Thursday, July 28, 2011

Teaching in Waku Kungo, Part 2

It is hard to know what to make of an experience like living and teaching in Waku Kungo for four weeks. It is such a rich experience, so full of frustration, hope, guilt, inspiration, confusion, and clarity. I know myself well enough to know that it takes me some time to process the experiences of my life, to integrate them into the story of my life and my view of the world. Still, here are some tentative reflections on what this experience meant to me:

First, and perhaps most importantly, I deeply appreciated the opportunity to spend a significant amount of time in Angola in one place with one group of people. I know for me (and I think for many of us), Africa is a mysterious place. From childhood we carry exotic images of Africa: “big game” wild animals, people with strange body paint doing dramatic dances, people living in remote jungles cut off from “civilization.” As adults, those (National Geographic type) images of Africa give way to equally exotic, but more tragic images: starving children, mothers too weak to grieve, child soldiers. All of those images may be (or may have been) real, but they reveal African life at the extremes, not the everyday.

By spending time in one place with one group of people, I was able to get to know people and a little of the rhythm of their daily lives. Although I could not speak their language, still through interpreters and in other ways, communication happens. I could begin to see people in Waku Kungo as individuals, rather than as a group, as “Africans” or “Angolans.” Getting beyond the differences between life in the U.S. and life in Angola, I could begin to see the similarities between who I am and who they are – especially as followers of Jesus. Seeing anew in this way is wonderfully enriching – and troubling.

Second, why “enriching” and “troubling?” Well, that is because as you get to know people you learn a little bit about how they understand their own lives. It is inspiring and enriching to see the patience and creativity and determination of the people there – or more accurately, to see Benjamin’s creativity, Julio’s patience, and Josepha’s determination. Although the “human well-being” indicators in Angola are very bad (very high infant mortality rate, very low life-span, very high unemployment, very poor access to clean water, and poor sanitation), the people are not sitting around suffering and defeated. They are not merely acted upon by their difficult circumstances. They, like all of us should be, are the “actors “ in their own lives, the “drivers” in our their lives. I think it is an important transformation for us to see them in this way. It is the only way we can have real (non-condescending) relationships with them – even if we never meet them in person.

Coming to see our partners in Waku Kungo as individuals, however, is also troubling - because then I am changed by not simply having compassion for suffering (in the abstract), but for particular people who suffer, for particular problems. And that type of compassion hurts more. That type of compassion makes one (at least me) feel even more acutely how inconsistent it is with the Bible, the life of Jesus, and the nature of God, that Christians in this country live so comfortably that we are killing ourselves with too much, while Christians in some other countries (like Christians in Waku Kungo, Angola) are dying from too little. That’s the part of my experience that really takes time to process. May God help me integrate that reality into the story of my life and my view of the world in some faithful way, rather than in some way that simply maintains my comfort.

This quote poignantly reveals the struggle I feel after being in Waku Kungo (Stanley Cavell, in Must We Mean What We Say?)

If you would avoid tragedy (and suffering), avoid love;

if you cannot avoid love, avoid integrity;

if you cannot avoid integrity, avoid the world;

if you cannot avoid the world, destroy it.

God help us never so avoid.



(P.S. Part 3 to come next week)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Teaching In Waku Kungo, Part 1

Greetings. Here is part one of a report from Waku Kungo, Angola, where my daughter, Muriel, and I went to teach English from June 17 to July 14, 2011, at "The Reverend Mike Solberg Evangelical School." A few pictures to start off with:

Muriel and kids during a break (above)

One of our classes (above)

Muriel teaching a class (above)

One of our wonderful students! (above)

Muriel at the top of Mount Waku Kungo (above)

Our trip had several purposes:

• Most importantly, we were there to teach English to some of the students of “The Reverend Mike Solberg Evangelical School” (I’m still not used to the fact that they named the school after me).
• We were also there to further the partnership between the Illinois Conference and the Evangelical Congregational Church of Angola (IECA), and by extension between Second Congregational Church and the IECA congregation in Waku Kungo.
• Another purpose of our trip was to set a precedent for people from the Illinois Conference, and perhaps others, traveling to IECA for the purpose of service
• And, finally, we were also there to observe the school in its “full functioning” mode, assuring that the school is fulfilling its mission of educating students of the community so that they can flourish individually and contribute to their community and country.

