Four years of teaching english in Botswana
Centring the margins, as an analytical strategy, has the effect that the world can come to seem an altogether stranger place. Being mystified in the face of experience, eroding the ground of cognition, may well be the first step in a process of invaluable change.
Well I have always felt that one should speak personally. Yes, that one should think of oneself as a public individual, so that it's not like every bit of your confessional history, but it's trying to think of the representative space that you occupy.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (in Carter 1991:1)
Summer came. It was fiercely hot. The desert landscape awoke ambivalent feelings in her ... [I]ts very barrenness forced her to observe things in a new way.
Gillian Stead Eilersen on Bessie Head (1995:71)
I taught English at a private secondary school in Botswana from the start of 1991 until the end of 1995. This essay comprises of reflections on three manifestations of marginality that were formative of that time. It may appear that they are united by semantic sleight of hand. In each, though, I advocate a mode of subversion that the marginal site facilitates and which I consider potentially liberating. Each is thus a celebration of margins and of subversion. This celebration may be accused of being essentialized, even domesticated, deconstruction. However, the strategies that I adopt here represent a personal way of seeing that remains a legacy of a long preoccupation with the work of Derrida and Foucault (however inadequately understood). The "representative space'' that I occupy is filled with the traces of the works of these two writers grafted onto a faith in the Russian Formalist notion of "defamiliarization''. Centring the margins, as an analytical strategy, has the effect that the world can come to seem an altogether stranger place. Being mystified in the face of experience, eroding the ground of cognition, may well be the first step in a process of invaluable change.
Declaring the representative space that one occupies is at once unacademic, a partial process and uncomfortably confessional, particularly in a South African context in which the question as to who has the right to claim various spaces remains vexed. I plan to map my experiences as a white South African man who went to teach in Botswana in the wake of a liberal (at times), white, suburban upbringing. The first instance of marginality that I will address is bound to each of those stranglehold classifications, but can be caught beneath the sign "expatriate''. Woven into the mythopoetical world of Graham Greene and Lawrence Durrell, this sign suggests the existential probing of the outsider; an ontological predicament writ large and in cultural/geographical terms. I will illustrate a far more modest claim: that marginality creates opportunities for re-exploration and restatement of aspects of consciousness that otherwise become routine. The reflection is intended to be more than autobiographical meditation. I hold that a subversion of the self at the margins of another culture may be the greatest privilege awaiting the ESL teacher and that this subversion may be the key to didactic success.
The second instance of marginality about which I will make tentative comments arose in the "linguistic playground'' which was the context in which I taught in Botswana. There were forty-two nationalities of student and fifteen nationalities of staff. Fifty-two percent of the students were Batswana. I became increasingly aware of certain trends in discursive practices (which I was certainly perpetuating) which led to the marginalisation of certain classes of utterance. Those utterances that were routinely suppressed, as well as the linguistic foibles that are the inevitable consequence of a multi-cultural context, began to seem to me a site of potential linguistic renewal. The subversion of the routine habits of expression and idiom (and hence cognition) characteristic of "grammatically correct'' African English may be a key to linguistic creativity and rejuvenation. I will advocate a re-reading of the "incorrect utterance'' and attempt to demonstrate ways in which such utterances can be seen as interesting and valid challenges to the power relations that constitute our discursive strategies.
|There seems to be a huge gap between theory and the educational reality of much of Africa, which is best described as thoroughgoing Eurocentrism|
The final subversion that I advocate, as do many others involved in African education, is of the power wielded by the British examination boards. No amount of awareness of the power relations within the discursive arena will save students and teachers from the demands and constraints placed on them by the current examination systems. There seems to me to be a huge gap between theory (we are already speaking of the death of post-colonial theory) and the educational reality of much of Africa, which is best described as thoroughgoing Eurocentrism. Many countries, Botswana included, have embarked on a localization process, but the presence of the examination boards will live long into the future even in those countries. The margins have to claim the right to set their own agenda, either by severing ties with the boards or by bringing direct and immediate pressure to bear on them. They have to subvert the procedures and priorities of the English education establishment.
