Sunday, 21 August 2011

It was a good year

This is my last post. I have so many more ideas, but I am about to enter a new chapter of my life, and I need to give college the time it deserves. This is a lengthy conclusion, but there will likely be a lengthy break before I start blogging again.


For about half of its existence, Africa could have been appropriately termed “The Dark Continent”. That half is more commonly known as nighttime.


Have you ever wondered how the bottom 5% of your freshman class’s SAT takers gained admission? Did you ever take consolation, as I did, in your faith that no matter how poor a student you are, any school that admits a 1610 can’t be that bad? Chances are you never met Mr. or Ms. 1610, but they’re not always who you expect.

Perhaps he is a Rwandan who has only had a citizenship for two years, reads a book a day, has met his own president, and is a frequent and consummate preacher.

She might be a Moroccan who gave a speech so good that Bono talked about it on the radio, and is involved in everything, whether it’s basketball tournaments, guest speakers or protests against a botched regional exam system.

Or maybe he is from Senegal, where as the president of his student government, he arranged a town forum to discuss the problem of arranged, early marriages. As a direct result, one of his former classmates was taken out of an engagement by her parents and sent back to school.

Still feeling superior about that 760 on the Critical Reading?

These are the sorts of people I spent my gap year with. They make those around them better people just through their presence, and they are what made this past year worth it.


Like many of the best experience of my life, ALA is something that I would never have done had I been given an honest, complete description beforehand. The school has a tremendous reputation, but as a teacher once told me, it’s a reputation of a vision. ALA has an incredible ability to pull together and put on a show, but on a day to day basis it has all of the organization of first-year Neville Longbottom, and all of the cohesion of a dry sandcastle.

As a result, ALA gap year students are not yet defined. In order to feel a part of the ALA community, they need to submit themselves to the same rules as everybody else. But they are also on a fun year off, and to the average American, ALA’s rules would not seem out of place in a Soviet era prison. By the end of the year, I was tired of being treated like a child and suffering from extreme cabin fever, despite achieving an awe-inspiring record 11 off campus visits in one week. Balancing the two is hard, and since the school has no official policy, teachers treated us in a variety of ways.

The strict off campus rules are understandable given that the surrounding neighbourhood is statistically one of the least safe in the world (shockingly, that is not hyperbole), but the restrictions were part of a broader African boarding school culture. And that culture in turn is part of the thousands of individual societies that make up the continent. A year at ALA taught me enough about those societies to not only accept and understand ALA’s rules, but also to truly celebrate what I now know about Africa. What little gap years understand about the continent is an invaluable privilege that few Americans have a chance at.

When we read Things Fall Apart in December, I saw the sentence below, and laughed, almost mockingly.

“It is good in these days when the younger generation consider themselves wiser than their sires to see a man doing things in the grand, old way.”

Now, I see the tragedy in it as well. This year, I learned how deep ones customs can run, and how strongly they can clash with someone else’s, especially when it comes to running a school.

So I have a better sense of how the Xhosa and the Igbo differ, and I know the Senegalese don’t eat meat that could be found in the Lion King. I also know that almost all African formal wear for women is prettier than a black cocktail dress, and my conviction that I cannot dance has been reinforced 300-fold.

But what else makes the ALA gap year worth it?

It’s not the food. And it’s not the signature LEA curriculum, because as interesting as they are, those classes haven’t matured enough to be worth a year off. And it’s not the travelling, because if it were we would just use the tuition money on plane tickets.

In my opinion, ALA offers its gap years three unique gifts: a powerful, growing network, diversity, and inspirational peers. The first two are wonderful, but the last one is by far the best. Every single person at ALA will agree that the students make it worth it and keep the dream going. I have never admired so many of my peers so deeply than during my time in South Africa. This year, I met Mr. and Ms. 1610 (and Mr. and Ms. 2310 as well). I realised how lucky I am, and I learned how far some teenagers can make far less luck go.

Of course, people are good everywhere, and it is probably possible to take the same fundamental lessons from other more polished programs. Yet at the end of it all, it was an astoundingly worthwhile experience, and I know I will benefit from it increasingly in the years to come. You really can’t ask for more than that.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Wee sama ndiaye…you had over 30 African countries to choose from, and you bring home this goon?

In total, I had three reasons for visiting Senegal, all of them of equal importance: I wanted to see a new part of the world, I wanted to try teaching, and I wanted to visit my girlfriend, Linda. After holding back on that last topic for many months, I have decided to have a go.

