In August 1998, I spent three weeks as a guest teacher at the Danchimah Nigerian-American Laboratory School (DNALS) in Aba, Nigeria. The story of how I landed there is a tale in itself. The short of it was that I met a school superintendent on the Navajo Reservation in Tuba City, Arizona and he invited me to New Orleans where I heard him talk about a school he co-founded with Steve Danchimah, a Nigerian doctor, whom he met in Chicago when he was the principal at the school Steve’s kid attended. Map that one out. I leapt at the chance to go, and, it turned out, I was alone in that leaping. Nigeria had a reputation for being a difficult and potentially dangerous country to visit which dissuaded visitors.
As I prepared for the trip – scraping together the money for the plane ticket, figuring out what shots and visas to get – I had a nagging question in my mind. “What do I have to offer to students and teachers in a place so unknown and far away?” I was seven years into my teaching career at that point, and feeling good about my progress, but still relatively young. My American contact assured me not to worry, the school would be delighted by my visit, and Steve’s communications from Nigeria, though sporadic, gave the same message so I went forth.
My itinerary included flights from Syracuse to JFK to Abidjan to Lagos to Port Harcourt (a Nigerian city not too far from Aba). I was told that it was unwise to travel over land in Nigeria and under no circumstances to do so at night. The travel started smoothly and during my eight hour layover in the Ivory Coast, I got to see the capital city and made a friend with whom I was to correspond with for years. In Lagos, I got two surprises. First, one of my two bags, an enormous duffel containing my clothes and lots of supplies for the school, did not arrive. Second, the guy Steve sent to meet me declared that we’d be taking an eight-hour bus ride to Aba the next day so that I could “see the countryside.” After a fitful night in a freezing hotel room (AC fixed to max), I set out for Aba but not before a trip to the US Embassy where I wanted to register my presence in the country. Due to a rumored bomb scare, this task took much longer than expected, thus we missed the day bus which meant waiting at the blazing hot bus depot for six hours for the night bus. Needless to say, when I boarded the bus, my emotional state was shaky.
When the bus was stopped at 3 am by young men with machine guns who circled the bus staring at the passengers, I almost lost it. Despite my chaperone, who snored beside me, I was sure I’d be robbed (in truth, I had very little money on me) or worse. This trip was a mistake. Why had I left my family, including my three year old, to come here? I decided that, if I did make it to the school, I’d leave the supplies from my one remaining bag, and ask Steve to facilitate a way home. There must have been a reason why no other Americans had visited the school in its several years of existence. After the machine gun guys did their lap and had some heated discussion with the driver, we were off, my mind set on my new plan.
We got to Aba in the early morning and a driver picked us up for the short ride to the school. The school consisted of one large building and several smaller ones in a gated compound. It was early and there were no students around yet. After the hours of travel, confusion in Lagos, and night bus ride, I was surprised to feel a sense of calm here. Steve greeted me warmly. I had some food and was shown my quarters, a small apartment built for visitors.
Soon, the kids arrived and I was introduced at an outdoor assembly. I was bleary and met a lot of people including most of the teachers with whom I would work over the next few weeks. I do remember meeting Lawrence, Steve’s right hand guy. Lawrence had earned a college degree in Tennessee where he became passionate about the Church of Christ and baseball. I don’t recall what was said at this first meeting but I can see the evident happiness from these photos. I was welcomed in grand style and I was smiling. Any thought of leaving was gone. After the assembly, Steve insisted I rest. My work would begin in earnest on day two.
Lawrence (L), Steve (R)
My time would be spent in two ways. I would do some direct teaching in two different classrooms with teachers observing me and I would also conduct staff development sessions for the teachers. Both of these aspects made me very nervous. Again, I questioned what I had to offer in a place about which I knew so little. In the end, I decided to just bring my “greatest hits” and let the chips fall where they may. In one picture with the teachers, I can see that I wrote on the chalkboard, "process vs content, discovery vs rote”. I presented hands-on activities for both the teachers and the students, making clear my view that students needed an opportunity to construct some mathematical knowledge for themselves.
