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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Pen Pals in Teyel - and in Saint Paul, MN

A couple months ago, I thought it might be fun to do a pen pal project between kids at my school and kids at a school in America.  There is no home mail delivery here, and the closest post office (where packages or letters can be picked up) is nine miles away.  When I receive mail and tell my community about it, some of them don't grasp the concept that there is a system in place to send things from one part of the world to another - the only way to transport goods that they're familiar with is to give them to someone to carry with them as they travel.  When I told my family that I received a box from my mom for my birthday, they were hurt that she hadn't stopped by to say hello. I was sure that kids here would treasure letters from America.

Since kids learn French in school here, I emailed the directors of French immersion schools in Minnesota (I chose Minnesota for no other reason other than my hometown loyalty), but only heard back from one, the L'Etoile du Nord school in St. Paul.  A fourth grade teacher there said she'd love to do the program and sent me a list of her 31 students.

Senegalese schools are not nearly as efficient as American ones.  When teachers don't show up, there is no substitute system in place.  If there's farm work to do, that takes priority over studying.  Kids go home for lunch and might come back late, or not come back at all.  There is no electricity, and the sun sets at 6:30 these days.  Batteries and candles are too expensive for many families to afford regularly, so there's not much time for homework. Young girls usually start cooking the family dinners (on rotation with other girls in the house) when they're around 10.  Since there is absolutely no processed food here, all milling, chopping, peeling, and sifting has to be done manually, so cooking a meal takes several hours. Senegalese schools aren't free, so if a family has a poor harvest, they might not be able to afford for their children to attend that year.

For all these reasons and more, I was cautious about the ability of the students to write a good quality French letter.  I asked the directors of Teyel's primary and secondary schools, and they said they didn't think the kids would be able to independently write a letter until 5eme, roughly equivalent to 7th grade.  If kids fail high stakes end-of-the-year tests here, they have to retake the same grade again the next year.  For that reason, the 7th grade class ranged from 12 year olds to some that looked around 18.  There are official age limits for each grade, but birth records are easily and commonly falsified.

I met with the 5eme teachers (Mr. Barkham and Mr. Ning) and they were excited and enthusiastic to help.  This is the 5eme class:

Which is a little crowded, so the teachers immediately made a list of the 13 boys and 18 girls who had the best grades in the class and sent the rest home.

The kids in the now-much-less-crowded classroom wrote for over an hour, in careful and meticulous cursive, as I called them out one by one to take a picture (since I was pretty sure the American kids would like to see who they were writing to).  I can't speak French, but their letters look fabulous.

The letters are now in the mail and ready to journey to America, which can take anywhere from two weeks to two months.  I just wish I could read French...