, “I have asked the cook to prepare a double ration of porridge for all, and two eggs today.”  Neal help dismount the large pot of oatmeal from her head and placed it on the stoop.  “I think Lauren and Ken are coming with the other pot and the eggs.”  Her head now free, Chelsi looked around the school yard.  At 7 am it was still earlier for her, but her Zambian campers, probably rose at 5:30, and now they were running about the school yard playing a pick-up game of hand ball.  They looked happy and content.  The remaining volunteers, and the more reserved children, were sitting on the stoop of the school block playing Euchre.  It wasn’t the best form for them to be sitting around playing cards, but it was the end of a long week, and they had earned some space.  “Alright, if I can have everybody’s attention for a moment.” She went to the stoop and sat down with the group.  “Ken and Lauren are being over the rest of breakfast. But first of all, happy final day of camp! You’ve all been working really hard and have dealt well with the few challenges we’ve had.”

“You mean like not having water?” Neal interjected.

“Like with the shortage of water filters; thank you Neal for putting a spigot on that bucket.  I just wanted announce some changes to the schedule today.  Marmar is going to go back into town today and bring Newton his things.” Newton, Maddy and Chaz’s counterpart who had suffered a seizure halfway through the week and had to be admitted to the hospital was going to be released that morning to the care of a nearby relative. “So I will be taking over her session on ecosystems this morning.  But I still need time to write it, so instead of going first hour, I’m going to go third.  So I need Adam and Amanda to do the Crafts with Trash session first, then if Neal can you do the fruit dryer.  My session should be done by then.  Then after lunch, Maddy and Chaz with do Climate Change and Mike and I will finish up camp sessions with Chongololo Club and how to be a leader.  How does that sound?”  There was a general nodding of heads that Chelsi took for understanding.  “Don’t forget to be drinking plenty of water, it’s going to be another hot day today. And if we can just power through everyone will be able to relax tomorrow.”

Ken and Lauren, having just arrived, and sat the remaining breakfast pots on the school block porch.  “Great thank you,” Chelsi said standing up.  “Also, there’s two eggs for everyone and two pots of oatmeal, so be free.”  Chelsi plucked a hard boil egg from the top of the pot and pealing it tossed it to Daisy.

“RED EKLANDS!” Lauren called out to the kids in the school yard to come be served breakfast.  “If you have a red name tag and you’re an ekland it’s time to get your food!”


Breakfast was served and eaten.  The campers came back for seconds and thirds until the porridge pots with scraped clean.  Neal liked teased her with talk of rations, seeing how the pots were scraped clean at every meal but Chelsi had been pleased so far with the way her food planning had turned out.  Nshima, the staple of ground maize, boiled until stiff, which must be had in a Zambian’s mind in order for food to be considered a meal, even if nothing else was offered, and many volunteers considered a large factor of malnutrition of children, had only been served once, the evening camp started.  As far as Chelsi knew, she had been the only one in history of Peace Corps Zambia to deny Zambians nshima for so long.  But everyone is better off for it.  The campers get some variety in their diet, the volunteers aren’t complaining of being bloated on nshima, and the counterparts get a lesson in adaptability.  Long in advance, Chelsi had made it clear, that if at any point people were unhappy with the food they could leave.  She heard only one comment and crushed it immediately.

After everything was cleaned up from the meal, at about 8 o’clock, and the first hour session commenced, Chelsi sat down on the ground of the school alcove and began to write her session.

Talking points, session topics and take-a-ways from the week bounced around Chelsi head.  Monday had been Water day, with sessions and games focusing on the water cycle, water quality and fisheries dynamics. Tuesday, Soil & Fire day, which help answer simple questions like ‘what is soil? What are village friendly solutions for improving soil fertility? And, how do fire affect soil and the landscape?  Air & Atmosphere day followed, when, after learning about oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and other air and atmosphere molecules, the campers made terrarium biomes glass jars to help hammer home the point that, like in the jar, everything on earth is finite, contained inside the atmosphere.  Thursday was Plant & Animal day, where sessions touched on biodiversity and food webs.  And all of this culminated to today – Ecosystems and Climate change day.  But have they been putting it all together? Chelsi wondered.  She flipped to a clean page of flip chart paper, pulled a set of water colors from the crafts bag, set up a cup of water and began to paint.



“Hey Chelsi?” Adam approached her from behind.

“Yeah?” Chelsi glance briefly over her shoulder at him to let him know he had her attention.

“Neal is just finishing up with the fruit dying session, are you ready for your session? It’s next, right? Is there anything you need me to do?”

Chelsi glanced at her watch, ten minutes to 11, not bad. “yeah, I’m just about done.  Let the campers have a ten minute break to fill their water bottle if they need, and if you can make sure lunch is being finished up on time, that Ba Gladys has everything she needs.”

“Sure,” he turned to go and Chelsi finished up her last learning aid.  She had drawn up five microsystems, each on its own flip chart page, that when arranged together created the big picture of the ecosystem.  There was a stirring in the school yard of the camper stretching, filling their bottles and grumbling about the heat.  Just a few minutes, and we’ll be ready to start.


“Remember, during session, we; listen with our ears,” Chelsi wiggled her ears, “and watch with our eyes,” she fluttered her lashes, “and if we have something to say we…” she closed her lips and raised her hand.  The students quieted their chuckles and prepared their notebooks.

Chelsi began her lesson with a brief review of all they had talked about over the last week before venturing into the idea that an ecosystem is how water, soil, fire, air, plants and animals operate together.  She was pleased with how engaged many of the students were offer tidbit they had learned throughout the week.  After the opener, Chelsi asked the campers to get in their teams, and passed each of the five teams one of the pictures she had painted. “Now what I want you to do in your groups is answer these questions: In our picture, Where is the water? Where is it being stored how is it being used? What is the soil quality like? Describe its condition using evidence from the picture.  Where is the air? How do you know it’s there? What plants and animals to you see? How are they interacting? Is there human activity? How can you know? Is the activity good or bad for the environment? Why is this activity being done? What could have been done instead? When you’re finished you’re going to present you picture to the rest of the group.”

