Saturday, 25 January 2014

Things You Wouldn't Hear in a British Classroom...

"You can have your hunting knife back at the end of the day, but it is too big for sharpening your pencil."

"I'm tired of sweeping up bat faeces from the floor every morning."

"Thank you for the chicken, but please take it out of the classroom now."

"Stop eating fruit in class!"

"Put your blowpipes away in your bags."

"Children please carry your cutlass to school tomorrow."

"Tomorrow is sports day, please do not forget to bring your canoes and paddles."

"Sir, me pencil fall down through the crack in the floor."

"Rain again, please move your desks to avoid the leaks in the roof."

"Please leave the classroom by the door and not the window."

"We are having a celebration tomorrow children; tell your parents to bring at least half a pale of cassiri."

"Lunch will be late today because the kitchen has ran out of water."

"How did your books get all wet, boy?"
"We capsized on the way to school sir."

"Children, stay well clear of the blackboard in case the wind blows it over again."

Saturday, 18 January 2014

A Day in the Life of...

Written on 5th October. Think I'll have to do another one of these sometime- the routine looks very different now!

5 am - The first hints of dawn are appearing in the sky, and filtering through my window. My watch beeps but the morning chorus of cockerels has already half-woken me. I stretch out in my hammock and wriggle out of my sleeping bag.

5.15 am - Start the day with a few exercises- it's the only time when it is cool enough to exercise without sweat pouring down your face.

5.30 am - It is now light enough to walk easily outside. I take a couple of buckets with me down to a large flat rock by the river. In one bucket is my dirty washing, soaking in soapy water, in the other is my towel, some shampoo, soap and a nailbrush. As I wash and bathe the forest becomes alive with the sound of insects. Sometimes I can also hear the haunting calls of baboons echoing through the hills. The water is cool but not cold, perfect, refreshing way to set myself up for the day.

6 am - On my way back the glow of sunrise begins to redden the sky. I say good morning to a few people who are getting up and busying themselves- fetching water or lighting up fires to bake their cassava bread over. I leave my flip flops- caked in orange mud from the river bank- outside and begin hanging out the washing.

6.15 am - Time to start preparing breakfast. During the week it is usually rice. The first step is to stoop down at the low tap to filter some water, then see how long it takes me to light the fiddly kerosene stove. My current record is 28 seconds but on average it's more like 2 minutes. Condensation on the match boxes makes it extra tricky in the morning. Whilst the rice boils I get a broom and sweep out the kitchen.

7 am - Breakfast. Ben is up now and we sit ouside to eat and wave good morning to passers by.

7.30 am - Get ready for work. Shave, change into a shirt and trousers, look over the plan for today's lessons. Stoop back at the tap to filter more water into my bottle.

8.15 am - Strap on my sandals and make the arduous, ten second journey next door to the school to sign in and set up the classroom. Not only am I a teacher, I am also the janitor and the cleaner. A family of bats live up in the roof of my classroom, and every morning I have to sweep out the scattering of bat faeces that litters the floor, along with pencil sharpenings, scraps of paper and sweetie wrappers that never made it as far as the cardboard box we use as a bin.

9 am - About half of my class are sitting in their seats, another quarter will turn up over the next ten minutes, but it is unheard of to see the full 22 in one go. Those that are here, with good uniforms and clean nails are awarded one gold star. The person with the most stars at the end of the week will recieve a small prize. "Stand up please grade  2" I say, and maybe four people stand up. After a few more attempts I have their attention. We say a morning prayer and sing a nursery rhyme.

9.15 am - Every day we start with English- it is the most important subject, and the one they furthest behind in because their creole is so far from standard English. It doesn't help that there are barely any books I can give them to read, and I have no textbook or guide to teaching English.

10.25 am - Those children that have finished their work, and haven't been misbehaving, go outside for a break. There is no boundary to the school compound so they always wander too far and don't make it back to school on time.