Thankfully, I can say that we accomplished all our goals on this trip!

For months, Muriel and I had been planning on teaching English to two classes of young people. Then about three days before our trip began, the folks in Waku Kungo asked us to teach an additional class for adults. Apparently, the teachers at the school all said “It doesn’t make sense for the kids to learn English and not us – we need to learn too!” So, at the last minute we added a third class, mostly made up of teachers in the school and teachers-in-training, along with a few others. The teaching all went very well. Using recently developed ideas and techniques for teaching English, and using contemporary resources, we were able to teach just fine, in spite of the fact we don’t speak Portuguese. We gave the kids a “pre-test” and a “post-test” to measure their progress, and we found that they were able to learn a helpful amount of English in just the 3 ½ weeks we had with them. The kids ranged from grades 3-9, with most being in grades 5-7. They were a little older than same level students here in the U.S., with most being 15-16 years old. They were very good students: well behaved, cooperative, and eager to learn. All in all, we taught about 50 kids and 15 adults, during six hours of teaching every day. It was pretty tiring, but well worth the effort. English really is a valuable skill for these kids. Most of them will have English in school from 7-9 grades, but this “head start” will give them a greater chance of learning English earlier and more easily.

We also furthered the partnership between the Illinois Conference and IECA. Because of the communications challenges (both in language and technology), and because of Angolan cultural patterns, personal interaction is critical in our church partnership. We spent time in conversation with several leaders in IECA, and I believe these people now understand that we in the Illinois Conference are committed to this partnership and it is not just a short term interest. We are working on developing an official program of congregation-to-congregation partnerships, and this trip helped move that effort forward as well.

This was the first time we received approval for a “service” based trip to IECA. All the previous trips have been as “delegations,” which include mostly learning and talking and celebrating. Those were important trips, but our Illinois Conference Angola Partnership Team always hoped we could add other types of trips as well. Now we have done that, and with the success of our trip, we are hopeful that other service trips will be possible in the future. The type of service is important. Angolans are smart and creative in solving problems and accomplishing work, and they can easily do all the basic labor needed themselves. But they are seriously “under-resourced” in just about every area: education, health care, public health, skilled technical work, etc. So in future trips we (the Angola Partnership Team) will be focused on service that can “resource” the Angolans. Some examples are specialized health care, teacher training, and motorcycle repair.

And, finally, it was wonderful to see the school in full operational mode. Their school year started in February, and the school is now effectively educating 478 children who would otherwise have had limited access to education. One set of kids, grades 1-6, attend school from 8:00 – 12:00 and another set from 1:00 – 5:00. All the rooms have desks! (The government actually followed through on that promise!) The leadership of IECA tells me that the school is held up as an example all over the province, and throughout all of IECA. The denomination operates 70 or so schools, but this is among the best, in physical quality and in operation. They always offer me profound thanks, but I always tell them that the school would never have been built without hundreds of people here who gave to support the project, nor without the wonderful dedication and talent of the people in Waku Kungo.

Muriel gives special thanks to David Workman and Deerfield Academy (Deerfield, MA). Muriel received a David Workman Community Service Grant to help make this project possible. And we both thank Second Congregational United Church of Christ (Rockford, IL) and the Illinois Conference - Angola Partnership Team, who each funded the purchase of the educational materials we used for our teaching.

Soon I will write a little more about our personal experience of living in Waku Kungo for four weeks. It really does make one “think” – in the sense of soul searching, of course. And I will also write about how you might be able to benefit the school in the future! Here's a hint...behold the foundation of two more classrooms!

Anyone have an extra $25,000 to do something great for kids who want a chance in life??

As always, many thanks for all of you who helped make this school a reality!