As the campers chatted in their groups Chelsi walk around listening like a dutiful teacher.  Generally, she liked teaching sessions, she liked commanding the attention of the room and coming up with activities, and teaching styles that help keep her students engaged.  But, because she’d been tending to the other duties of Camp director, or warden as Neal like to call her, she hadn’t much committed to teaching any sessions at the start, and then barely found the time to sit-in on the sessions of others for more than a few minutes. She was only teach ECO ECHO now, and a session on fire earlier in the week, because it had fallen into her lap.  Though the conditions under which this had happened weren’t great, she was happy to receive this session in particular.  She thought it would be the best measure to see what the campers had learned in the last week.  After all Environmental Education was the whole point of planning this year Camp TREE, Teaching Respect for Everyone’s Environment.  If they hadn’t learned anything, all the stress, anxiety, and hard work to make it happen would have been for not. 

When the chatter had died down and it sounded like each group had come to a consensus on their pictures, Chelsi invited the groups up one by one to explain their pictures to the group.  The first group to go had a picture of some birds sitting in the tree tops.  They talked about water transevaporting through the trees, and wind blowing the leaves.  In the background they identified were trees had been cut and piled for conventional charcoal making. ‘Instead,’ the group identified, ‘they should be using the maize cob method we learned Tuesday and Wednesday.’  When the next group stood up, Chelsi pasted their picture just under the tree tops.  Here was a picture of the forest floor under the canopy.  On one side the group recognized that the earth was scorched by a bush fire.  ‘Likely one set by a hunter’ they added after identifying a prominent game rodent in the picture.  ‘Instead, the hunter should have brought a dog to help find the Fuko, because now the soil has been destroyed and young trees burnt.’  After they finished, the next group stood, pasting their picture of a small maize field in the forefront of the forest floor.  “The soil here is good” the group decided, because the maize had grown tall. They pointed out the small group of goats being managed in the field. “The goats here can be eating the farm waste and dropping manure on the field, but here they are still burning some of the compost, which is polluting the air and could have been tilled into the soil.”  Just in the corner of the picture of the maize field was a blue stream; which in the following picture connected to the rest of the stream.  This was the picture most different from the rest. It was a cross-section of the stream, featuring a few fish and frog, a couple aquatic plants and garden beds planted just on the banks. In the background and abandoned fishing net could be seen stretched from bank to bank.  “And the air in this picture?” Chelsi prompted after the group talked about the fishing gear, fish habitat and how stream banks shouldn’t be used for gardens. ‘Why, the air most be going in to the water.  Otherwise the fish wouldn’t be able to live.’  Excellent, how excellent, Chelsi thought.  The final picture portrayed the other side of the stream. A tall grass wetland was being cleared with fire.  The mice and snakes were racing towards some homes in the background, not having anywhere else to go.  The final group hit on every point in an appropriate way.

When the final group had finished the summery of their picture, refocused everyone’s attention and asked them all to take a step back.  “In front of us, we have a very familiar seen.  The bush, with birds and fuko, alongside our maize fields and animals, near streams for watering gardens, not too far from our homes, where we live.  After having looked at the pictures individually, we can easily see, now that they are fit together, aspects of an ecosystem, like the water cycle. And how a human’s decision to do something like light a bush fire affect can affect the whole picture.  Is everyone together with this?”  There was a vigorous nodding of heads.  “Because this afternoon Ba Maddy and Ba Chaz are going to talk about what happens when humans make too many decision that are bad for an ecosystem.” Chelsi glanced quickly at her watch; just after noon, right on time. “Thank you all for your attention.  I’m really, really pleased to say that I can tell you all have learned a lot this week.  It’s certainly made all the planning worth it” She added quietly to herself, turning to remove her learning aides. “There’s a half an hour of quiet time before lunch. So go enjoy!”


Camp TREE gang

Categories: Current Events, Nature, Teaching | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

046: Malaria Madness

“Thank you so much for being flexible with the plans Marmar,” Chelsi said leaning back in her lazy chair. 
“It’s alright, not a problem.” Marmar voice was like milk and honey; smooth and sweet.  She was perched on the table chair, combing her fingers through her long, thick, black hair.
Chelsi stuck the spoon back in the oatmeal, forcing herself to finish the last few bits. “So I think what we’re going to try and do is hit every house between her and the lodge.  Then we’ll spend the night at the lodge, this way tomorrow you’re a much closer walk to the tarmac, to get where ever you need to go and I’ll just walk to Kamyanga and pick my bike.” She had to work her jaw a little to finish chewing her words. 
“Alright.” Marmar, finished with her hair, stood up to adjust the contents of her bags. “Do you want to break up what we’re going to say and practice while we wait?”
During the month of March Peace Corps pushed volunteers to do malaria awareness activities in their villages.  What had kept her from undertaking these activities on her own was not lack of knowledge about malaria; oh my goodness some much malaria training. But lack of confidence in her vocabulary to speak on the subject with non-English speakers and self-consciousness of the feeling of forcing herself on people; sauntering on to their compound, changing the conversation, inviting yourself in to their bedroom, then having to see them the next day. 
“Sure.” Chelsi paused, trying to recall the vocabulary she did know. “I can talk about bed nets.”
“Okay, and I can talk about transmission and treatment. That it’s only transmitted by mosquitoes, and by mosquitoes that are come out at night. That the symptoms are; headache, diarrhea, vomiting, fever. And that you have to go to the clinic to get tested and if you’re positive you need to take all your medication as directed.”
Chelsi jumped in with her end, “The best way to prevent malaria is sleep under a mosquito net at night.”
“Mmmhmm, and the net needs to be tucked in to the mattress or reed mat and that any holes bigger than a 50 ngwee need to be patched.” Chelsi had often wondered how Health volunteers spent their three months of training, now she was starting to form an image: weeks on weeks of roleplaying malaria, HIV and nutrition talks.
Wow, Chelsi stood up to peek outside. They were waiting on her village counterpart, Austin, to get started. “I’m really glad you’re here Marmar. This wouldn’t be happening without you.” The morning was grey, and a light drizzle fell, but Chelsi was sure it would burn of by mid-day.
“Why?” Marmar’s question was filled more with concern than curiosity.
“I don’t know,” She sighed.  That’s not true, “this just isn’t the type of activity that comes naturally to me. And with you here, it keeps me from backing out at the last minute.” She turned to look back at Marmar, who had stopped fiddling with her bag. “You’re keeping me accountable!”
Marmar’s face lit up in a big smile, “well I’m glad I can help!”
They past the last few minutes waiting silently. When Chelsi saw Austin’s bright red shirt come up her path she glanced at her watch. 8:30, not bad.