In her biography, Bessie Head: thunder behind her ears (1995), Gillian Stead Eilersen emphasizes the fact that Head was always aware of her margin al position in Serowe society and that she remained an expatriate despite the duration of her stay and her feelings of allegiance to Botswana. Head (1989) persistently creates in the Batswana a generalized "other'' which she defines against her own nature: "The Botswana character isn't as violent as me'' (p 142), for example. This tendency in her work may well betray the insidious nature of South Africa's definition of groups and its strangely persistent tendency to think in terms of group/national character. For Head it resulted in a persistent feeling of alienation from the community in Serowe, an alienation that expressed itself in her vicious outbursts at the exclusivity of Tswana culture. Head seems to have been caught between gratitude to her adopted country and a belief that significant life was elsewhere. Much of the power of her work arises from the fact that the present she perceives and writes about is constantly illumined by her South African past, creating a complex amalgam of the two contexts.
|Reconsideration of the parameters of self becomes inevitable. The cognitive shortcuts of a familiar culture are absent|
Any expatriate lives in a context created out of two worlds. Interaction with the host culture compels a constant re-reading of the origins of certain impulses, which become at once more succinct and noticeable when regarded outside of the context in which they first arose. Reconsideration of the parameters of self, rather than a noble existential quest, becomes inevitable in the face of a defamiliarizing context. All of the cognitive shortcuts and abbreviations of being that immersion in a culture facilitates are suddenly absent. South African society, perhaps because there has always been so much to define oneself against, is particularly adept at reading the shorthand indicators of character, subcultural allegiance and political conviction: "Wears an earring, went to Wits ...'', "Likes his rugby, drinks brandy and coke ...'', "Works for the post office ...''. Away from these indicators, perceiving others and interacting with their perception of you becomes a far more dynamic and challenging process. The absence of shared ground (or at least shared to the same degree) forces a far more rigorous interrogation of convictions and assumptions precisely because those around you are unlikely to take the same things for granted. My abiding impression is that the interpretative and interactive space that the absence of common ground facilitates is liberating.
Of course it is liberation at a cost and the cost in Bessie Head's case was poignantly high. White South Africans abroad in Africa face a different class of problem altogether. They are compelled to prove their difference from what is anticipated in terms of their attitude and manner. Of course they can choose not to, but must then live with the exclusionary strategies that many sections of African societies will (appropriately) adopt. This constant presentation of credentials to exonerate one from charges of being racist is an exhausting process precisely because of the absence of common ground to which I referred earlier. It is a process which ensures that one is never free of South Africa and through which one's South African identity is constantly investigated and articulated, both by oneself and others. The expatriate white South African (the only representative space that I can occupy) thus constantly interacts with those signs which have customarily been used to delineate being in this country.
|Being marginal is liverating: one is forced to tell stories, but the terms of the stories are altogether more fluid, the interpretative spaces far larger|
Being an outsider required to explain myself forced a direct consideration of previously routine perceptions. Outsiders have to be prepared to provide a systematic or at least adequate exegesis of their positions if they wish to facilitate social interaction. In so doing they are mapping aspects of being with discursive strategies that would not be required (as a matter of course) by the insider in any community. Those discursive strategies are clearly not representative but formative in that they are a constant reiteration of certain aspects of the self and a willed blindness to others. The relative absence of shared cultural presumptions liberates these narratives of self and facilitates a re-exploration of the most deeply entrenched presumptions. It is in this sense that being marginal is truly liberating: one is forced to tell stories, but the terms of the stories are altogether more fluid, the interpretative spaces far larger.
I suggested at the outset that being an expatriate involved an ontological subversion. The first level on which this is apparent is on the level I have outlined: the re-exploration of the self and the re-invention of the self through the narratives in which one is compelled to indulge. Cognitive structures can be subverted through the act of revealing their functioning and compelling them to reinvent certain aspects so that they are more presentable. The second mode of subversion is the more obvious, more difficult to define. I will attempt to do so by referring to an event which occurred early last year.