Before I talk about the sweat inducing experience that was meeting Linda’s family, I would like to say that dating at ALA was twice as harrowing. On a global scale, American social norms are outstandingly liberal, and the rules and conservatism infuriated me at first. A senior faculty member told me that in his 17 years of teaching, he had learned that people from my background and people from Linda’s did not go well together. Convincing some of ALA’s older teachers that public hand holding is okay would have been like trying to convince the orcs of Mordor to play Wii table tennis as my favorite avatar, “Mr. Cuddle-Bunny the Lavender Tulip”.

On the other hand, most African parents would never send their children to ALA if it did not have conservative rules, and many of the students find PDA disrespectful. The school should not change its rules. One of the major lessons I learned this year is “When in Rome, do like the Romans”. Or in other words: “When you’re the visiting minority, suck it up and adapt.”

Anyway, back to the Senegal trip.

To Americans, meeting a girlfriend’s father is like meeting a rather stern uncle, or maybe the mayor. Linda’s dad is from Lebanon though, and to the Lebanese it’s more like meeting Lord Sidious after you’ve stolen his light saber. To make matters worse, I was the first boyfriend that Linda had ever brought home, she was the first-born child, and I was staying in her father’s house for 4 days.

In my head, Linda’s dad was an angry, unshaven man with a potbelly and massive arms, and he stayed up late into the night brooding with a knife and a whetstone. He was probably going to set me Herculean challenges to prove my worth.

I arrived at Dakar airport at 1am, but my bag did not. One hour later, I trudged outside and heard someone call “Liam?” He was tall, and unshaven, with a slight belly. He had colossal arms.
“Where’s your bag?” he boomed.

Linda was not at the airport, so the journey home started quietly. Mr. Rebeiz seemed determined to drown out the silence with his SUV’s engine though. He accelerated through every corner, and showed a blatant disregard for what would normally be considered lanes. Fearful that a high-speed collision would kill me before I had a chance to complete “The 12 Tasks of Ingvar”, I put on my seat belt.

Linda’s dad looked at me through the rear view mirror and chuckled at my terror. He pressed a button on the CD player.

"There's a fire starting in my heart...
Reaching a fever pitch it's bringing me out the dark!"

He listened to Adele. Everything was going to be all right.


A week later, we went to stay with Linda’s mother, and I employed a plan that has been used on matriarchs for centuries: I would make her children happy, and eat all of her cooking. It was an almost flawless tactic. Almost.

Linda’s brothers loved my magic tricks, but Marina, who is three, saw me hugging Linda and decided that I was violent sadist. Every time she saw me she put her hands over her ears and stared at me with huge fearful eyes. She backed into the corner whenever I approached. I soon drowned in a misery that can only be brought on by the thought that “small, innocent children hate me”. I was evil.

Three days later, Marina forgave me and gave me a long lecture on who owned which shoes on the shoe rack. That night, I ate three plates of spaghetti bolognese.


I was not ready for the biblical size of Senegalese families, and an avalanche of relatives almost crushed me. I saw grandparents, aunts, uncles, great grandmothers, cousins, more uncles, and more aunts. One of them, Tatie Anne, invited Linda, her cousin, and me to dinner. She was welcoming, complemented my onion chopping skills, and said I was funny.

Yet it was all a façade.

The next day, Tatie Anne called up every living relative she had to give her opinion on my existence. It was too early for Linda to have a boyfriend; I wasn’t the right person; I spelled the beginning of Linda’s complete and utter moral decay. The last one was a bit much. I wasn’t the upstanding Senegalese man that Linda’s family had always dreamed of, but I was not ethically putrefying.

My suspicions are that Tatie Anne was at least partially opposed to my cultural background, since she had never cared about Linda's previous relationships. I hadn’t encountered so much resistance to my race since Linda and I walked through the malls of Jo’burg.

Not too many Arab-Black-White-Asian couples in South Africa.

All in all though, I survived. During my three-week trip, only 2 people disliked me, and neither of them was the father! The difference was that Marina was open about it:

And Tatie Anne was not.

If only we were all as honest as children.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Annnnd the delux chumba in the mabweni goes to Abdoulaye Wade and a plate of mafé poulet

(This is a brief break from the Senegal trip.)

This post is dedicated to Ms. Laura and Ms. Chemeli, who have supported this blog more than anybody else.