Chelsi glanced at her watch. She was starting to feel the heat of the day beat down on her, and she was dragging under the weight of her pack. Before starting out Chelsi had figured they’d be spending five minutes tops at each compound: ‘This is wait you need to know about malaria. Do you have a bed net? Yes, no? If yes, can we take your picture with it?” But the way they were going at it, they were averaging 15 minutes per compound. Which is good. Marmar is very personable and through. But we are never going to reach the end at this rate.  It had taken them four hours to walk what usually took Chelsi half an hour and they still had a two hour plus walk ahead of them to the lodge. 
“Marmar, this is going to have to be our last compound, otherwise we are never going to make it to the end.”
“What time is it?”
“13:30.” She looked over at Austin who was help Marmar carry her few to many things. “I think this is going to have to be our last house.  We’re trying to reach Mitukutuku before the sun goes down so that Marie is close to the road to go home tomorrow.”
Austin’s response was a protest, “but why are you leaving us so soon, Marie? You need to stay for at least three weeks.” Yes, because in Zambia you have not visited unless you have stayed for at least three weeks.
“She has her own village to go back too, and I’m sure they have been missing her. Plus she’ll be back.  We were talking about doing some nutrition training later this year,” Chelsi answered for her. “Come now,” they turned up the path to their last compound.
“Mwaiyi Mwane!” Bamaama Kayambo greeted them.
“Mwane,” their group resounded together.  Davis, his sister, a cousin, his father, mother, and a dozen children were already crowded in the chinzanza.  At the approach of their group there was a great shuffling of seats to make room for the new comers. 
After a flury of greetings Chelsi began the dialog that had now been burned on to her brain.  “Jizhina jabo Ba Marie. Baikala mu Mufumbwe ne bafujisha bya bumi. Ne Mwayuka ami, Chelsi, ne Ba Austin, ne Ba Menace.  Lelo tusakwisamba bya malaria.  Malaria, maji ka?”
Malaria is a disease!’ many of the children enthusiastically responded.  ‘It’s an illness spread by mosquitos’ one of the adults said. ‘It can make you very sick’ said another.
“Bolongo!, Tuyuka inge tujina malaria biyepi?” Chelsi carried on the conversation.
There was some silence before Bamaama spoke up ‘the person becomes hot.’
“Eee mwane!” Marmar used her tailored vocabulary and hand motions to mimic the remaining symptoms. “Ke inge muji bolongo ne, muuba ka?”
‘You must go to the clinic’ one of the older children chimed in.
“Right!” Marmar’s enthusiasm picked up even more with his interaction. “Can I get a Malaria Keylow!” Marmar clapped her hands together six times and made a buzzing X in the air with her hands.  The whole chinzanza cracked up with laughter, then copied her. 
Each member of their group took up their part one last time.  And Chelsi’s heart warmed when Austin and Menace, who had just tag along after they visited his house, took up considerable chunks of the conversation about transmission and prevention. Because that’s the point.  Transferring knowledge to people who are permanent members of the community. 

Categories: Adventure, DIY, Science & Technology, Teaching | Tags: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