A student, Segametsi Mogomotsi, attending Radikolo Junior Secondary School in Mochudi, was "ritually'' murdered. Her body was mutilated: her genitals and various internal organs were removed. A group of three wealthy businessmen were thought by the community of Mochudi to have been responsible for the murder. The community's conviction, for which there is increasing evidence, arose for two reasons. Firstly, the commonly held belief that business prosperity is often linked to certain ceremonies which involve human body parts. Secondly, the growing conviction on the part of the unempowered sections of Botswana society that the police collaborate with the wealthy and successful, which accounts for the low instance of solved ritual killings. Certainly in the case of Segametsi Mogomotsi, the apparent police incompetence would seem to belie a wilful failure to establish the truth of the matter or, at the very least, a marked indifference. Police incompetence was exacerbated by the high-handed manner in which the government approached the questions being raised by people about the matter. A student-led protest was initiated in Mochudi and then spread to Gaborone and other parts of the country. In the capital, students broke shop front windows, set government vehicles alight and stoned policemen. The riot police unit of the Botswana Defence Force, the Special Services Group, was let slip. The conduct of its members was certainly a catalyst to the rebellion: they pounded, tear-gassed and rubber-bulleted the crowds into submission. Many were injured and one man in Mochudi was summarily executed by police in the presence of his relatives.
Western liberalism has inscribed its discourses into the institutions, political rhetoric and economies of African countries. The manner of the death of Segametsi Mogomotsi, the interpretation of its significance and the community response to the structures of power in the wake of their perceived indifference, revealed to me the rift between those discourses and the way crises are formulated and addressed in Botswana. The reactions of my students to the death and subsequent events further illustrated the gap between the social democratic terminology Western liberalism applies to Botswana and the terms of the students' own culturally specific responses. Students had hitherto spoken to me in terms taken from my own discursive background: they had humoured me by speaking the language of liberal, Western, social democracy. They had kindly discussed the world on my terms. Under the conditions of personal and national crisis, however, I began to see alternative discursive strategies and categories. I began to see a world to which I was entirely marginal and which was not available to analysis by the only discursive strategies I possessed.
It seems to me that Western liberal discourse (and perhaps politically correct discourse is only the final development of this tradition) has created the illusion that there are fewer differences in the ways various cultures divide and speak of the world. Acknowledgement of real difference and receptive humility at the margins of other cultures may well subvert aspects of the self and permit a genuine ontological re-examination of all that grounds being. It is presumptuous of me to offer a role-model and three pieces of advice in this regard, but I will do so nevertheless. The role model is Bruce Chatwin in Songlines (1988) who interacts with aboriginal Australian society in a way which culminates in a decentring of his language and a reformulation of a discourse of identity around newly discovered priorities. The three pieces of advice are:
- ask questions
- avoid anticipating answers
- be in awe
In conclusion, ESL teachers are in the privileged position of being on the margins of another culture (even in their own country) and of having the opportunity to ascribe to that culture a subversive role in relation to their own. That very process of subversion may make them better teachers for it draws them closer to the ESL students in a substantive sense, while legitimizing the student's world and discourse, a procedure that makes didactic sense on so many obvious levels.
Musical education is built upon the disciplining process of knowing and practising scales. The "tuned scale ... is a locus of discipline, a collection of discrete values produced out of a system that orders, segments and divides'' (Bergeron 1992:2). Scales are thus analogous to a musical grammar that compels adherence to its division and formulation of reality. They scribe the parameters of acceptability in musical utterance and unite the player/composer with the canon of music. Spectacular claims have been made for the power of musical discipline. Bergeron refers to the chapter "On Scales'' from Olga Samaroff's Layman's Book of Music (1935) which claims that practising scales prevents juvenile delinquency and that members of prison bands are entirely rehabilitated by their musical activity. This illustrates that faith in the disciplining process of musical education based on scales leads to a belief in a causal chain: regulation, control, discipline, socialisation.
