Sunday, February 24, 2013

Open letter to International Non-governmental Organizations (INGOs) whose official languages are English AND French, working in Francophone countries

Dear INGOs,

I am writing on behalf of any and all individuals that live in Francophone countries that collaborate with you through funding initiatives, programs, conferences, etc. and to express my personal aggravation regarding the use of English in your key documents and materials as well as communications with your Francophone collaborators on the ground.

It has come to my attention several times over the course of the past five months of living in a Francophone country that an overwhelming amount of literature you provide to Francophone individuals is unfortunately only available in English. Here is but one example of the frustrations that are borne of this type of oversight:

At a conference hosted by several INGOs geared towards ECOWAS Members’ Ministries of Education, a majority of the presentations were conducted in English and the material provided (documents, manuals, pamphlets etc) was in English. For your information, of the fifteen ECOWAS countries, eight are Francophone, two are Lusophone (one of which participates in the French monetary union and whose citizens speak French) and five are English-speaking. At the end of the conference, the participants were expected to use the materials provided to come up with a Plan of Action to be monitored by the INGOs.
As a native English speaker, my colleagues brought the materials to me to be translated into French. Discouraged, they asked me, “How can we come up with a legitimate Plan of Action if we can’t even read the materials?”

In 2013, I find it appalling that this should be the case. As many INGOs work in countries where English is not the national language, it’s disappointing and discouraging that efforts are not made to provide participants and “collaborators” with the tools they need in their working language to implement the projects that you suggest/encourage that they put into place.  Furthermore, many of the INGOs that work here claim that French is one of their official working languages. This becomes hard to believe when documents are not then translated into this "official" language.

Lucky for the Ivoirian Ministry of Education, I am here to provide capacity support, including translating the documents that you fail to provide them in French. But, this is completely unsustainable. Furthermore, what are they expected to do with this material, which in most cases is highly technical? Use Google Translate?

What message are you trying to send to the people you are supposed to be collaborating with? As a colleague said to me, clearly deflated: “it’s as if they [INGOs] don’t even care about us.” When I attempted to overcome this problem with the INGOs in the example above via email, I was met with a dismissive attitude. I was told that the presenters were used to presenting in English and felt more comfortable doing so. And that my colleagues should have gotten the basic gist of the presentations during the conference, despite it being in a different language. This attitude, coupled with the fact that the participants (reminder: majority of which were Francophone) repeatedly asked for translated documents and were given the run-around, further reinforces the statement made above by my colleague.

If the purpose of coming and leading conferences or providing materials to individuals in developing nations is to build their capacity and put them on the path to development, it is absolutely unacceptable to not provide them with documentation, PowerPoint presentations, and what have you, in their own language. 

I recognize the financial burden that translation may place on organizations. But I do strongly believe that there is no way this cost outweighs the benefits of providing important translated content to people working to make change in their countries.

I hope that this letter is well received by all whom are concerned and that by voicing this frustration, some changes will be made in the ways that INGOs communicate with their Francophone counterparts.

Justine Davis

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Being black in Africa

I have often been asked the question, “what’s it like being a black American in Côte d’Ivoire?” so I figured I would address this here.

Sometimes it’s like this:
In a taxi on the way to a Saturday morning yoga class with two (white) American friends, the driver kept referring to me as his “sister” to back him up in a discussion about how Ivoirian women prefer girl children. Exasperated on my behalf, my friend said, “She’s not your ‘sister.’ She’s from America like us!” The taxi driver expressed shock and then excitement; he turned around and asked if he could shake my hand. “I’ve never met a Black American before! I see them on TV, but never before in real life!” He proceeded to chuckle and shake his head in astonishment the whole rest of the trip.

Or it’s more often like this:
Taxi driver: “is she [referring to me, even though I am in the car] American like you?”
Friend: “Yes. But, you can ask her yourself”
Taxi driver turns to me: “but really where are you from? Everybody knows where they come from… your ancestors are from which African country?”
Me, incensed: “Do I really need to explain the whole slave trade to you right now? They didn’t ask the Africans they took off the boat which country they were from and write it down. The slave traders didn’t care (I might have used more colorful French here, I was in a bad mood)”
Taxi driver: “I guess that makes sense…Well I heard Michael Jackson traced his heritage back to Guinea. So you could be from there too.” (Guess which country the taxi driver was from… go figure)

I get it. I represent an anomaly for many here, because when they meet Americans, eight times out of ten (or higher) they are white (i.e. aid workers, embassy folks, etc). From first glance, I don’t particularly stand out – I have been told that I have Bété (Ivoirian ethnic group west-central part of the country, Gbagbo’s ethnic group) legs – though my accent to a good ear has English tones. When a taxi driver discovers this and I am alone, I lie and say I am from Ghana. Why? Because I don’t want to deal with people asking me to help them get a visa to the US (i.e. help us, my sister. We are both black you should help us, etc). Only once has this plan backfired when the taxi driver knew Ghana a little too well (Oh, what village are you from? What language do you speak? etc). If I am with some of my lighter skin (read, white) friends, I become even more noticeable because I am speaking English. I once had a dude chase us down the street because he was sooo interested in talking to the Black woman who spoke English. Saw the same dude less than an hour later when I was alone; he didn’t take special notice of me. 