033: Reading Lessons

It had been a more productive day than Chelsi had anticipated.  She had spent the whole day amending the tops of her garden beds, having finally finished removing all the jungle grass, and was on schedule to start planting New Year’s Eve.  In addition to having the garden finished by the first of the year, she wanted the birdhouse to be completed, roofed and placed on its stand two yards from the ground, before she went back in to town the first week of the New Year.  She was really feeling the pressure of the self-imposed deadlines doing all the work on her own, until this morning when Menace, the 9th grader from down the road, arrived to start building the stand for her bird house.  He had mentioned the previous day he would come to help, but this was common among Zambians; to make promises that they had no intention of keeping. And while Menace displayed this trait sometimes, more often than not he stuck to his word, much to Chelsi’s satisfaction. 
“It’s looking good!” Chelsi shouted over the tall grass between the edge of her compound and cleared bit of turf where Menace was burying the support columns. She could just see him starting to stand up as his head peeked over the grass. 
“Yeah, it’s looking nice.” Even in the low light of the end day his face glistened with sweat.   He began making his way out of the grass and on to the clear bits of Chelsi’s compound. 
“I want to have the bird house up there by New Year.  Do you think we can make that happen?”
Chelsi waited a few moments but there was no response.  Not uncommon, Chelsi often wondered if Zambians had trouble detecting questions in English since half the time she would have to continue prodding and still no response would come. So she tried a different question to get the conversation going, “how does the garden look?”
“Mmhm,” he started, surveying over the fenced in area just beside Chelsi’s house. “It looks nice.”
Chelsi turned round and started in to her house saying something about when he might be able to come back and help finish when he cleared his throat and spoke up,
“Ba Chels,” she stopped and turned. “Do you have any books?”
As rule Chelsi did not give out anything for nothing.  And she had gotten really good at saying no without it upsetting the reset of her day.
Give me bicycle pump; help me with candles; give me your chitenge; help me with fertilizer and a shovel.’
No, no, no, and definitely not.’ She would hear the word give and no was out of her mouth often before they could finish.  A generation of hand-outs via foreign aid had conditioned people to ask the nearest white person first, before trying to acquire something on their own. Not to mention ‘you broke my last bicycle pump; you already take the half burned ones I forget on the porch; you’re already wearing a chitenge; I’ve been teaching about fertilizer alternatives and can’t afford a shovel for myself!’  But Menace’s request made her stop.
First she noticed that it was polite; a character of speech markedly absent from common kiikaonde and so rarely making it into the lexicon of even the best English speakers in her village. Second, he was dependable, regularly coming to help her in the yard and next to never asked for anything in return. She could remember him asking for a pen once. 
“I don’t really have a lot of books right now,” the truth, since she did the bulk of her reading via ebooks through her cell phone. 
“It can be anything.” His voice was insistent.
“Alright, let me look to see what I have.” She disappeared inside the house.
The book self was in the bedroom.  She had to click on the light to see it.  He’s going in to the 10th grade, she thought.  Love in the time of cholera, she had not read it yet but from the naked woman on the book jacket she knew it would not be Zambian culture appropriate. Jane Austin’s Persuasion sat next to a termite eat copy of the Return of the King; no, no and no. She hesitantly reached for Special Edition issue of Time magazine, American History 1776 to 1900 in pictures, but they had flipped through it briefly once before together and he had told her to put it away because it was too depressing.  Other than that all she had was a small stack of picture books she had found in a box at the Prov house back in May.  She thought maybe she would read one or two a month at the community school, but it just had not worked out yet.  One in particular caught her eye just then. He had said anything. She plucked it from the shelf and quickly flicked her thumb over the pages.
She clicked off the light and rejoined Menace on her unfinished porch outside. “Okay, try this,” she said passing him the book.
“Whales and other Sea Creatures,” he slowly sounded out the words.
“Is that okay? It’s about fish and whales. All I have right now are picture books.” Though now that she hear him stammer through the title, she felt these would be perfect after all.
“No, it good,” he said through a big approving smile. “What is the biggest fish?”
Without even thinking about it, Chelsi launch herself into a lecture about the differences between bony and non-bony fishes. And it was not until she was reaching out to take the book, to look for a picture of the whale shark, which she figured she would surely find between its pages, that she stopped.  “Wait a second. You take the book home, read it, then come back and tell me what the biggest fish is.”
Menace laughed, “Okay.”
“Give yourself a couple of days, come back Tuesday or Wednesday. We’ll work on the bird house a little bit more and we can talk about the book. And if you do well, I’ll exchange it for a different one.”
Tukamonaangana,” she bid him farewell for the night.

This is good, she thought to herself, now back inside her house starting to prepare dinner.  She had been several weeks into community entry, some six months ago now, when she had first begun to understand the impact books had had on her life. She remembered that day: some of the younger boys in her family spent that afternoon swinging axes randomly at trees, cutting a lot of the smaller ones down. She had asked her host brother-in-law what they were doing, ‘playing with the trees,’ had been his response.  In her bewilderment she thought to herself, What? Cutting, playing with trees? That’s not playing. Why don’t they do something constructive? Why don’t they… why don’t they what? Read a book, was her natural answer.  But as soon as she thought that it filtered into her consciousness that nearly all of them would be illiterate. And even if the older ones could read some kiikoande, local language were very few and far between. Not to mention, expensive. For Chelsi, reading had been the platform on which she developed an imagination, expanded her understanding of the world and wiled way countless hours of 7th grade math class.  Her host bothers, most of her villagers, would have none of that. Once becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer, it doesn’t take long for most people to cut their lofty goals of ‘changing the world’ down to size and Chelsi had come knowing she could find satisfaction in make a difference in just a few people’s lives. And this is it.

