Monday, 30 December 2013

First Impressions

After a week of life in Chenapou, I jotted down some first impressions, and a description of our house.

Chenapou is a peaceful place, and sitting out on the steps at night to eat our dinner, beneath a starry sky, watching the flashes of distant lightening illuminating the horizon, is a real contrast to the hectic and noisy job of a primary 2 teacher. Instead of twenty voices shouting “Sir! Sir!” all we can hear are the noises of the jungle, the insects and the birds. Around us in the darkness little pinpricks of light appear and disappear; the fireflies going about their lives.

We are invaders here, as humans. However hard the village tries to claim this land as it’s own, the forest will always find its way in. The plants and animals see no boundary between jungle and village. Everywhere you look, there is life.

Every patch of land that is not regularly cleared is thick with vegetation, every trail is narrow and lines by towering trees on either side. The houses are hidden away in all directions with large tracts of wilderness between them.

We occupy the left hand side of this building.
Our quarters, the teacher’s quarters, are located just opposite the school buildings. They are starting to feel like home now, after a hard weekend of scrubbing, wiping, brushing and sweeping. The building is raised a whole storey above the ground on stilts, keeping us a little further away from the creepy crawlies and snakes. This does not stop the cockroaches from infesting the place, or hundreds of moths from filling the roof when the light is on at night. The electricity for our light is generated by one small solar panel.

Wall, partially cleaned.
When rain falls on our zinc roof the noise can be deafening, but we know it means that the tank outside the house will be filling up nicely with fresh water. The kitchen tap is broken so we have to take all of our water from the low bathroom tap. After being passed through a filter, the water seems to be fine for drinking, although we still use purification tablets for now as  a precaution. The toilet doesn't work, so we have to fill up a bucket in order to flush it.

Next to one of the doors we have a long table at which I'm writing, and a couple of slat windows which can be tilted to shut out or allow in the breeze. The main part of the room is large enough to be furnished with a desk, a bench and a rocking chair. This chair feels almost unbearably uncomfortable however, and I whack my shins on it every time I walk past. Above head height the room is criss-crossed by three washing lines.

The kitchen is now reasonably clean and well equipped, after some intensive scrubbing and picking up a box of crockery left behind at the shop by last year's volunteers. We have the luxury of our new wok that we bought in Georgetown too, making cooking pancakes and doing the washing up a lot easier. The more we contemplate the length of time we are here for, the smaller and smaller our food supplies are starting to look. We are cooking breakfast and dinner for ourselves, and find the only difficulty is lighting the smelly, sooty old kerosene stove, on which the adjustment knob is stuck.

Our bedrooms are the only parts of the house that still need to be washed down with bleach, and their floors and the only floors that still need all of the grime and dust brushed out from the cracks between the floorboards. They now feel horribly dirty compared to the rest of the house!

We sleep in our hammocks, stretched diagonally across the bedrooms over the top of the beds, now without their dirty looking mattresses, which we have banished to the empty part of the house next door. At night it gets quite cool and we tuck into our sleeping bags. This is blissful compared to sweating through the night as we did in Georgetown.

Ben is finishing off the task of cleaning the bathroom, which he has been working at diligently for most of the day. The room consists of a toilet (pearly white after cleaning, but the seat is broken) and a washing area with some buckets. I much prefer bathing in the river.


After a hot day's work at school, there is nothing more relaxing and refreshing than a dip in the cool water of the Potaro, and looking up and own to the endless rainforest around you, listening to the incredible sounds, feeling so free and distant from your old city life.

The people of  Chenapou have already made us feel welcome. We have so far been gifted a bunch of bananas, a sour apple (nothing like our apples) and a couple of pears (more like an avocado). Lots of people in the village keep pet parrots and other colourful birds. Last Friday afternoon, whilst Ben and I tried our first bit of Cassiri, the local staple drink made from cassava, we met a green parrot who seemed to be able to say my name after a little training. The people also keep many chickens; the cockerels wake us up every morning, then peck around the yard for scraps of food. There are pet dogs, too, but they look dreadfully underfed.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Starting work. The next day.

Another diary entry. We arrived in Chenapou about 12 hours before school started the next morning, not having a clue what grade we'd be teaching what we'd be teaching them. It was quite stressful...

Straight to school. Not a single day to sort out our accommodation, to clean, to cookj, to prepare for being a teacher. Grade 2. Ben and I flipped a coin. He got grade 5, to be honest I envy him right now.