I guess it is frustrating because I don’t want to be the exotic token. It’s true that I can answer, after being asked four times in the same conversation, really where are you from, my grandmother is from Cape Verde (though also born in America), which I do sometimes. They nod their heads and say ok, that makes sense (because me being from America doesn’t make sense…); But I am only a quarter Cape Verdean, don’t speak the language and minimally identify as such. I don’t want to diminish the rest of my history that is directly tied to the slave trade and American history, and yet I find myself sometimes having to do this. It’s equally frustrating when they say, “but no he or she [referring to a white colleague] is a real American.” My people have been in the US for longer than every one of my white Fulbright colleagues here, who are descendents from European immigrants that arrived in the late 1800s, early 1900s. From what my grandfather has researched, the Davis side can be traced back to at least the 1790s! Argh!

On the other hand, it certainly has its advantages. The people I work with love to show me off as “Obama’s cousin” (though, they know good and well Obama and I have little to no chance of being related considering his background). I have embraced my “Bété”-ness, even adopting a Bété name: Ouzua (which now some colleagues only refer to me as). I blend in when I walk down the street… maybe they see me as different from Ivorian women, but for all they know I could be from some other West African country… in other words, I don’t usually get harassed for money or to make “new” friends any more than an Ivoirian would, compared to my white colleagues.

But the “discrimination” (maybe too strong of a word) doesn’t just apply to West Africans ignoring me or being intrigued by me. In Ghana, I have a memory of sitting in the cafeteria alone eating lunch one day. Some UCLA study abroad students (some of whom I had actually met earlier) came in. They saw another white study abroad student, and immediately went to sit with him. I sat there, appalled. I wanted to stand up and shout “hey, I am American too!”

In short, living in and travelling around West Africa has made me think about my identity as a black, African-American, woman. I would like to learn more about other African-Americans’ experiences here, and maybe one day I will write a book. In the meantime, I try not to get too annoyed when asked where I come from. I try to feel out whether the taxi driver (because nine times out of ten, they are the most interested) is going to ask me for a) more money, b) a visa, or c) if I know Beyoncé; or if he is just going to have a nice chat with me about how cool my country is. That’s when I decide to claim my American-ness or pretend to be from someplace else. 

Monday, February 04, 2013

Yako! For the Elephants

Currently, Africa is caught up in the fervor that is the CAN, Africa Cup of Nations. Starting with 16 teams, it's now down to the play-offs, and unfortunately, Côte d'Ivoire was unable to make it out of the quarter finals.


~That's what we say here to show sympathy or when something bad has happened (apparently comes from the Baoulé). You're sick? Yako! You slipped and fell? Yako! We even saw a very ironic insurance company of that name, advertising that before you reach the point when everyone is telling you Yako, you ought to buy a life insurance policy!

We were ready to support the Elephants all the way; last year they made it to the finals and lost just by one penalty kick to Zambia. We figured with Didier Drogba on the team, there was no way we would lose. We beat Togo, we beat Tunisia (3-0)! Tied Algeria... and then lost to Nigeria (2-1). we supported them as best as we could, wearing bright orange jerseys, drinking the local beer, and cheering hard... but it just wasn't enough.

Sorry... now I am rooting for Mali, considering they could use the moral boost during their current crisis....

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Escaping Abidjan

With some students in Yamoussoukro
Sometimes you don’t realize that you tired of a place until you leave it. I was able to get away from the pollution, traffic, and overcrowded Abidjan for a few days to go to Yamoussoukro and Bouaké for school visits and inspections from 20– 23 January. We did not get to go all the way to the North (as described in the previous post) because Thursday was a national holiday, Mawlid (Mohammad’s birthday), and we needed to be back in Abidjan.

The cities

Technically the political capital of the country, the landscape of the city brings to mind some dusty highway in Arizona. Large, expansive boulevards cross the city, but there is very minimal traffic compared to the economic capital Abidjan. The founding father of the country, Houphouet-Boigny had big aspirations for his home village: he built a giant presidential estate complete with lakes filled with Caymans (who eat people!) and the most impressive feat, a basilica that is larger than Saint Peter’s in Rome (In fact, it is the largest Christian building in the world!) But, unfortunately for him, the city hasn’t taken on its role as the political capital and remains sparsely populated.

The second largest city in Côte d’Ivoire, Bouaké gets its claim to fame by being the former capital of the rebel held north from 2002-2009. This becomes very evident as one arrives from Yamoussoukro, as you pass a giant UN base just before arriving in the city (“little Pakistan” greets you just off to your left before the city). Bouaké suffered substantially during the conflict, with little to no infrastructural assistance from the capital, rebel lootings occurring frequently, and access to food being difficult for the population. From what I could see, however, Bouaké seemed to be making a comeback. Motorcycle taxis zoomed around town and there have been substantial government efforts to re-open the university.