Categories: DIY, Teaching | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

022: Just a small garden

Chelsi was excited, it was the first official day, of her first official workshop. She smiled at the small group of woman standing beside her with her hoe was in her hand.  The small space felt like a blank canvas that she would get to paint with brightly colored vegetables, and flowers. She had always wanted a garden.  In fact, the opportunity to learn about gardening was one of the prevailing reasons she had joined Peace Corps.  All of her previous attempts had failed miserably. There had been the year she tried to grow some vegetables in her parents backyard and ended up with only one eggplant, and the year she tried container gardening and dragged a couple of tomato plants all over the country.  That attempt produced just three tomatoes all summer. But this time I’m ready. I’m going to be just here to take care of it and people are going to come and help because they also want to learn about gardening.  And there are no vegetables in the village…
At IST, in-service training, the Peace Corps permagardener, Peter, had come and giving a two day workshop on how to dig climate resilient gardens using village available materials as a way to improve mother and child nutrition, or MABU, the mother and baby unit, as he often referred to it. 
“If dug properly and managed well, you will only have to water this garden two to three times a week. Instead of everyday, twice a day. And the most meaningful difference,” he continued, “is now, because we’re water less often we can dig our gardens closer to the house.”
Chelsi had spent most of community entry erecting fence beside her compound. When people asked what it would be for they laughed when she said a garden.  ‘But where will the water come from?’
“So where is the water going to come from,” Peter had asked rhetorically.”Many Sub-Saharan Africa countries get just as much, if not more rain then places like London. But we think of Sub-Saharan Africa as being dry and London as being wet because of the pattern in which the rain falls.  London receives its meter and a half of rain in little bits over the course of weeks or months.  Arid Ethiopia, where I do most of my work, gets its meter and a half of rain in a couple of half an hour rain events that happen all within six weeks. So what we need to do is create a micro climate of our gardens that catches and stores that rain for use during the dry season.  Otherwise if you’re going to be able to have a garden at all it will likely have to be far, far away from the house near water and where it’s harder to manage.”
Chelsi thought about this, and it was true.  Chelsi’s host mother in the village, her Bamaama, had her garden near a borehole, a four hour walk away.  Because of the distance, managing it well was difficult.  Some villagers who gardened in the wetlands just a short walk from the house.  There the water was less than a foot or two under in mostly place but the soil, though it was black and looked nice was heavy and even over log with water making it labors to form in to rows of mounds which is the traditional method. 
“I have picked this spot here,” she told the Bamaamas, “because it is just next to this ant hill which will funnel lots of rain into our garden.  So when you’re looking for a place by your homes to put a garden look for someplace on a gentle slope, near an anthill or an iron roofed house.” Chelsi repeated her instructions one more time, using interpretive hand motions and the kiikaonde gardening vocabulary she had been studying up on. 
After, Chelsi led the group of women moved into the fenced in space. “So what we want to do first is create a small wall or berm, direct water in to half meter by half meter holes which we will dig around the outside. To improve the walls so that we can still use them for cultivating we are going to do what in English we call double digging.”  Again, this was followed by interpretive hand motions and kiikaonde gardening vocabulary.  And then she dug her hoe into the ground. “To start double digging we will first dig just a little bit, in a little section.  We just want to loosen up the top layer of soil, down to where the ground becomes hard and compacted again.”  The women’s eyes widened as Chelsi started digging in the dirt.  She would be told later by one of her younger gardening students that she had never seen a white person dig in the dirt before.
The women took turns loosening up the dirt, removing wads of roots and adding wood ash, bits of charcoal and manure to the loosened dirt.  As they dug Chelsi did her best to explain how the garden worked.
“When water, from the rain, is directed into the holes it sits and is able to sink deep in to the soil where it will be stored until dry season, May, June, July, August, September… Then as the soil in our garden dries out in the sun the water will be drawn up into our beds; which will be soft and sponge like because of the double digging.”  Chelsi looked around, some of the women were nodding their heads.
“But all this digging, it’s very difficult. And when do we add the fertilizer?” asked a women in a bright yellow tank top.
“To start, if we dig good, next year no digging. But we must not be on the beds or berms.”  Speaking kiikaonde was not too difficult if she was convening thoughts from her own mind where she had time to prepare, but answering questions were like pop quizzes that pushed her languages skills. “No fertilizer, because we put charcoal, manure and wood ash and dig all, we put fertilizer, no.  After we will, can learn about making compost.” While speaking her gaze had wandered towards the sky as if her eyes could turn about and look for the right words in her mind. She looked back at the women now. “Putting charcoal, wood ash and manure, like fertilizer.” She added for good measure.
The women were smiling and giggling.  Remember, they are not laughing at you, they are laughing because they’re happy. And right now you are making them happy.  Chelsi reminded herself of this often. 
It took the better part of the morning for the group to finish up the front berm and dig out two of the water catching holes. Now many of the women were sitting off in the shade, or leaning on their hoes. In training she was told not to keep her gardening students any more than two hours, so as not wear them out.  “When you are making your gardens at your homes they do not have to be this big.”  Chelsi opened her arms, it was the first time her 6 by 7 meter fenced in plot was feeling big. “4 by 4 meters is a good size to start.” I’ll do another berm this afternoon, Chelsi thought, maybe another group of people will come. “But this is all for today.  You’ll all done a wonderful job.  The garden is looking very nice so far. I will let you know when we start digging beds, or if you would like some help getting your gardens started, let me know and I’ll be happy to come.”
The group thanked her, and started to make their way out of the gate. 

Categories: DIY, Gardening, Teaching | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

