Learning about my students

I rode my bike with the teeter-totter seat on down to the university today. My first mission was to make some copies. During the class, the spokesperson or class president Ali asked me with great earnestness if I could give him a copy of my “cours”. After a bit of discussion, I realized that what he wanted was my notes for my lectures, or preferably, texts. I had to tell him that I didn’t work that way, that my lectures were quasi-spontaneous, depending on student reactions, but that I did have Power Points that served to give something for the people to look at other than me (a relief, no doubt) and also to keep me somewhat on course as to subjects to discuss that day. I have translated about the first 1/3 of my Power Points, and I offered to print them off. By the time class ended yesterday, all the administrative people were off doing other things, so I came back today to do the printing. I went to the office secretary, and I got the impression that printing off about 100 pages was at the borders of what was reasonable – he pointed out that he was getting an “ink low” message on the printer. Anyway, I got the printing done and took it to Mme Ilboudo’s office. She wasn’t around, either in her department chair office or her faculty office, and I think she might still be sick. So, I rode home.

It was, as Peace Corps Guinea used to say, Kindia hot. Kindia is the first major town on the way from Conakry towards the Fouta Djallon Mountains. You are away from the coast, so no sea breeze, but not up in the mountains yet. And also not on the other side of the mountains where it is at least dry though darn hot. So, worst of three worlds. Ouagadougou was kind of like that today, 37 and pretty muggy. Think of a bad summer day in Washington DC, but without the air pollution.

When I got home, I sat down to type my students’ names into my Excel spreadsheet that I use for a grade book. I have them on sheets of paper that they filled out when they formed groups for the projects. I only got 339 names, so quite a few people managed to escape without getting signed up for a project. I will have to catch them next week. Or maybe they just didn’t hear that the class was happening yet.

Anyway, in the process of typing in the names I learned, or at least could conjecture on the basis of a little evidence, a little more about the society of the students. First, of the names I could identify by gender, there were a almost three times as many men as women (193 to 73). The groups were self-selected, and women didn’t tend to cluster in a few groups of their own but were in groups with men, though there was one group that was almost half women. I asked each group to identify a group leader who I could be in contact with. I want to arrange to meet with each of the groups at least once or twice during the year outside of class time. Of 27 group leaders, only one was a woman. I noticed her yesterday when I met with the group leaders after class to get them moving on splitting up the work of the group project and get contact information, and I congratulated her on her leadership skills. Her group is the one that is almost half women (6 of 14).

There certainly is no overt or institutional discrimination against education for women in Burkina Faso. My boss is a woman. The long-time First Lady of Burkina, Chantal Compaoré, was a big advocate for women’s and girls’ education, as was the president before her husband, the famous Thomas Sankara. Radical Islam has opposed women and girls going to school, and there is a little bit of that here, but just this morning I saw a woman going through campus, fully garbed à l’Arabe in black robes, and carrying her books, so here was at least one Wahabi woman who wasn’t letting her religion stop her from getting an education. I asked Mme Ilboudo about this, and apparently the problem is a very widespread one in the developing world – if a family can only afford to educate one of its children, they are going to pick the smartest boy. And lots of families in Burkina are pretty much on the edge and when they get kids who reach their teenage years they need their labor power to keep food on the table. So boys and girls go to school through the elementary years, but when they get to middle school age, it gets to be mostly boys, and the percentage only increases as you get to high school and then university.

Another thing about the groups: they are self-selected. So I somewhat expected the sort of segregation that goes on in American schools – the Black table, the Latino table, the Asian table in the lunchroom, etc. I’m happy to report that I didn’t see much if any evidence of that. Of the names on my list, there is about a 50-50 mix of identifiably Muslim names (Ibrahima, Yacoub, Moussa, Aminata, Issa – that’s Jesus, by the way) and identifiably Catholic names (lots of Marie’s, Jean Bosco, Jean Baptiste, etc). They were pretty well mixed up. I get the impression that Catholics, though they comprise about 40% of the population, are more likely to be urban and better-educated, but there were plenty of Ali’s and Moussa’s and suchlike. Important in this regard that the class president is Ali.

On the selection of topics: I wrote up the topics pretty quickly, trying for a mix of social history, political/military affairs, culture, unrepresented groups like blacks, women, immigrants. I expected a big rush for the African-American history topics, especially since I said that was a specialty of mine. But no, they spread their choices around pretty well. I got three groups who wanted to do “America After 9/11”, and I told them I would work with them to ensure that each one got a different sub-topic so I won’t have to read the same paper over and over again. Otherwise, there is a broad range of interests. I’m pretty excited, actually, to see what they come up with. Hopefully they won’t just regurgitate my ideas but probably…

Anyway, still pretty sweaty although the heat of the day has passed. Bousso is here, first time she’s come since last week. She has been moving, she says, and now lives near me and will be able to come every day. Good thing, too, as I was about to regretfully part ways with her. No food, though, so I will be getting my dinner at a restaurant this evening. Steak au poivre vert at the Paradiso, I believe?

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