The grade 2 pupils, mostly, run about, shout, chat, escape, pay no attention. The ytake half an hour to write their names on their books. I realise many times that I am over-estimating their abilities. I try and work out something, ANYTHING, that might just hold their attention for 30 seconds.

It is hard. The paperwork is a mess. I don't have a book for lesson plans, or a register. Or many textbooks, certainly nothing for Spanish. I'm supposed to teach them Spanish! (Good joke) My head hurts, I am exhausted. A swim after school restores some sanity. Teachers are very nice, have been feeding us well whilst we have no stove to cook on. I'm too hot to write any more.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Making an Entrance

The following is an extract from my diary from the 1st of September. I thought it shows quite well what a mad but memorable day we had making the journey into the interior for the first time.

I got barely any sleep the night before we flew to Chenapou. Seemed to spend half the night chasing a cockroach around the inside of my mozzie net. Then got up early, final bit of packing, tidying up the flat, no sign of a vehicle from MOE (Minisitry of Education) so Rishon takes us to Ogle Airport.

After a few phone calls we manage to get some baggage paid for, but still need to cough up 25 grand for overweight. Then there's the fun of getting through Immigration. Our 2 week stay on the tourist visa has expired, and we have no official permission to be in the country. Thankfully our letters of appointment from MOE save us.

The plane was even smaller than expected. 4 seater with all our stuff squashed in behind. Very noisy but worth it for the views of Georgetown's suburbs disappearing, giving way to endless green, the mighty brown Essequibo. Mahdia (central town of region 8) sat at the foot of the hills, the point where the flat lands rise all of a sudden to form a barrier, a step up to an unknown land.

"When oh when will our plane come?"
In Mahdia we waited. And waited. We played cards, chatted to some Chenapou villagers, but mostly we just waited. It was fascinating watching the planes come, unload, load, take off again all in the blink of an eye.

By 4pm roughly, our bags were next in line. Our plane had no seats in the back, we had to cimply perch on a ledge, a couple of kids in front of us sitting on boxes.

I was exhausted, but completely amazed by the beauty we were flying over. Hills and valleys in sunshine, cloud, rain, every shade of green. I felt like the luckiest person alive to have been given this glimpse of one of natures wonders.

A crowd of villagers stood at the airstrip, many welcomed us, shook hands. Children started picking up our boxes. All around the rainforest looked spectacular in the evening light. I felt overwhelmed. This was my home now, I had made it at last, after months of anticipation, weeks of waiting, days of travelling. Chenapou.

The night is now a blur. I'm writing this after two days. The two most bizzare, tiring, mind boggling, stressful, fascinating, difficult, crazy days of my life. Everything is different.

All I remember is noises in the night, the terror of what sounded like rats. Turned out to be a moth. A bird sized moth though. Hammocks, nets, dust, candles, roti, sleep. Cold. What, cold!? Sleeping bag. Sleep again.

Friday, 20 December 2013

First Term Project Report

Dear Sponsors,

I am writing from Guyana to update you on the progress made at my teaching project in Chenapou Primary School.

The first school term began on the 2nd of September, and from this date I was given responsibility for teaching grade 2- a class of 22 students aged six and seven years old. To begin with, controlling the behavior of such a large number of young children seemed like an impossible task, especially in a tiny classroom with not enough benches, desks or books.

Over the first few weeks of teaching I began to discover methods of classroom management, including a gold star reward system, strict class rules and detaining pupils who came in late from recess or lunch. The challenge then really became how to teach the children as effectively as possible.

I focused first on turning our dull classroom into a more colourful, interesting learning environment by making posters and charts for the walls, and putting up pictures drawn by the pupils. As the school has no janitorial staff, it was also up to me to clean out the classroom every morning and arrange it properly, moving out a rotten cupboard and knocking out boards from the windows to allow some light in.

It did not take long for me to realise that me talking to the pupils or asking them to copy from the blackboard, was not going to teach them anything. I had to start making my lessons as interactive as possible, with many actions and objects to hold. Simple things such as using old cardboard to make number cards, letters cards and word cards opened up a whole new range or possibilities. For science lessons I started taking the class outside more often- to follow a compass North or to count how many types of fruit tree they could spot. Games such as hangman, wordsearches and tongue twisters were useful warm ups for English, and the children loved having team mental maths competitions at the start of every maths lesson.