The SAT is not an international test. It was written by the American people, for the American people (much like Abraham Lincoln’s vision for the US government). There are two major disadvantages that outsiders face when they take the SAT.

1) Americans grow up taking standardized bubble-shading tests. They are bred for the job. By the time they are 17, they are SAT taking robots and they know things that are not inherently obvious. For instance, they know to fill in all of the answers at the end of each page or section. The ordinary international applicant would simply go back and forth between the test booklet and the answer sheet hundreds of times. This wastes valuable seconds, seconds that could be used to think, “My God, what in the world is this question about? Who is Sidney Crosby? And what’s a zamboni?!” And that leads me to the second difficulty…

2) The SAT frequently references US culture. An example that Ms. Laura gave me is the proverbial baseball diamond math question. Unless he or she has spent the last 18 years in the bat cave, any American teenager reading about Jimmy’s journey from first to third base immediately pictures a diamond. It is ridiculous to expect the same of someone who has never even heard of baseball, so they can't possibly answer the question.

As a second, more subtle example, here is the first practice mathematics question on the College Board website:

The answer was D) 3/8. If you got the right answer, it’s weird that you tried.

What does matter is that the question has the American names for school grades in it. Because although it is not essential that you know what a sophomore is to find the answer, you will be slowed down if you don't. If this happens repeatedly, it makes a difference.

If you don’t believe me, read this question, in which I have substituted some of the vocabulary for random Swahili words:

It’s not impossible, but the foreign gibberish is distracting. The point is that for non-Americans, it is very possible to be fluent in English and still have difficulty on the Math section for language reasons. And that’s just not fair.

In an attempt to balance things out, I have written two possible questions for October's SAT that I'm hoping College Board will include, just so that American teenagers will finally know what it is like to be culturally excluded from a multiple choice test.


If you answered C) and then D), congratulations! If you actually understand why the answers were C) and D), you belong to a very special category of people. If you were confused, then I guarantee you that is how most of my friends at ALA feel when they take the SAT.

ps. If you sort of got the joke behind question 2 but would like some clarification, the Springboks are the name of the South African rugby team, but they are also small antelope-like animals. Biltong is the South African equivalent of beef jerky, and it is delicious. Also, mad is a type of fruit.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

What's Wiz Khalifa doing with a whip?

Part of the reason I was in Senegal was to take part in Gindi, a teaching program that was mostly organised by one of my friends, Linda (more on her next time…) For the duration of the project though, eight of my West African friends came together to plan and teach the lessons. With me, that made nine. To say I stood out would be an understatement.

We taught a combination of Entrepreneurship (in French) and English to around twenty 18-19 year olds in a town called Joal-Fadiouth. Obviously, I was in the English department. My experience affirmed what I already knew: teaching is very difficult. In fact, I definitely learned more than my students.

I discovered that teaching is all about balancing. It’s about balancing between making sure it all sinks in and dwindling on a topic for too long. It’s about balancing between playing games and going through vocabulary. It’s about balancing between making sure everybody looks engaged, and persevering with the lesson anyway.

This last one was difficult, because our students looked like they’d been taught by Medusa during the previous format. They showed no emotion whatsoever, and spent most of their time staring rigidly at their desks. It was like teaching an orchard on a very un-windy day. My friends assured me this was in part because the Senegalese school system is entirely rote learning, but I was certain that I was equally to blame. It turns out I wasn’t too bad though, because this was how the first lesson went:

Rima and I were demonstrating directions, and we tried very hard to be animated.


The hardest part of teaching is reading your students’ emotions.

Living in Joal was interesting because the whole town is located along one coastal road. Taxis operated one-dimensionally, and for a flat rate of 100CFA francs a ride (roughly a quarter). It was in fact the closest thing to lineland that I have ever seen.

Anyway, as the week went on, we tried a variety of lessons. We played hangman, had one-on-one conversations, and even attempted tongue twisters. I thought it couldn’t get any better than Doctor Seuss, but then we decided to use the last lesson to teach our students a song of their choice. They voted for Black and Yellow by Wiz Khalifa, which I thought was brilliant until I was in turn chosen to teach it on the grounds that I am American. Wiz Khalifa and I have nothing in common.

On the bright side, the song is simpler than the new Transformer’s movie, which is saying a lot. In fact, it too is entirely about cars (or a car), except Wiz Khalifa’s doesn’t change into an awesome robot.