These photos show some of my sessions with the teachers. While the details are hazy, I’m struck by the joy I see. The activity here is a simple one encouraging lateral thinking. A group is given a softball and everyone has to touch it, but only one at a time. Fastest group wins. How would you do it? I think the photos say it all.
I saw the classrooms at DNALS as beautiful: wooden tables and benches, open air windows, and old school chalkboards. I understand that this view is romanticized and that the teachers there would have surely loved access to the technology available in western classrooms. During my first class, I noticed one of the observing teachers held a sort of stick or baton. When I gave him a questioning look, he indicated it was to hit any misbehaving students. I assured him that wouldn’t be necessary, I was used to American students who were much more likely to talk out of turn or get squirrelly.
I ran two projects with the kids. One was the “bouncing ball” experiment: drop a ball from height A and measure the rebound height B, then figure out the linear relationship between the two quantities. I brought meter sticks, tennis balls, and super balls for this one.
The second project was to construct “height-o-meters” from a protractor, piece of string, washer, and a straw. The students then used this simple instrument along with some basic math to get a reasonably good estimate of the heights of buildings and trees. Again, the pictures speak for themselves.
Over my two and a half weeks at the school, I rarely left the compound with the exception of my daily neighborhood jog where, as the only white person in town, I stood out and was viewed with friendly curiosity by the neighbors. Going out by car was not a great experience. The roads were not good, often with obstacles and sudden lanes changes that made the outing harrowing. I grew to love the calmness of the school, the kids, and the friendships I formed with the teachers, staff, and Steve and his family. At night we’d eat somewhat spicy Nigerian red stew, talk, and drink Star beer. In the morning, I’d receive a bucket of hot water to mix with the cool tap water for bathing. Sometimes I tried to keep up with the kids at courtyard soccer. One Sunday we went to church (churches were everywhere, bells starting ringing pre-dawn). The daily routine was lovely.
view from my roof
A few memorable things happened to break up this routine. All days were hot and humid, but on what seemed like the hottest day, Lawrence organized a baseball tournament in my honor. Beneath the scorching sun, the kids played for hours as I fulfilled my dignitary role, sitting under an umbrella, drinking beer, and occasionally playing umpire to resolve a disputed play. On another day, Steve was very keyed up and told me to ignore my teaching duties and prepare for a visit from the local police commissioner. He asked me to give the man $100. I didn’t have $100 so he gave me a crisp Benjamin to hand over. Midafternoon, several police trucks with young guys baring machine guns (I was used to those at this point) came screeching into the courtyard. The guys immediately tore into the cases of Heineken Steve had procured for the occasion, while I put on pants and sat inside awkwardly next to their boss. I had nothing to say to the man but knew this was important for Steve. Better to have the police with you than against.
Lastly, I spent time interviewing some of the older kids in the school. They were just about to enter high school. I asked them about their goals and dreams – they all wanted to come to the US – and taped the interviews, sadly those recordings are lost to time and space. Here I’m speaking with Blessing, a bright and articulate young woman.
At the end of my time at DNALS, I was both happy and sad to leave. I missed my family a lot, but knew that returning to Nigeria was a big if rather than a when. The day before I left, Steve took me to Owerri, a neighboring city which had great crafts where I was able to buy souvenirs to bring home. The next day they drove me to Port Harcourt, where at the airport, I saw my first white people in weeks, oil executives I guessed, and began the long journey home.
I kept in touch with the school but was never able to return. A year after that trip, I moved to San Diego, a financial challenge and 2600 miles further away. I think about my time in Nigeria and wonder what I was able to bring them. I hope some of my ideas struck a chord and that the materials I left were of use. Maybe “my” $100 gave the school some piece of mind for a while.
For me, the trip was hugely affirming. I discovered that good teaching was good teaching, even across an ocean and vast cultural differences. Those differences are crucial and must be considered, but getting kids engaged in meaningful work in mathematics is always good practice, regardless of the setting. I’ve done the ball experiment successfully with college students. I became more confident in my teaching practice as a result and that has carried through to this day.
I think about my visit to DNALS with fondness, profound gratitude, and the hope that many of those beautiful children, despite living in a tough place, were able to achieve some of their dreams.
a small boy carries a large water jug toward an uncertain future
François Bereaud teaches and writes in San Diego.