The notion of inducing harmony and curtailing a potential cacošphony of apparently unrelated sounds is a useful metaphor through which to analyse language teaching in a multi-cultural context. Foucault's observation, intended far more universally, that the "production of discourse is at once controlled, organized, selected and redistributed by a number of procedures whose role is to ward off its powers and dangers'' (in Young 1981:52), is applicable to the ESL/EFL classroom. I became increasingly aware, while teaching in Botswana, that procedures not unlike the teaching of scales in their effect, circumscribed the entire language teaching situation. These procedures, all harkening towards various notions such as "correct'', "appropriate'', "conventional'', "culturally apt'' and "grammatical'', sifted and ordered all students' utterances and input. They created a functional harmony "appropriate'' to the pedagogic context by systematically eliminating reinterpretations and interferences arising from and within the mother tongue/s of students. I am not advocating the abolition of the procedures in question, but wish to map my growing awareness of the value of the incorrect utterance and perhaps present a sensitizing perspective on the value of the "mistakes'' made by ESL/EFL students as a form of linguistic subversion.
Borges' "certain Chinese encyclopedia'' establishes the following taxonomy of animals: "(a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies'' (in Foucault 1970:xv). Foucault's assertion that this could never be the stuff of which cognition is made begs questions when we consider the multi-cultural teaching environment. A plenary session in such an environment may well produce a taxonomy not unlike that posited by Borges. Taxonomies, therefore, cannot be taken for granted, nor can the relative value of elements in any taxonomy. I began to realize that the sheer multiplicity of things, something we curtail through discursive procedures, is more than a post-modernist notion: it is revealed at every turn at the confluence of the varying signifying practices of different linguistic communities. Discursive strategies and the categories according to which cognition is structured are persistently under stress in such an environment, provided that meanings are negotiated rather than dictated from a single cultural perspective.
Clearly what is at stake is more than the linguistic utterance. The startling multiplicity and profusion of meaning that occurs at the intersection of different signifying procedures could potentially defamiliarize more than the language alone. What may be at stake is the very way that we talk about and thus conceive of the world. If we conceive of the ESL contexts as essentially the margins of the English language (a conception which seems valid given the prevailing attitudes to "error'' and apparently aberrant expression), then the claim could be made that those margins may be the most productive sites in terms of linguistic rejuvenation. The direct translation of idioms from students' vernacular languages as well as the growing acceptance of African language-affected syntax are two examples of what ESL students have brought to English. If we do not discard merely as error the refreshingly new and challenging habits of expression that arise in the multi-cultural context, we may well benefit as teachers in that our own modes of perception and expression will be persistently challenged. Furthermore, I believe that ultimately the entire linguistic community stands to benefit from the creative clash of signifying procedures.
|That which strikes us as discordant may well be a subversion of the 'appropriate' order of things|
A fifteen-year-old student from the north of Botswana asserted in the course of an essay that "Macbeth discovers ice in the folds of Lady Macbeth's womanhood'' (this is an interesting extension of a TED student's assertion that was read out by a teacher in the course of matric marking in 1989: "Lady Macbeth plays on Macbeth's manhood''). This error bears traces of the recurrent tendency among ESL students to use language which is formal and metaphorical. The remarkable aspect of the sentence is how succinct an expression of a complex psychological and thematic issue it is. It is a fine insight expressed economically but is nevertheless bound to reduce a marker to hysterical laughter and become a standard inclusion in staffroom/cocktail party banter. Given that I am advocating a re-reading of student errors, how do I hold a marker should respond to an error of this nature?
