by Scott McAllister
It’s been a whole year since my last blog post, which means I’ve all but abandoned my initially romantic resolution to immortalize my Ethiopian experience within the permanency of the blogosphere. Blogging was fresh and exciting in the beginning – because life in Ethiopia was fresh and exciting in the beginning – but time, the inexorable erosive omnipresent tidal drag of time, it seems now in hindsight, has managed to silently but effectively inure me to the freshness and excitement of life in a foreign country, and, after only nine months of living, working, eating and sleeping in a country that I’ve been calling home now for the past 21 months, resigned me to a stubborn and silent complacency that I’m only now crawling out of. So now, though I feel I run the risk of ironing yet another boring boilerplate under my blog’s unimaginative masthead, I’ll speak up and share a little something-something with you that neatly falls under the title ‘Sustainability’.
A big Peace Corps buzz word, sustainability is what us volunteers strive for. Sure we’re here to help folks out – capacity building its called in volunteer argot – but nothing is sweeter in the filed of international development than a homegrown project. A project, in other words, that wasn’t my idea. Here’s the story.
It starts back around October, 2013 with a 14 year old kid named Yabets. Well, actually, it starts with his friends Daniel and Sbhat, two soccer-crazed albeit pliable and smart students that have been helping me lead my English clubs since last year when they were in 7th grade. Now (and then) they’re in 8th grade. So is (was) Yabets. Only Yabets attends a different school, one just 2km or so down the street, which makes these kids neighbors and, as I said, friends.
Anyway, story goes that my teaching prowess is apparently the talk of the town, at least in the social circles of the 100 or so odd pre-teen and teenage kids that I’ve been working with in my clubs and that see me run by when I’m out for a jog some evenings; and this Yabets, envious or perhaps doubtful of the stories being bruited about concerning my “unorthodox” teaching methods (viz. teaching methods that are actually participatory and fun!) boldly took it upon himself to make his own English club with yours truly at the head of each lesson.
Now keep in mind that I’ve never met this kid. No idea who he is. No clue what he looks like (although I think I was in the clear when I assumed he was Ethiopian). And hell, I wasn’t even sure if he was a he or she at first (14 year olds, whether a girl or boy, tend to have similar sounding voices over the phone). Regardless of whether or not I knew this kid, it didn’t matter, he had apparently already abandoned any and all cares regarding the awkward social proprieties that usually (normally) repel total strangers, and, dead set on letting nothing prevent him from obtaining his goal, this motivated, smart, and, to use a word that truly fits – whimsical – kid cunningly contrived to obtain my cell phone number and, after what must have amounted to hours of English practice and prep and gumption gathering, called me up from an unknown number on some random Sunday morning to demand – yes, demand – that I come lead a English club at his school that very next day – Monday. Of course I balked at first, fidgeted and fumbled for the words to a way out – Oooo Monday, let’s see, not good, you see, I’m busy Mondays during the day, so only the afternoon is good, or, Well, you see, I’d need, I mean we’d need a classroom to use, which means we’d need to talk to the school director, choose a room, and get a copy of the key, or, Then we’d need to pick students, because I will only take 10-15, no more, and they must be group leaders, all of them equally good in English – any excuse that could upend this stranger kid’s impish little plan to create an English club out of thin air. But…. the puckish little kid knew my tack almost before I could even finish rattling off the excuses! Like he had had me under surveillance or something. House wired. Phones tapped. Knew all my rules and strictures when it came to creating English clubs. Sure enough, this kid, Yabets, had already done all the legwork. He talked to his school director, got his permission, procured a classroom and a copy of the key, picked out 15 students (all of them group leaders he assured me) and even knew for a fact that Monday afternoons were my only free periods to lead another English club. His insider’s knowledge of my schedule and workaday proclivities perplexed me. Who’d he talk to? A teacher from my school? No, I never really fill them in on what I’m doing any more than I have to. The school director? No, he’s a curmudgeon that I actively steer clear of. Who, then? Who? That mystery I wasn’t able to solve that morning over the phone. That denouement came later, when I saw Sbhat and Daniel later that day, great big shit-eating grins drawn across their faces. So, in the end, I called Yabets back, abdicated, and meekly agreed to show up the next afternoon and stand and deliver an English lesson.
This was back in October. I’ve had the privilege of leading this English club for the past semester and a half. Yabets and his fellow students are for sure the best and brightest out of the 100 odd that I’ve been teaching. The most refreshing thing is that these kids came up with this all on their own. They broke the cycle of monotony that stymied my blogging a year ago. Their eagerness, their excitement, their creativity and ownership of this club is what has been keeping me chugging along, disinterring me from the tomb of of malaise that inexorably accumulates and buries you when so much of your work feels forced, second-handed and not honestly bought into and owned by those individuals it is supposed to benefit. And so I feel a little bad right now, like I let myself down in not sharing this success story earlier, but, now that it’ shared, now that it’s out there for you to read and ponder (whoever you are) and now that it’s emblazoned forever on this blog of mine, I feel a bit better. Accomplished. At least I’ll be able to come back to this 5, 10, 15 years down the line, read my breezy blather and think to myself, Damn straight, Scott. Damn straight.