Thursday, April 19, 2012

Fish Out of Water

It is just a fact of life here that I frequently find myself in situations where I am incredibly far out of my comfort zone. I have traveled so far out of that zone that I cannot even see the boundaries. Somewhere during my flight from France to Gabon it was totally lost. The other day I found myself having to explain the word “awkward” to my Swiss friend here because I use it so frequently.

And so I tell you this story in the hopes that you learn something from my awkwardness. The moral of the story: be specific.

I presented school officials with a rudimentary proposal for my research last week, and today was to be the “class observation” day. (Actually, Tuesday was to be the first observation day, but Gabon up and decided to have a “Gabonese Women’s Day” this year on April 17. Most people, like myself, were unaware such a thing was occurring until 10 pm the night before, even though this is important information because it’s a national holiday and therefore not a workday. I showed up at the school anyway in the off chance classes were going on but of course they were not.) So Wednesday was the first class observation day. Remember this: class observation. The following are excerpts from my “field research” at the school.

7:30 AM—lead to 5e classroom. Censeur gives brief introduction to class just saying I am a “Schweitzer fellow” and I’m here observing. Another man comes into classroom and Censeur says something about him observing class as well. I assume this is like what happens in the states when teachers evaluate other teachers.

7:35-7:55 AM—observations of materials, resources, physical state of classroom and surroundings, student interaction etc.

8:00 AM—look at watch and realize teacher still isn’t here. Class started a half hour ago! Notes about how time isn’t used effectively and kids are clearly bored while they wait. Some are doing work, others talk, others sleep/rest. Do teachers normally just not show up?

8:20 AM—bell rings and man and I leave classroom and walk to 4e where I am scheduled next. He asks me about myself along the way and I explain the project. When we arrive at 4e classroom he explains to class that I am “from Schweitzer and is doing very important research here.” So much for being subtle.

8:22 AM—I am so uncomfortable. This is a much smaller classroom and the kids are a lot older. I am sitting in the front of the room and have about 40 pairs of eyes staring at me. Lots of note passing and giggling.

8:30 AM—no teacher here either? What the heck is going on?

8:35 AM---that would be so bizarre if he thought I just wanted to observe students and not a class in session. That doesn’t make any sense though; he couldn’t possibly have thought that’s what I meant.

8:45 AM—oh my good Lord. That’s exactly what he thought I meant.

9:10 AM—bell rings and we go to next classroom where man now tells class “she is a fellow from Schweitzer doing important work here and she needs absolute silence! No funny business!” Get me out of here. This is all wrong.

I walked out of the third classroom, after 3 wasted hours of confusion and discomfort, and was utterly baffled. This was not a language barrier issue; this was just plain misunderstanding, cultural or otherwise. It is still so bizarre for me to think that they honestly thought I just wanted to stare at students, as if Gabonese students are that far out of the realm of understanding. Well I tell you what, I saw the same adolescent antics: note passing, flirting, intentional distracting, fabricated ailments and trips to the nurse, etc.

Maybe one of these days maybe I’ll recount this story to a classroom full of eager public health students and laugh, but I’m still stuck on bewilderment and embarrassment. This is it folks: the good, the bad, and the awkward. Back to the drawing board.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Oh God. Remember in Paris when we all tried to ask Paul how to say "awkward" in French, in an effort to describe our interactions with the locals? As I recall there wasn't a good direct translation - just "maladroit" for clumsy, which didn't even come close. I can picture your classroom confusion with painful detail. How could they possibly have thought you just wanted to watch some real live Africans?? Ah well. It'll all go in the book someday!