This is not to say that the song isn’t excellent; I hate music snobbery, and I don’t believe that anyone should ever say, “No, those are the wrong sounds to have in your ears!” But let’s face it; Black and Yellow isn’t high art. There is however one deep hidden meaning, and that is that Wiz Khalifa is from Pittsburgh, where all of the sports teams (Pirates, Penguins, Steelers) wear black and yellow. But I glossed over that in the real lesson.

Instead, I focused on explaining where there were missing articles and conjunctions, translating words like “suede” and “whip”, and in general pointing things out. This was a lot funnier to me than it was to my students, because I soon realised that the entire first verse and chorus could be paraphrased as “I’m the bees knees, and my car makes girls want me. Then their boyfriends get covetous.” The morality of the lesson was dubious, at best.

For those of you who wish to relive the lesson though, here is a more detailed version of some of the things I said (without most of the nitty gritty bits):

The rest of the song is mostly "Black and Yellow Black and Yellow Black and Yellow Black and Yellow Black and Yellow Black and Yellow Black and Yellow Black and Yellow Black and Yellow Black and Yellow..." on repeat.

There must be something to it though, because one of our group of nine, Malick Sarr, promised us that Black and Yellow will be played at his funeral. He also has plans for a dress code requiring everybody to wear only green, yellow, red, and pink. What a way to go.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

I think Simba works for SonicWall

Before anybody who has never been to Senegal, or any other developing country, jumps to any conclusions about the country's infrastructure, it wasn't that bad. Sure, none of the cars would pass at the DMV (I could see the road through my taxi floor once, and sometimes had to ask passing pedestrians to open the door for me from the outside), but there are places in the US where that is also the case. A good example is Matinicus Island (Don't know what that is? Buy this book. It's excellent and written by the Island's Electorial Bakerclerksmithmedic).

Anyway, because electricity was scarce, we had a hard time finding Internet, but when we did, it was still better than ALA's. It was also less censored. And I think that’s an important point to make; no disrespect to Senegal intended, but the Internet in rural Senegal is better than the Internet at ALA, which is in Johannesburg. I have been wanting to make this point for a while.

To give you a sense of just how bad ALA’s Internet is, a month after graduation, I am still delighted that I don’t have to imagine the second half of Youtube videos for myself. Fully loaded Youtube videos at ALA were as unattainable as freehand circles. In fact, I now often find myself wrong footed by the speed with which web pages load. A year at ALA accustomed me to doing practical things in between clicking on a link and actually reading it, for instance going to the bathroom, making my bed, or walking to dining hall for a sandwich. Now, the page just appears, and I’m annoyed that I can’t eat something.

But of course, it’s not the speed of the tortoise that counts, it’s the number of places he can visit, and ALA’s Internet certainly restricts the number of places one can visit; the firewall, or "SonicWall", couldn't block better if it were Iker Casillas defending a shoebox. “Jokes/Humor” is a forbidden category.

There are many other banned categories, but I am unconvinced that ALA's firewall and the rest of society are working under the same definitions.

I once had to write a paper on market opportunity in Senegal for bowling alleys (weird, I know), so I researched bowling implementation online. Astoundingly, I found what appeared to be aProxy-Connection: keep-alive
Cache-Control: max-age=0

tep-by-step business plan, only to have it blocked under the heading “Adult/Mature Content”. Just in case someone working for SonicWall is reading this, that label does not normally refer to the meaning of “mature” that is a euphemistic heading for people in their middle ages and above. “Adult/Mature Content” does not mean “webpages to do with old people”. There is therefore no reason to ban me from looking at their favorite activities. And if you are going to do that, there are other activities, such as bridge, hair growth drugs, and Gene Kelly, that are far more specifically mature than bowling.

Anyway, I thought that was pretty funny until I looked for lion drawings online in order to do research for this cartoon (I posted it a while back):

I found one with an enticing thumbnail and I clicked on it. This is a screenshot of what I got:

Whoever programmed these parameters must either be a human with weird tendencies, or a very very conservative lion.

You do not do your own laundry.

Many of my friends have asked how my three week trip to Senegal was. The short answer is “unequivocally wonderful”, but here's something a little more:

There are many things that make Senegal different from the US or England. For instance, the milk is warmer than the showers. That’s not a bad thing though, because even if hot showers were an option, I would have preferred the Spanish Inquisition to taking them; the temperature in Dakar on the day that I left was a roasting 45˚C, or 113˚F. On the other hand, I still don’t enjoy warm milk.

