Vive la revolution!

The teachers of Benin are on strike.

And so are some of the students.

There’s a lot I don’t understand about the strikes, and a lot of rumors circulating. So I’ll try to separate information into fact, unconfirmed, and straight-up rumor.

How it started:
(Unconfirmed, but seems likely): Sometime in early Januray, one of the major teachers’ unions in Benin held a protest in Cotonou. The head of this union was beaten by the police. The union then called on President YAYI Boni to fire the police commissioner. He refused. In protest/solidarity, the permanent teachers began a strike. It has since added a dimension of striking over pay (something about back pay, or not getting paid on time, I think? This part is a little more unclear).

What it looks like on the ground:
Confirmed: For the most part, the strike is on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and started with only the permanent teachers. In Benin, teachers are either permanent, salaried positions, or (much more commonly) “part-time” teachers who are paid by the hour. In my school, we have very few permanent teachers, and because my Vice Principal had foresight, they teach almost exclusively on Mondays and Fridays. This means my school until recently had seen very little actual changes from pre-strike to now. The only disturbance until recently is that teachers didn’t prepare exams, so we haven’t had our normally-scheduled March final exams.

In other schools, things are NUTS. At my postmate’s school, which is much larger and has many permanent teachers, some classes haven’t had class since Januray. Sometimes the unionized, striking teachers will disturb the classes of non-unionized, part-time teachers (and my postmate) to try to convince them to join the strike.

Now, students are starting to “counter-strike.” For the most part, they are protesting the strike, but are on the side of the teachers – they agree with the teachers’ reasons for striking, but want to the government to end it. Because after all, it’s the students who are getting hurt the most in all this.

The students in my school held three-day strike last week. I didn’t go the first day, since I didn’t have morning classes that day. I intended to go at 1pm for my English Club, but shortly before that a student came to my house to say that nobody would come, and if they did, students might chase us out of the classroom. I had hopes that Thursday they might have ended the strike early so I could have my Girls Club, but when I got to the school, it was deserted. A few classrooms had desks blocking the doors, and one classroom’s desks were outside under a tree. The students had also pasted a “manifesto” of reasons they were striking – full text on that in an upcoming post.

Now, supposedly, the strike is over and students and teachers at CEG Daagbe are back to normal classes. I’m currently stuck in the medical unit so I can’t actually confirm this myself, but hopefully when I return I can teach as normal.

What this means for the future:
Rumor and Conjecture: In truth, I’m not sure what this means going forward. The strike isn’t over as of my latest information. There are some schools that still haven’t had their second series of exams from the first semester. My guess is that unless the strike ends this week, the education ministry will be forced to declare either “annee blanche” (blank year – meaning this year wouldn’t count for anything and would be over now) or extending the school year.

I fear both of these. For annee blanche, it would mean my teaching career in Benin is over, and would prematurely end almost all my projects. For an extension of the school year, it would mean problems for the girls’ camp I am running during the summer vacation, for which I’m raising money now (more on that soon!).

Whatever happens, I’ll be trying to help my students. Whether that’s in the classroom, or running study sessions under a mango tree, I’m not giving up.

Chaleur

We are currently in “chaleur,” or “the heat”/“the hot season.” It is aptly named. In the south here we don’t have quite the temperature increase that there is in the north, where temperatures in this season regularly reach 110°F. But it still feels really uncomfortable here – it’s about 97 today, with a blazing sun and unlike the dry heat of the north, it’s incredibly humid. But that’s not terrifically out of the ordinary for Benin during the day. What makes chaleur really unbearable is the fact that night no longer brings any form of relief. It’s just as hot. And the sun means my metal-roofed house spends all day baking like an oven.

Chaleur also makes people cranky. Heat rash is a common annoyance, especially among children (and Peace Corps Volunteers). And it makes people tired. It’s too hot to work, you just want to sit on a cold floor, which doesn’t actually exist. So you end up sitting on a concrete floor in a pool of sweat dreaming about ice cream and snow and if you’re me, of Lake Michigan in May. Yet this is also one of the busiest times of the year for teachers in general and me in particular, so when I can’t sit on my floor in a pool of sweat, I ride my bike to and from school and other projects, muttering curses under my breath. Also contributing to my crankiness? The bag of Starburts sent in a care package (thanks Mom!) melted into one giant starburst-and-paper glob.

And this year chaleur is made more unpleasant due to a lack of water. Chaleur is always during the dry season, but last year that didn’t have a huge impact on my life. But since late January, the water pump for my neighborhood has been broken.

That means I haven’t had running water. Which is not a big deal normally, especially when the pump right outside my house is working. But because the motor in the pump that broke is the motor for all the pumps in my vicinity, none of the normal pumps I use are working. And some of the wells are starting to dry up.

With my school schedule, it’s easier for me to pay people to get water for me. Occasionally the girl who helps with my laundry does it, or my neighbor’s brother, who my other neighbors have also contracted to fetch water. They carry it in large basins on their heads, a skill I have but not for the long distances currently required. And because I depend on others for my water, and on a system of wells that are losing water, I sometimes have much less water than I would like. Which means I wash fewer clothes and take only one shower a day, which contributes to the heat rash – it’s a vicious circle.

But chaleur has a few redeeming factors. Well, really just two: avocados, and mangoes. Right now avocados are in season. And soon mangoes will come into season. There are two types – small, stringy “wild” mangoes, and the big, juicy “grafted” mangoes. In a few weeks you’ll start to see people of all ages but particularly children standing under mango trees with sticks or throwing rocks, trying to get the fruit to fall. Another bonus is that since there is little to no rain during chaleur, I can do laundry any time and it will dry, and my road is passable, if bumpy.

The best thing about chaleur? It ends. So before you start complaining about the rough winter in the States, just remember: it could be worse. You could have chaleur.