The schools
I traveled with the General Inspector for the EDHC (human rights education) curriculum. Our intention was to do some organized school visits as well as some surprise inspections, and participate in question and answers sessions with professors on the new curriculum and new teaching methods.
In Ya’kro, we visited three establishments: a primary school/preschool, a middle school, and the teacher training college (CAFOP). In Bouaké, we visited several classes at a middle school.

The most refreshing and promising was the primary school levels. The teachers used creative teaching methods to introduce the EDHC topics (preschool – the colors of the Ivoirian flag; primary school – the importance of keeping your social space clean), such as group work, interaction between students and teachers, several different types of props, etc. In my experience thus far, this tends to be the case: since the primary level teachers are all trained to teach several different subjects, incorporating EDHC (previously ECM) into their curriculum is a piece of cake. Furthermore, it would appear that considering the age levels they work with, these teachers also have no restraints in using creative techniques to teach the content.

At the middle school level, however, things are not the same. As mentioned in a previous post, the teachers at this level are normally trained in a specific discipline and teach EDHC because they are asked to fill their extra hours (though there are teachers who volunteer to teach the curriculum, we have met very few). That means that these teachers, who have a upper level degree to teach their discipline (the elementary school teachers only do the equivalent of technical training+ internship to teach, a few years less than the middle/high school teachers), have to not only plan the courses for their discipline but also for EDHC, of which many have not received proper training, and let’s be honest, may or may not care one lick about. So as can be imagined, the classes lack creative teaching techniques, tend to be dictated to the students, and the content is often treated as theoretical concepts and not applicable to the students’ lives. When approached, the teachers themselves claim that they haven’t received training, which the response from the DPFC is, we’ll work on that, but we have provided you with the materials. To which the teachers respond, we don’t know how to use these materials/you don’t provide enough for us to work with. It’s as if, sometimes, they want the whole lesson to be laid out directly for them, instead of coming up with their own ideas. For me, coming from the US system, but being familiar with the French system, it is rather disappointing. EDHC has so much potential to be a “fun” class, and the teachers can use a variety of interesting techniques to get the students excited and to recognize the importance of it as a subject, and they are not doing this, unfortunately.

In Bouaké, we surprised the school for an inspection. And man, were they surprised. We asked to see the teacher schedule for EDHC so that we could pick a class to visit. We were told there were several classes being taught at the same hour, so we picked one and proceeded to go to it. What we instead found was that not only was the schedule the school had seriously out of date/plain wrong, but we discovered that several classes had never even had EDHC since the beginning of the year. Even more interestingly, the member of the administration that toured us around the school told me that “European children don’t need discipline. Our students here have had a lot of problems since the crisis, and they need a smack in the head every now and then. So it’s not fair that your [Western, presumably] organizations tell us not to hit students, because that’s what they need.” (he of course said this to me after he went into a classroom to discipline a student, a class that didn’t have a teacher in it, which was often the case at this particular school. With 4,800 students, I noticed that a lot of the classrooms were without a teacher/adult and the students were just in there, doing who knows what.)

The teachers we finally did see still called EDHC, ECM despite the change since 2009. The walls of the classrooms were covered in graffiti. In the class where I administered some surveys (9th graders), there were 19 year old students. Since middle school is not free, there is no age limit for students; instead, all students are obligated to complete the 9th grade, at any age. It was definitely a change from the schools in Ya’kro and those in Abidjan as well.

In short, I think it is really important to for me, and moreover for the DPFC, to get outside of the main cities to see about the other schools. The Inspector was very upset with the fact that there were students at the school who had never received EDHC classes and had a good talking to to the principal of the school. Hopefully, things will get changed, but who really knows.

The adventure

On the way to Yamoussoukro, we rode in a nice truck with A/C that belonged to the primary school inspector of Yamoussoukro (his family lives in Abidjan, so he often is there for the weekends). But as we were driving, the car started overheating and then just all together stopped working. We were out in the middle of nowhere on the side of the road, nothing but silence and stars and tall grasses around us. Luckily, a car passing by stopped and offered to pull us, yes with a rope, to the next village where there was another inspector that could help us out. Welcome to Africa :-)

For sleeping, in Ya’kro we stayed at the CAFOP in rooms that weren’t super fancy but were super free. Then in Bouaké we stayed in these rooms that were run by some Catholic priests who also had lots of animals running the yard and beautiful gardens.

For food, we were often treated (since I was, after all, with the general inspector) by the local delegation, so we ate very well. Since we crammed so much into each day, we were literally running around from 7am until 11pm, which was both exhilarating (things had been rather slow previously) and exhausting (considering everything was also conducted in French). Probably one of the highlights was when we arrived in Bouaké and the city was empty because everyone was watching the CAN (Africa cup) game against Togo.
I really had a nice time and look forward to other trips further north and to the east bientôt!