013: A Steamy Pile

150 dark eyes stared at her standing at the front of the class room.  They were crammed four to a bench desk, with more standing in the back and sitting in the isles. The ones at the front where gripping their pencils ready to write down anything she said. At the back of the room students teased each other and stole each other’s pencils. 
She was at the Kimikolwe Secondary school to teach about composting.  After hearing that she had given some gardening lessons at the school in Mitukutuku, the guidance counselor approached her about giving the same lessons at her school.  Both schools were looking for a way to generate more income to improve school facilities and they considered vegetable gardening to be viable, lucrative options to that end.  They asked Chelsi for tips to improve production.
Students are the labor force for most school production and management efforts.  Each grade was assigned a day of the weeks to stay for an hour after school work and Chelsi had observed them doing anything form picking up trash around the school to burning brush piles; they would also become the main labors in the gardens.  She felt it was important for the student to understand why they were doing what they were being instructed to do in the gardens so they could take the knowledge home to their family farms.  So she designed her first ever lesson plan. 
The students in her class today where eighth graders, but their ages ranged from 12 to 18 years. When the noise level in the room had finally been reduced to a few giggling students in the back the lesson began.  Upon coming to Zambia Chelsi had zero experience teaching in classrooms but she pushed that out of her mind now focusing on the techniques she knew to be certain: do not talk towards the black board, speak slowly and clearly, and explain new vocabulary as you go. 
“Compost,” she started “is made up of four materials.” Breaking she turned towards the board and wrote GREENS. “Green material, fresh leaves, grasses, food scraps like potato peelings, provide nitrogen to the pile and the plants.” She add the new information to the black board and a few of the diligent students began taking notes. 
The lesson proceeded like this for another 15 minutes with questions being held to the end.  She covered brown, carbon rich materials, life’s need for water and microbes.  Up until this lesson the students were unfamiliar with life too small to see and was not a disease causing agent. 
When the lesson in the classroom was finished the students were supposed to file outside to practice building a pile that the school could then use in the garden to create beds.  By the time the class had moved down the hill to the stream where the garden would be it had thinned out by about half.  Ditching class was not endemic to the States, Chelsi thought. 
“Alright! All of you standing here,” she gestured to the students on the right, “Start collecting GREENS. And all of you here, start collecting BROWNS.  Who remembers the ratio of GREENS to BROWNS?”
Bueller? Bueller?
“One part GREENS, to two parts BROWN. Let’s pile the GREENS here and the BROWNS next to it here.”  The eighth graders continued to stand around staring,
“But Madam, where are we supposed to find this material?” a young looking boy standing with the GREENS group asked.
Chelsi sighed a little, “see all the green grass down by the stream be.” She pointed to a clump of tall grass not 15 meters away. “All of that can be used as green material.  And over there,” she pointed to the hillside of dry grass, “and this. These thin sticks.  All brown material.” Chelsi picked up some of the sticks at her feet and started braking them into smaller pieces. A few of the students followed suit but with still many standing idly by the guidance counselor, Madam Wapa, who was the sponsoring faculty member of the school garden, snapped at them in a local language Chelsi did not recognize to get to work and the students scattered across the hillside. 
While the students got to work, Chelsi continued breaking up sticks.  In Mitukutuku, when the students were making their pile, the teachers had chastised her for working to much alongside the students. ‘Don’t, put that grass down.  Let the students do it, you don’t have to do anything,’ but standing around doing nothing left her feeling awkward.  Madam Wapa, though not getting her hands dirty herself seemed too careless about Chelsi’s activities.  She smartly kept the students in line, encouraging them to gather more and more materials. 
“How about this? Is this enough?” Madam Wapa finally asked.  She was about Chelsi’s height, friendly looking with short hair and a little stocky in the middle.  When Chelsi interacted with her the past she had seemed quiet, passive.  But here on the hillside a fiercer, hardworking side was coming to the surface. Looking at the piles Chelsi could tell that it would not be enough material to reach the 1 x 1 x 1 meter dimensions, but the sun was getting hot and the number of students began to drop to about a quarter of the total.  More and more students started standing around, clearly losing interest in the activity.
“Yeah, I’d say that’s good enough to get started.  Who remembers how we build our pile?” She pointed at one of the boys who had spent more time making smart comment to the other students than doing his share of the work. “You, remind us how to construct the pile.” Now he was quiet.  “You were just doing a lot of talking, I figure you were helping remind your peer what to do.” She did not want to embarrass him too badly, but she want them to know that she was watching and getting to know them and that meant they should listen when she spoke. 
“Ahh,” he finally said, “but just now I don’t remember.”
“Madam,” the last remaining female student of the group, who had taken the initiative to begin mixing the manure and dirt together spoke up softly. 
“Go ahead, and speak loud enough for all of us to hear!” 
“We build it in layers, BROWNS, GREENS, manure and water.”
“Excellent! Very good, now do as she says.”  The student began putting the pile together with Chelsi saying to add a little more here or a little less there.  By the time all the material with used up, she was fairly certain they would be able to replicated by themselves. “And remember, what are we going to do every day?” rhetorical questions this time. “Check to make sure the pile is wet. And after two weeks, what are we going to do? Mix the pile. Alright good work today, you can all go now.” The remaining dozen or so students looked at Madam Wapa to concur the order, before sprinting back up the hill. 
Chelsi and Madam Wapa follow slowly up behind.  “You will stay for nshima,” Chelsi couldn’t tell if this was a question or statement. But she followed up,
“Sure.” Together they walked back up the hill to the school and Chelsi was lead into a small dark room with a few chairs, a desk and a ceiling at least 15 feet high.  The walls were covered in posters about student statistics: class sized, ages, sex ratio, etc. Taking a seat, Chelsi saw a Curriculum poster up on the wall with activities such as discussions on alcohol abuse, choosing a career, avoiding pregnancy.  The counseling office. Madam Wapa sat behind the desk and other woman brought in some bowls filled with nshima and relish no doubt.  Madam Wapa passed her a plate and a spoon and Chelsi fished out a few beef bones and boiled green for her plate and helped herself to an nshima lump. She could not remember whether it was rude to speak while you eat in Zambia but she was curious.
“What is it that most students go on to do after finish school here?” Kimikolwe Secondary school was different from Mitukutuke Primary school in that it could educate students up to the 12 grade level, while the later stopped at the 9th grade. 
“Many of them go back to the village.  They burn charcoal or become poor farmers.” Madam Wapa spoke with a little distance in her voice.
“Is that because there aren’t a lot of opportunities to continue their education, or get vocational training?”
“Sometimes that is part of it.  In the past a lot of the student where able to go on and get good jobs at the mines.  But for the last several years the price of copper has been dropping and mines have been cutting back.”
“So is part of your job to connect students with new opportunities? Or what else can a student who’s finished the 12th grade go on and do?”
“Many of the student here don’t do well enough to continue on or they just don’t have the motivation.”
Chelsi picked at her beef bone and thought about this, what a shame. She knew many of the parents poured most of their money into their children’s education.  They had to pay school fee to attend class, pay for uniforms which were also switched up every couple years which made hand me down impossible, they had to pay for materials for practicals and exams, they had to buy books for taking notes and on more than one occasion Chelsi had seen student writing between the line of religious magazines that were widely distributed free of charge.  To have all that investment go to waste, to just go back to making charcoal in the village. But still she was torn between compassion, because she knew school performance is a reflection of conditions at home were students live with tight resources, be it money or nutritious food and disappointment.  Just today, by the end of her lesson more than 75 percent of the class had disappeared, ditchedDon’t they understand how much is sacrificed so they can go to school? This was not an isolated incident.  It was not uncommon for her to see students walking around on the road two or three hours before school was officially over and later she would find them standing around chatting with their friend.  Perhaps in this way teenagers all over the world aren’t so different from each other. 

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006: First Day of School, part two

“Beep Beep Beep!” the alarm on her watch rang. 6:30, school started at 8 hours.  She pushed the snooze button and pulled the blanket up around her neck.  Cold season was starting to set in.  She knew it would never snow but she had been unprepared for the chilliness of the nights she was experiencing now.
“Beep Beep Beep!” 6:45. I could push the snooze button one more time
She rolled off the bed and slipped her feet into her chacos.  Coffee and hard boiled eggs were on the breakfast menu.  Feed the dog, too. Daisy was curled up sleeping. 
She finished eating, put on her pink skirt, wrapped herself up in a chitenge and started off towards school.