Senegal is also the only place I have ever been where water comes in bags, and the peanuts come in bottles, although I'm told must of West Africa is the same.

There were also some infrastructural difficulties.

One of them was almost constant power cuts. I was already very used to them after 10months of ALA and Mr. Peter’s energy-sapping naps, but Senegal made me put on my rose-tinted glasses. The country is proof that the government should not be allowed to control a utilities monopoly. In Dakar we had power for around 15 hours of the day. When we went to teach in Joal-Fadiouth, that number went down. I didn’t mind too much, but then tragedy struck, and Linda was cut off mid-hair-straightening.

It was truly disastrous.

My trip also marked the first time that I washed my clothing by hand, and it is repetitive and unenjoyable. People who have been doing it for all their life are no doubt laughing at me now, but I will now try to give you an idea of my laundry background. When I first went to boarding school in 2006, I was offered a choice between using the dorm washing machines and paying for laundry service, and I chose the latter. For the next four years, my friends who had chosen to “do it themselves” infProxy-Connection: keep-alive
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med me with pride, and I always felt inferior. After my trip to Senegal though, I have come to realise that they weren’t really doing their own laundry at all.

This year, I too regularly using washing machines, and I too was proud of my independence. But was I manually soaping each part of the shirt and scrubbing it against other parts of the shirt? Were my hands raw from the friction, and did my forearms hurt from wringing everything out twice? Was I dying to hang my clothes up just so I could stretch out my back, which hurt from bending over a bucket? No, I was adding soap and pushing buttons; the machine was “doing the laundry”, not me.

Does it make me a less spoiled person that I have washed my shorts by hand once? Absolutely not. But there are billions of people in the world “do their own laundry”, and if you use a washing machine, you are not amongst them.

Friday, 29 July 2011

T-shirt Illiteracy must be stopped.

I apologise in advance for not including any cartoons in this post. The next one will have many, but I’m saving the ones I’ve drawn for later. I am also too jetlagged to find a scanner.

I am now in Hong Kong, and between it and Senegal, I have come to two conclusions:

The first is that no matter where you are, cockroaches can always be killed with a flip flop, even if they have a 2 inch wingspan and fly at your face. Make it so.

The second is a rant:

In many parts of the world, The West has been woven into the fabric of ‘coolness’; European and American products have become fashionable to wear, sing and drink. This is stupid, and should be stopped immediately. If you live in Dakar, 50Cent does not belong on your belt anymore than your underpants belong on the city lampposts. However, that is not my complaint, because there are, after all, some Western things that do have marginal worth, such as Sprite, Ron Weasley, and Wigan Athletic Football Club.

No, this is my conclusion: just because something is cool, it does not mean that you should be allowed to put it on your own body in blind faith. I am of course referring to one product in particular: T-shirts. The world is filled with individuals who cannot read their own clothing because it has a language that they cannot understand on it.

In many cases this is hilarious; my second cousin has a shirt without any vowels. All it has are consonants and punctuation, in equal and random parts. There are also people in Senegal whose shirts are not nearly as manly as they would have you believe. Yet in some cases t-shirt illiteracy is a dangerous phenomenon. Yesterday, I saw a man sporting the message: “F*** You”, but without the asterisks. It was a pity, because he looked quite cheerful.

And then today, I saw undeniable proof that something must be done. I saw the pinnacle of public indecency.

I saw a shirt that read: “YOU’RE DOING IT TOO SOFTLY”*. Now, I may just be very dirty minded, and there certainly is a possibility that the 15-ish year old girl wearing this message was simply crying out against poor massages, but I don’t think so.

I would therefore like to appeal to anybody, particularly at ALA, who may one day become some sort of commerce minister, or even president, to make t-shirt illiteracy an issue of paramount importance upon assuming office. In fact, I propose that we be legally required to successfully translate every single t-shirt that we would like to purchase before we are allowed to actually buy it.

And while I'm at it, the same goes for tattoos. The law should also force all Americans who decide to get a Chinese character tattooed onto their skin to seek out a native Chinese speaker and double check that it does in fact mean wind, and not petrol, bison, or nothing at all.

Ladies and Gentlemen, we need to be protected from ourselves.

If you made it this far, thank you for listening.

*I know I wrote "slowly" before; that was a mistake.