Infrastructure – it does matter

August 17 10:30 pm

In my last post, I wrote about how, in a way, infrastructure doesn’t matter, because it doesn’t tell the truth of a situation—that when we see a photo of a rundown physical space, we make an automatic assumption that that’s the Truth, even though it actually isn’t. Today I have been given the opportunity to reflect on how infrastructure, while not the most important thing, is really important. As the Aumazo video says, we need to have Better School Infrastructure for Girls. Period. (see the link). And better infrastructure for everyone.

We did the training today at the Collège Bilingue Saint Paul, where our three tutors Patric, Durand, and Thierry are all full-time teachers. During yesterday’s session here at the mission we’d had to deal with several interruptions, and so they had offered a classroom at the Collège instead as a space that would be more propitious for the training — to which we readily agreed. Patric, Durand, and Thierry had carefully thought through what would be the best place for us to meet and had chosen a classroom in a part of the school that wasn’t being used, so that we could have privacy and work uninterrupted. I was touched by their warm welcome and by how very much had shifted since our first day when they all arrived late—this time, they were the ones who were there well before the starting time and brought us into their carefully prepared space. The chairs we needed were there, in a semi-circle. My white board was there. They had even thought about what wall we could use if we wanted to project from the computer using the portable projector that Jacqueline has.

The teaching and learning went very well again today—we delved deeper into the All Kinds of Minds framework and, by the end of our time together, were using it to look at students rather than just ourselves. We did more InterPlay—for InterPlay folks, I’ll tell you that we did babbling, a modified warm-up, and a walk-stop-run. It was a wonderful time of continued community building, play, work, learning, and connection.

My heart just broke, though, as we first went into the building. It is extremely dilapidated, with old, very imposing signs on the walls in the stairway giving students various stern moral recommendations such as to accept discipline and punishment in order to become wise. There is no window that isn’t missing panes—not just in this one classroom, but all around the school. The room itself is dark. There is electricity, but when it’s on, the room is still far from bright. But really the hardest thing from a pedagogical point of view is the sound in the room: people’s voices reverberate in the big, concrete space and yet are at the same time muffled, such that it’s very hard to understand what someone is saying. A room full of voices would be deafening, and I can’t imagine how a kid in the back of the room would be able to understand the teacher without concentrating with great intensity. And the irritation factor for the teacher if a student speaks out of turn or raises his voice…?!

As I was teaching, I noticed that I was going to need to use the bathroom. I put it off as long as I could because I wasn’t sure if there would even be bathrooms or, if so, what they would be like. Finally, I had to ask, and I was taken to the bathrooms—latrines, actually—and terribly smelly. It became clear to me how much better it actually is to go outside, which had previously seemed to me a hardship, and somewhat embarrassing… especially for me as a woman, since I have to squat down. But the air is fresh, and what you are squatting on and peeing into is wholesome.

Friends, I don’t think you can really understand the bathroom question that Jacqueline has talked so much about in this project until you start to live it. People here are completely accustomed to not having bathrooms in many places they go, so much so that when we were here at the mission yesterday (where there are only bathrooms in the rooms people are staying in) and I asked what our guest teachers would do in case of need, I was told that people would do what they needed to do without blinking an eye, so that I didn’t need to worry. When I am here at the mission, I have access to my own bathroom in my room, which is a little far from the meeting space, but I know it is here and that I can use it. But when I am elsewhere, it’s a different story. I will spare you all the details, but yesterday, when we were out, I had to figure out the answer to this puzzle three different times. (My children and others who know me well won’t be surprised that this is a particular issue for me… I’m always looking for a bathroom!) Once I went outside; once I started to look for a place outside and was told I could have access to a bathroom… which was just a hole in the ground but was at least private; and once I was at a fancy spot and there was an actual brilliantly white toilet that flushed, a sink, and a hand dryer. That was total luxury.

Here at the mission, although I have a bathroom, we haven’t had running water for the whole time I’ve been here. This is unusual, apparently, but not so shocking that it’s yet been repaired. I don’t have to go fetch the water myself, though— it’s brought to me in buckets— so really, it’s still a pretty easy situation. I pour water into the toilet tank, and I can flush. I pour water from the bucket onto my body and hair, and I take a shower.

My big understanding today was that, although we as humans can do relatively well dealing with these inconveniences, it’s a burden to have to do so. And it’s an unnecessary burden. The people I’m meeting here are all so clean and smart and loving and intellectually engaged. But in order to get through a day—any day—these are the things they are dealing with, constantly. Just taking a bath can be difficult, as I mentioned above. And even when there is running water at the mission, there is only cold water. The streets of Bafang are mostly dirt roads, unpaved. When it rains, the mud is deep. Yesterday I slipped and fell in the mud here at the mission. I was fine, but it was a mess to clean up. This is the reality everywhere you go.

The material is not what’s most important. But it’s important in that it can and must support what is truly important, which is the life that’s being lived.

Shouldn’t it be a little easier? Shouldn’t students be able to be in classrooms that are clean, welcoming, and have good sound? Shouldn’t everyone be able to go to the bathroom in a clean and private environment?

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