Then came the real breakthrough- I picked up the school guitar and began to sing. If you stand and talk to grade 2, nobody will be listening, but if you start singing, it will be a different matter. As a class we began the day and end the day every day with a few songs- some nursery rhymes and a song that I invented to help them remember the date, as well as Christmas carols later on in the term. This instantly improved the attitude and mood of the pupils, and taught them a lot at the same time. When it came to the end of term Christmas concert, grade 2 were by far the most confident performers.

One other routine that made a huge difference was 'Golden Time'- just twenty minutes or so at the end of a Friday afternoon for the children to look at books, draw pictures, use my calculator or make models. This treat was enough of an incentive to improve the behavior of the pupils throughout the week.

Unfortunately it was just as we had settled into a solid routine and a comfortable classroom, when disaster struck. Contractors arrived with no warning one morning and started removing the shingle roof from our classroom, in order to replace it with zinc (a job which was still incomplete when I left Chenapou). This meant that we were forced to use a football stand as a makeshift classroom for the last few weeks of term, including the end of term tests. The results of my tests showed a lot- for English, which required the pupils to read and write, there was a clear cut division between the ones who could read (and got As) and those who couldn't read (and failed or got 0%). In subjects where I did aural assessments individually with the pupils, they scored much more consistently across the class. I had been trying to combat this poor reading ability by creating reading groups and holding reading sessions during lunchtimes, but much more work is clearly needed on this next term.

My plan to improve the performance of grade 2 next term is to spend some time every day learning basic phonetics, so as to help those who cannot read at all to catch up. I would also like to start incorporating more experiments and models into science and social studies lessons to make them more interesting for the pupils. Getting the pupils to answer all questions in full sentences and standard English (as opposed to their Creole) will make a big difference to their speaking and writing skills.

Without making this letter too much longer than it already is, I would like to mention some of my activities in Chenapou outside of my work at the school. I have found it fascinating gradually learning about Amerindian life and trying it for myself; working on farms, planting cassava, making cassava bread and cassiri, going fishing on the river, going hunting out in the bush. My partner Ben and I love the Potaro river so much that we asked a man to dig out an Amerindian canoe for us. We helped drag the boat down the mountain  from the tree it was cut from, and watched him complete it by roasting it in a fire.

I have experienced hot sun and tropical rainstorms and watched the river rise and fall. I have met too many snakes for my liking, as well as all kinds of beautiful trees, insects and birds. I have learnt how to handwash clothes, how to clean a house, how to cook for myself and how to sleep in a hammock. I have learnt too many things to write here, but perhaps the most important one is how to share. The Amerindian way of life is to share everything. Wherever you go, cassiri and cassava bread are free, camping is free, and you are welcomed as family. They share their work too- helping each other on their farms in community events called cayap. It seems to me that it is this sharing attitude that defines their culture.

Thank you for taking the time to read this letter and thank you for supporting this project. I hope I have convinced you that I have been, and will continue to make the most of my time in Guyana and do the best I can for my pupils. I hope also that you are well, and would like to wish you a happy Christmas and new year.


Thursday, 19 December 2013

Blogging without an Internet Connection

Hello internet, it's been a while.

After 15 weeks in the rainforest, the bush, the jungle, the interior, the hinterlands, the middle of nowhere, or simply 'home' as I now like to call it- I have arrived back in Georgetown for the Christmas holidays. It took three days of waiting for a plane, then a grueling 11 hour ride in a packed minibus along potholed roads, but Ben and I made it back eventually. Back on the map, back to things like roads and cars and people, back to phone calls and emails and electricity and bright lights and all sorts of strange and fancy things like that.

Let me explain how blogging from a place with no internet is going to work.

I have already done lots of blogging, you just don't realise it yet. Over the term I have been collecting photos and stories and observations and diary entries of interest, ready to be typed up. But of course I can't post it all at once because then nobody will read it all.

Thanks to some magical Google buttons, I can delay when the posts appear to be published, and pretend that I'm uploading them once a week from Chenapou. You can pretend too that you are receiving them real-time, or jut accept that you're getting the story in the right order, just 3 months behind when it actually happened.

Just treat it like people treat the newspapers the receive in Chenapou- getting the news 15 weeks late is better than no news at all.

So, after I have published a little project report of the first term (plot spoiler), we can start imagining that I have just arrived in Chenapou, and see where it goes from there. You can expect one post every Saturday.

Heading out on the 1st September. Essequibo River.