A few minutes before 8 and students, dressed in navy bottoms and light blue button down tops, started to assemble around the flag pole.  Some of them were staring, a few of them waved, but none of them came up to greet Chelsi and she stood in the shadow of the school.
“Ah, Ba Chels!” Ba Gilbert came up from behind. “Mwabuuka.” He clapped his hands together in the traditional way.
“We are so glad you could make it. This is Ba John.” He gestured to the oval faced man wearing glasses standing next to him. “He is the student teacher.”
Mwane, how are you?” he extended his hand for a hand shake. 
“It does not seem like many students have come today.” Ba Gilbert continued. They looked out over the students.  About 30, were starting to organize themselves around the flagpole.  “But let’s get started, shall we.” Walking towards the students he began clapping loudly and chanting down from 20.  The students fell into line and clapping and chanting.  After reaching zero he greeted the students as a group and starting introducing Chelsi in Kiikaonde.  “Now we know her name, Chelsi.  We do not shout ‘Foreigner’ at her.” He turned to look at her. “Say something to them.”
What?! She stuttered, trying to think of something to say. “Jizhina jami ne Chelsi.  Ne wipaana bunjimi bwa masabi…” There was a long pause and Ba Gilbert eventually took the hint.
“Okay everyone, into class.”
“Did you bring any program for the class today?” Ba John said turning towards her.
“No.  I just want to watch.”  The students started filing in to the building.
“Chelsi, did you bring any program for the class today?”
“No. She has just come to watch.”
“Okay, well come in, come in.”  Three students were seated per bench, but there was a bench in the very back on the right side that was missing a desk top.  Chelsi went and sat down in the far back corner.  The students were chatting very loud between themselves, they were stealing pencils and bits of paper out of each other plastic shopping bags but there were few students with book bags, brightly colored with cartoon characters.  Ba John and Ba Gilbert finished up their conversation just outside and Ba Gilbert disappeared in to the office and Ba John stepped in to the classroom.  All the students dropped what they were doing and stood up. There were a few loud crashes and seat benches flew of their frames and on to the floor.
“I am fine. How are you?”
“You may sit.” The students sat down and a few more lost their benches. “The first and second graders need to be sitting on this wall,” he instructed the students, “the third and fourth graders in the middle and the fifth and sixth graders on that wall.” The students started shuffling around, more seat benches crashed to the floor.  Ba John divided the chalk board in the three sections and wrote the respective grade’s section at the top.  He changed the date.  Just as things started to settle down among the students a couple of boys sitting on the fifth and sixth grade side shoved another little boy of the bench they were sharing.  The little boy tried to sit be down.  The other two continues pushing him, but it was till they started yelling at him the Ba John looked up and paid attention.
What is going on?
He’s in the fourth grade, he can’t sit on this side.” Hearing this Chelsi looked at the row next to her.  All the seats were taken.  She thought she heard Ba John say something to this affect but the older students continued to protest.  After a little more back and forth between the students and Ba John, the younger boy was shoved off his bench for the last time and he retreated a bench where some of his peers were squeezing themselves more tightly together to make room for him. 
Okay, let’s get started, Chelsi thought to herself.  Ba John wrote Maths up at the top of the board.  The students rustled out their pencils and papers.  Each student produced either clean, if slightly battered notebooks or magazines and church pamphlets, where they started to write the lesson in between the printed lines.  The fifth and sixth graders were learning to add fractions, the third and fourth to subtracted three figure numbers and the first and second what qualified at a set of numbers.  Chelsi had heard mixed reviews of school and Kamijiji and how effectively it actually taught it’s students, but besides the continued chattering between students and the occasional  crash of a desk top or seat bench slipping to the ground, the lesson seem promising.
When he finished writing up the lesson and a few practice problems for each grade, Ba John approached her. “Did you bring program for the students today?”
“No,” She hesitated a bit confused. “I’m just here to watch.” He turned back around and mulled around the front of the room before approaching her again.
“Did you bring any chalk?”
“No, I don’t have any chalk.”
“We have run out of chalk.” The chatter among the students started to grow in volume. He turned about “Quiet down! Do your work.” Then sat down next to Chelsi.  “It’s hard teaching so many grades at once.”
“Maybe, but I thought you were off to a great start.” Really, she thought to herself, it wasn’t the teaching of multiple grades at once but the utter lack of discipline in the class room.  The noise level remained constant. 
You,” Ba John pointed at a boy sitting just in front of us. “Go find us more chalk.” The boy stood up and left the room.
“You know, I have heard of a way to make chalk using egg shells. If you’re interested in learning I can teach it to you.” She looked over at him. He was staring down at his smartphone.
“Oh,” he replied with a thick layer of disinterest. Looking at his phone screen she could see that it was just 8:30. The boy that had been sent out came back.
Kafwako.” He was empty handed.  He sat back in his seat as Ba John stood up. For a while he just wandered around the room, before pulling a red pen from his pocket and began what Chelsi believed to be grading the first and second graders work.  Finishing the row, he walked back to his desk picked up a notebook and sat back down next to Chelsi.
It was notebook of lesson plans, learn objectives and the term calendar, he explained handing her the book.  She flipped through it. “Is this how you do it in America?” Students were beginning to wander around the room, the falling of the desk tops and seat benches increased.
“Yes,” but no. Why aren’t you up there teaching? You don’t need chalk to teach.
“How is America?”
“There’s good and bad things.”
“How much did it cost for you to come to Zambia? Like 20 million?”
“Peace Corps pays for the ticket, but I’m sure I wouldn’t be able afford it on my own. But less than 20 million I think.”
“What do you want to teach?” he was staring down at his phone again. 
“Well, I’m a fish farmer.”
“I would like a fish pond. And what about gardening? And chickens?”
“Come to the fish farming meeting on the 30th, at 14 hours here at the school.” He didn’t saying anything, but stood up.  Looking at her watch it was 8:50.  He walked out of the room and into the office. 
Chelsi leaned over to ask the students, “Break, kimye ka?”
“10 hours,” they replied softly.
When he returned he was holding a stack of English books.  Well, I guess that’s it for Maths.
The books were passed out to the respective grade level and each grade was told to which page to turn their attention.  Chelsi peered over the three girls sitting in front of her to their books.  There was an activity.  The students were to match a description to a picture of gifts Judy brought for her grandmother: a cane, a blanket and a cup of tea.  Below was five statements with a blank that had to be filled in.  The girls started drawing the pictures in their notebooks and copying the lesson pages down verbatim.
Over the course of the next hour Ba John wandered in and out of the classroom, smartphone in hand, students yelled at each other and pushed the benches out from under their peers.  A boy sitting a few desks in front of Chelsi started quizzing her on the Kiikaonde words for animals pictured in his English book. 
Bring your books up so I can look.” Ba John instructed as he took a seat in the only straight backed chair in the room.  When the three girl who had been sitting in front of Chelsi returned they proudly should her the 5/5 marks.  When he was finished with all of the students he instructed them to collect the books and put them away.  He walked back to where she was sitting. “What do you want to do now?”
“Let’s take some new snaps, then I have to go.”