10.45 am - We leave our spot in the nursery building and take our books up to the grade 3 classroom in the 'big' school. Grade 3 have about 10 pupils compared to my 22, and even though I always carry a couple of benches up with me, there is a barely enough space for us. We are here to listen to an Interactive maths lesson on CD, as there is electricity in the big school. If it is raining or noise is coming from another class, it is very difficult to hear the CD player. Although it ought to take just 27 minutes, the amount of pausing required to keep the class focussed and give them time to answer questions means that we don't even finish on lesson before lunch at 11.35.

12 noon - After marking some books, I go up to the school kitchen with Ben for a plate of rice or chow mein. I much prefer the school lunches here to what were given in Britain, although perhaps they lack vegetables. I miss vegetables more than any other kind of food.

1 pm - "Grade two inside!" I get somebody to call out to the field, at the pavillion and under my house. Usually there are a few children who have simply disappeared, decided they would take a half day. The heat makes it difficult to concentrate as we go through some social studies of science. Lost and broken pencils always cause lessons to take twice as long as they should.

2.30 pm - Home time for grade 2. I usually hold back a couple, either to talk sternly about their behavior or to let them finish their work that they have not done because they were to busy climbing out the window  and crawling under the desk.

3.30 pm - I finish off marking the pupil's work and carry my things back home. Anything left in the school will be fiddled with or stolen as the nursery building has no lock. Ben and I change into swimming trunks and dive into the river to cool off and rinse away the day's sweat.

4 pm - Find some time to visit a friend for a chat, play my penny whistle for a while, or read from my kindle in the afternoon heat.

5 pm - Start work on dinner. We have the option of pulling some edoes from the ground outside our house to make a soup, or attempting to make roti. Usually though it's lentils or beans with more rice. If we are lucky somebody will have gifted us some vegetables from their farm, or a kid might have climbed a tree to pick a few ripe fruits for us.

6 pm - Sit at my little desk to plan lessons for tomorrow. Thte light begins to fade from the sky and we switch on our solar powered lights on to work by. The mosquitos also come out to irritate us, and the cockroaches start to invade the house. We slap them with our flip flops and keep a tally of how many we kill. In about a month so far we have squished 66 of them.

7 pm - Continue working with a cup of tea of some sort. Lemongrass grows locally and makes a delicious hot drink, or if we feel indulgent we use some cocoa powder to make hot  chocolate.

8 pm - After brushing my teeth outside to see the endlessly starry sky or watch distant lightening storms light up the horizon, I climb into my hammock, in the safety of my mosquito net, and listen to some music as I drift of to sleep.

Saturday, 11 January 2014


Written on the 15th of September, this is an account of a weekend which was spent, like many others, simply exploring the boundaries of Chenapou, and finding that in almost every direction, those boundaries were much further away than we had imagined.

It's hard to know where to go in Chenapou. There are no signposts, no markers, to obvious paths. The trails through the forest are narrow and muddy, all very similar to each other, regardless of whether they lead to a big landing or just somebody's backyard. Ben and I followed a particularly muddy path yesterday afternoon, full of puddles following the morning's rain. It took us under towering trees with vines looping from their canopies, over trails of ants, past dense shrubs,  exotic looking flowers and alien looking insects. Only now and again did we pass any sign of human life; an abandoned farm, a small wooden house in a clearing, a man walking the trail with an axe in his hand. Most people we met were quiet, just giving a shy nod. But the odd one or two would stop for a chat, introduce themselves and crack a couple of jokes.

One such man was John. He had been working on his farm and was heading the opposite way to us, but he gave us directions a little further to the landing where we could cross to the other side of the Potaro. At the landing the river took a wide bend. We stood on the inside of that bend, looking across to the sandy beach and confluence with 'Chenapou Creek' on the other side. A few kids were playing at the beach. The sand on these beaches can be deadly soft, sucking your feet under and trying to steal your slippers (flip-flops).

After about five minutes the sounds of a motor began to grow louder, then all of a sudden a speedboat veered around the corner and collided into the bank. It was a 16 year boy we had met earlier in the day. He barely said a word as he ferried us across the river. It felt bizarre going so fast after a couple of weeks at walking pace.

