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Barbara Follows

Barbara Follows, M.Ed

"My philosophy is that every child is unique and, whatever their differences, every single child matters."

Exam-time hysteria and individual potential

Classroom and principal's office

Children in a typical classroom; and a school principal's office

Did you know that a mosquito has 47 teeth and a cockroach can survive for about a week without its head before dying of starvation?

Here in Namibia, the appearance of cans of "Doom" on supermarket shelves heralds the end of winter and the re-emergence of the creepy-crawlies and the flying bugs. The plate-sized jet black spider that has been eluding me over the past two months had better start earning its keep as a deadly predator to make up for being an unwanted house guest.

But I am not the only one who is troubled by something black. The Namibian newspaper recently reported on a school which had to temporarily close its doors after a number of pupils started fainting, claiming that they were plagued by "black things".

August is exam time and incidents of mass hysteria are not unusual. Twenty-six pupils were taken to hospital, but doctors could find nothing wrong with them. Other schools have reported similar problems. The school counsellors that I work with have had phone calls from principals requesting their immediate assistance with pupils threatening suicide. Exams are stressful enough, but even more so when both you and the teachers know that you will not pass.

These are often pupils that have transferred through the grades, repeating a year here and there, but all the teaching being concerned with covering the syllabus and not attending to individual needs. Such pupils have to sit in the same classes with the same teachers, delivering identical lessons to the ones they sat through the previous year. They did not understand then and they are not learning now. In September the results lists are posted with the "failures" separated by a thick line and highlighted in red for all to see.

Part of my work in bringing inclusion to Namibia is to guide schools towards using the examination concessions (very much like the ones in use in the UK) that have been agreed on by the Government but which no one seems to know anything about. It is also to lead schools towards acknowledging that emotional wellbeing, academic achievement and individual potential are gained by teaching the child and not just blindly following the syllabus. Change is frustratingly slow.

In my earlier, third letter, I wrote about a girl in Grade 7 who was nearly 21 and the recommendations that had been made for her. In January we were alerted by the girl's sister that nothing had changed, so the Inspector for the Circuit reminded the school of its obligations. Later in the year the sister again phoned us to say that things were still the same, so we paid the school a visit, and below is what the school said. My comments on this are in bracketed italics, bearing in mind all recommendations had been previously verbally agreed by the school:

  • The report on the November visit has never been received. (As all mail is hand-delivered, this is a common excuse!)
  • At a staff meeting it was agreed not to transfer "T" to Grade 8, as it would not benefit her. (It had already been explained how it would benefit her!)
  • The reduced timetable has not been effected, as we do not want to adapt things for one learner, as there are many special needs at our school. (Well, try starting with this one!)
  • We are also concerned as to what the other learners and parents will say if we make changes for "T" and not for others. (Aah, this is nearer to the truth, but who is in charge here?)

My actual replies were couched in more professional terms!

However, it is clear that the school is more concerned about keeping things as they are, so as to avoid arguments within the school population, than they are about meeting the needs of an individual learner. They also know that poor communication and long distances mean that it is difficult to follow up recommendations in person. There are often vast distances between schools and the Regional Office. In fact, in Oshikoto's case, the Ministry of Education is not even, at the moment, situated in the region it is responsible for. A two- to three-hour journey by a 4x4 vehicle from the Regional Office to reach an outlying school is not uncommon.

It is also worth remembering that of the 100 poorest countries in the world Namibia stands at 85, with GDP per head on $5000 per year. There has recently been an update of the National Food Basket survey, which is used in Namibia to compile a poverty profile in the country. For 82% of people chicken is a luxury, with vegetables being equally out of reach. Only 17% can afford potatoes and 21% onions, whilst tomatoes are on the shopping list of only 18% of people. Overall, nearly 60% of the population cannot afford the food in the basket. This is a sobering finding, supporting my experience of it not being unusual for children and their teachers to arrive at school hungry, thus making it difficult for effective teaching and learning to take place. The one commodity that seems affordable to most is alcohol. Many people gain escape and calories from alcohol consumed in local shebeens, which far outnumber food outlets.

The take-away

On a lighter note, the modest wage of a VSO volunteer occasionally allows for a small food treat, and that was the case recently when a package of DVDs with 50 hours of UK television arrived in my office. What could be better than a film and take-away evening? Take-away in northern Namibia? Yes, the choice is easy: pizza or pizza!

The news spread like wildfire amongst the volunteer community. Something for everyone, films, documentaries, soaps, quiz games and old favourites. Work over, groups of excited volunteers could be seen reminiscing and discussing some of the best of the world's TV! The Americans, Canadians, Japanese, Indians and Dutch in our midst were somewhat bemused about the excitement these DVDs caused, but then they were fast becoming used to the eccentricities of the British.

Competition for the DVDs was becoming heated, but then a volunteer of three years standing played a master stroke. She revealed that she had a data projector and speakers at her disposal. Don't ask how. If you had been here that long, you deserve some perks! So, she had the pick of the bunch and chose... The Dr Who Special.

Sad, isn't it, what three years in Namibia does for the brain cells? I blame the antimalarials myself. She had the equipment and I had the largest blank wall, so a date for a Saturday evening in Ondangwa was chosen. Some people were driving from Ongwediva and there is a pizza place there, so what could be simpler than them picking up a few boxes...

7pm and all was ready at the host house... well, sort of. Pick and Pay (the local supermarket with the slogan "inspired by you") had decided that as far as fruit and vegetables were concerned, there would only be potatoes, onions, carrots, apples, lettuce and cucumber to buy, because they said: "The lorry hasn't arrived."

"Oh, is that the same lorry that hadn't arrived last week?"

However, sarcasm is a difficult concept to understand in your third or fourth language, and a bemused look passed across the face of the assistant weighing the vegetables.

So, one green salad with apples was made, and then a raid in the store cupboard brought forth a box of curried carrots (a South African delicacy) and a tin of assorted beans. Then the first text arrived: "The pizza place only has two bases, so we'll buy two pizzas and a chicken salad."

Right, time to take the reserves out of the fridge - cooked chicken pieces I had prepared for my Sunday dinner. Oh the sacrifice! Bleep, bleep, second text: "Make that one pizza, they don't have enough tomato paste for two and, oh, there's no chicken."

"OK, there's a new pizza place behind the Shell station."

"Right - will try."

8pm: "I think we are lost... "

Many, many directions later I saw the car headlights manoeuvring carefully through the sand as it navigated its way to the temporary cinema. Out fell the disgruntled, tired passengers and one pizza!

After a brief discussion, half of the assembled Dr Who fans went into the house and the other half sped off to the second pizza place.

Did I mention the potholes? Happily chatting about the nuances of Namibian life, we failed to see the deep gorge ahead of us. Wallop! No bother, we were in a 4x4. Into diff, reverse, easy. Except it wasn't - we were stuck in a V-shaped hole half-a-metre deep.

Using up some of the calories we hoped to consume in the pizza, the passengers pushed and heaved until the gorge spat out the little 4x4. Continuing on our way around road diversions, cows, goats and donkeys, we arrived at our destination - to find it closed! Never daunted, what about the petrol station? There in the fridge were three meatballs and some beer, so we returned with our precious cargo. Luckily there were only six of us, as the choice of viewing was, surprisingly, not that popular.

Oh, I forgot to mention that somewhere after the gorge but before the meatballs, another text informed us that the Dr Who DVD had been temporarily misplaced by another volunteer, so our planned evening had been well and truly scuppered!

But great evenings sometimes happen unplanned, and so it was...

From Barbara, who will never ever take take-aways for granted again.

(Published in SEBDA News, issue 20, winter 2009/10)