Kamijiji Community School

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005: Community Learning, part one


Door to Kamijiji Community School

Chelsi knew of two schools in the area that was now her home.  The first she came to know about was the Mitukutuku Primary School which had been pointed out to her when she first came down the road off the tarmac about two weeks ago, the second was in her home village of Kamijiji.  The school it’s self is decently sized building, compared to the village huts, tucked off the road on a sandy path behind a small evangelical church and some tall grass.  The building was painted blue and white, like all building under the government’s domain, with a large fading stamp marking the wooden door to the schools one class room:  UNICEF. 
This afternoon she was just here to meet the teacher and learn a little more about the school.  He was waiting on the schools porch for her, a young looking man, about her height with a round face. 
“Yes, yes, come in, come in.” He ushered her through a door to a small room just beside the main class room, the office.  “My name is Gilbert Mush… [something, she did not hear the rest]. But please, Gilbert is fine.”  Daisy pawed at a spider in the corner of the room.  “This is the office,” he clarified.
On the one wall there was a rack with stacks of textbooks and workbooks with titles like Primary Math and Introduction to English, on the other a simple desk sticking out in the center of the room.  The floor and walls were all plastered in concrete giving the room an ambiance of strict austerity.  But she supposed ambiance fit the means. 
“There is me and one other teacher.  And we are interested in any kind of program you have for the school.”
“Well, I wanted to know if it is okay if I hold meeting here for fish farming programs after school.”
“Sure, sure, sure. You are free to come whenever you like, the door does not lock.”
“And there is a demonstration I would like to do about making charcoal out of bipukutu, like the things that are left over after harvesting the maize.  And if it’s okay I would like to build the kiln near the school so it’s on neutral ground.”
“Sure, of course, that would be great.”
Chelsi looked up at some small photographs on the wall. “What are the ages of the students that come here?”
“We teach 1st through 6th grade.” She only had one program for schools so far called Grassroots Soccer; an HIV/AIDs intervention program, for which these students were probably too young. “These are some snaps Mike took.” Ba Gilbert joined her in looking up at the photographs.  “You can see him in here somewhere…”  They both looked hard. 
“You think he’d be easier to spot being a 20 something white male in a group of African school children.” But Ba Gilbert was not listening.
“Ah! There he is.” crouched down in the front row was in fact the face of a 20 something white male.
“I’ll have to bring my camera when I come next, so we can get some new pictures up on the wall.” She followed him through a different door leading in to the class room. 
This room was painted blue on bottom and white on top just like outside of the building.  In three rows of six long benched desks faced a wall painted with chalk board paint. There was a tin roof with no lights, but large windows lined both walls. Most of the glass panes were still in tacked, but others were cracked or missing. Among all of this however, the first thing Chelsi noticed was 8×11 pieces of paper taped high on the walls.  On the papers where letter, written in English, in what had to be the hand writing of 3rd and 4th graders. Crayon drawings of little houses, school, flowers and smiling people accompanied the messages. 
“They are letters from a class in America,” Ba Gilbert explained. “I think. Then the children wrote letters back.”  This was a program Chelsi had heard of, and although it has existed under a multitude of names its current rendition was call SchoolWISE.  On one of the many forms she had filled out before coming to Zambia Peace Corps had asked her if she wanted to be paired up with a an school class in the States.  Then over the course of her service she would provide stories and lessons about her experience for children in the States to learn more about Zambia, and the children of schools on either side of the ocean would correspond and she would act as the intermediary. She had opted out. It sounded like a lot of extra work and not practical since she did not envision herself working in a school at all.  It looked like Mike had opted in, but seeing that all the letters on the wall were sporting the same date it did not look like he kept up with program. 
“It would be nice if we could do it again.”
“I’ll see what I can do…” but even if she wanted to opt in to the program now she had since learned that the SchoolWISE program had more interest from volunteers than it did with classrooms in the States and the majority of the volunteers that opted in are never paired up. 
She looked back down at the rows of desks. “How many students are there?”
“When we are at full attendance there are about 135 students.”
“They can’t all fit in here?.”
“When we have that many students we split the class and use the church for the older students.  We are working on building a second building.”
“Oh, so that’s what the large poles sticking out to the ground are for.”  Walking in to the school she had seen six large beams sticking out of the ground, but because the grass around them was so thick she could not imagine what they were being used for.  Now she was around the class room roofing structures and other building material for the new building.
“Yes, but the community is still working on making the bricks.”
Looking back up to the wall they started read the letters out loud. Sometime passed.  Daisy sniffed between the rows of desk and eventually settled for chewing on one of the beams for the new building lying around the room. 
When they had read through every letter Chelsi said, “Well I don’t have any programs for the school right now, but I would like to come on a day that class is in session and meet the students and see how they learn.”
“Sure, sure, sure, you are always welcome.”
“Monday then? What time does school start?”
“School starts at 8 hours.”  They started outside.
“Okay, I’ll be here.” She looked at the one large pole that was not sticking up with the rest. “How about this one?” She gestured to it. “What is this one for?”
“On school days the students come out and hang the Zambian flag.”
“Oh,” She smiled. “We do the same thing in the States, but with the American flag of course.”
**Note from the Narrator:  If you are a teacher, or you know a teacher who might be interested in become unofficial SchoolWISE partners please feel free to email me (burgerc09@gmail.com), or comment below.   I/we can create a program that is as involved as the teacher wants it to be.  Thank you for reading and all the best

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