Looking across to the creek mouth.
By the creek we explored the scattering of houses, waving hello to a few families who watched on curiously as we discovered the steep trails through the forest. Back at the beach an old man told us that we could cross the creek and walk along the trail- the same trail that eventually leads to Paramakatoi where two other volunteers live- and find some rapids. By the time we had ungracefully paddled across the creek and walked for ten minutes, we had acquired a young man named Joseph as our guide. He took us for an exciting round trip to the top of the rapids and back along the river bank, pointing out various plants and animals on the way.
Waiting for a boat.

At the top of the rapids the creek rejoined itself at the back of an island and ran over a series of smooth shapes of rock. Some protruded from the water, or were shallow enough for us to walk on without being swept away, so long as we stepped carefully in Joseph's footsteps to avoid the deep potholes in the rock. I was reminded of 'The Punch Bowl' at the Linn of Quoich in Scotland.

We scrambled, waded, fought our way through thick vegetation. Joseph explained that the rapids were named Kurungwai, after a boulder in the middle of the white water with white marks down the side of it. It is said that the marks came from the faeces of the Kurung, an eagle that sat atop the rock.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Chenapou Primary School

Along with my first impressions of my house and the village, I wrote this description of Chenapou Primary School. Try comparing it to your local primary school...

The Nursery (and grade 1-2) Building
Chenapou Primary School is made of wood, like every other building in Chenapou. The floor is wooden, the walls are wooden, the benches and desks are wooden, and so are the blackboards. These blackboards are just about the only resource available to the teachers. There are no whiteboards, no smart boards, no computers, no printers, no projectors, no colouring pens or pencils, no games and only a handful of books for the children to read.

The entire school consists of just two rooms in separate buildings. In one room, the nursery, grade one and grade two are taught. In the other room, grades 3-6 are taught. Each room is about the size of one large classroom in UK terms, but holds many more children. There are not enough desks or benches, so the children have to squeeze three to a bench with no space for their bags or exercise books. Some children in my class have to kneel on the floor to write on benches placed back to front. There is no room to  walk about or play. In the nursery building, there is no electricity at all, whilst the big school has solar panels, able to power the school CD player.

There are no windows in the school, only spaces in the walls to allow light in. But when it is windy the breeze blows right through the classroom, messing up all the papers. When it rains the noise on the roof makes it impossible to continue class, and the roof leaks, forcing everybody to move their desks around to avoid  the water.

In the afternoons, it gets very hot, and the children find it even more difficult to concentrate, especially when the noise from other classes in the same room distracts them. They like going out ot play football, but there is no fence around the school compound, and the school bell is too quiet, so it is hard for them to know when they should come back in again.

Inside the 'big' school. Near  Right is Ben's G5 classroom.
At lunchtime the children are given big platefuls of rice. Some of them are very hungry by this point, the ones who came to school without any breakfast. The rice is cooked in one enormous pan over an open fire. To eat with it we sometimes have a little chicken, beef, or shrimps.

The children in Chenapou speak two languages; Guyanese creole and their traditional Amerindian language, Patamona. However, in school they need to read and write standard English, which they find very difficult as it is like a foreign language to them.

The School Kitchen
There are many difficulties for the pupils of Chenapou Primary; the building, the heat, the hunger, the lack of resources, the language problems... At least, to me, coming from a different world, these seem like problems. But to the children of Chenapou, these things are just part of everyday life. They simply accept the challenges, and make the best of what they have, which is exactly how I must also act to make this year worthwhile.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

New Year's Resolutions

1. I will be a better teacher by doing lots of interactive lessons and science experiments. No more copying from the blackboard.

2. I will become and expert paddler in my new dugout canoe, training every week to make the trip to Kaiteur and back.

3. I will take good care of my pet hen and feed her every morning.

4. I will take good care of Ben and feed him every morning.

5. Actually, I should let Ben do some of the cooking because he needs to learn.

6. I will continue my Patamona studies and practice speaking the language every weekend.

7. I will improve on my top score of 85 cockroaches killed in one month.