I would hold that the student cannot be expected to understand the distinction between the archaic Victorianism "womanhood'' and femininity, the latter presumably the concept the student wishes to articulate. The locus of humour should lie, not in the error, but in the bizarre cultural assumption which made the error possible in the first place - our preoccupation with euphemism and concealment of the body, as well as a sexist equation of female identity and the vagina that the sign assumes. The error has uncovered an aspect of our routine perception and finally the joke is on us for making the error a logical, almost predictable one. For all the sexist assumptions of the answer (it certainly emerged from the essay that women are not meant to have ice in the folds of their womanhood because they should be kind, supportive and submissive) it is preferable to the mundane statements: "Lady Macbeth is masculine''; "she is a witch''; "unfeeling''; "ambitious''; "insensitive''. It is preferable, firstly, because it is far more sophisticated in its perception of human psychology, which is characterized as convoluted and a site of gradual discovery or revelation. Secondly, it shows a personal engagement with the text precisely because it is not a comment that could have been found in York Notes. Finally, it is preferable because the student has made the complex cognitive shift into the realm of metaphorical presentation of an understanding. Encapsulation in metaphorical terms in this instance is evidence of a real comprehension of the text.
I began this discussion by comparing musical education based on the discipline of scales to the use of procedures to structure and discipline utterances in the ESL/EFL multi-cultural context. In conclusion I would like to return to musical imagery. That which strikes us as discordant and jarring may well be a subversion of all we have come to expect about the appropriate order of things. Arhythmic and atonal music have ushered in revolutionary possibilities for musical expression. Perhaps the errors which arise as English intersects other languages and the taxonomies and grammars on which they are based will usher in new perceptions and forms of expression. On a personal level I certainly felt, while teaching the multiple nationalities of students at Maru a Pula School, that I was learning new ways of looking at the world and new ways of speaking about it. Those ways were not necessarily couched in correct grammar.
As must be apparent by now, the benefits were dependent on not prescribing the content of utterances, but on allowing as great a discursive democracy as possible in the classroom. The danger of utilizing a communicative model which relies on students participating in prescribed forms of interaction, is that students become conditioned to produce certain forms of utterances which are based on cultural norms other than their own (often the cultural norms assummed by teachers to be those of the ESL/EFL students). The danger is then that students' utterances lose the power to disturb, confuse and renew. They lose their subversive quality. The abiding impression that I have is that meaning has to be negotiated if it is to be meaning at all and those negotiations must start from the presumption that errors will not simply be marginalized and that it is more important to understand and be understood than to sound like Margaret Thatcher.
Having considered ontological and discursive subversions, the final one that I advocate is a far more practical and strategic one. The intricate and personal in any teaching context exists within the practical framework prescribed by national education policy. In many African countries the context of teaching and learning is controlled at every level by the dictates of the British examination boards. These dictates are seldom given enough weight in analyses of ESL teaching in Africa. Most Southern, Central and East African countries are registered with one of the British examination syndicates, as are some West African countries. All senior secondary schools in Botswana work towards students writing the Cambridge Overseas School Certificate "O'' Level and most of my comments will relate to that particular examination system, but, by all accounts, the Cambridge Examination Syndicate is typical rather than exceptional. It must be kept in mind that an examination syndicate determines what will be studied and, through the setting of examinations, how it will be taught.
|The Cambridge Overseas Certificate is an anachronism. The 'O' Level is the known quantity in African education and ministries are not renowned for departing from the known|
The Cambridge Overseas Certificate is famously an anachronism. Superseded in the United Kingdom by the GCSE, it nevetheless remains the dominant secondary school qualification in Africa, this despite the existence of an international equivalent of the GCSE, which is rather more progressive. The Overseas "O'' Level is the known quantity in African education and ministries are not renowned for departing from the known. In many subjects offered by Cambridge there has been no substantive change in either syllabus or examination technique for decades. This is partly due to the inherent conservatism of the Syndicate and partly due to the conservatism of teachers and ministries who have, on occasions, resisted change when it has been offered. Whoever is responsible, students are expected to write examinations which are bland, repetitive and which, with few exceptions, rely on recall skills alone. The English Language and Literature examinations are a case in point.
The "O'' Level Language examination is made up of two papers. The first requires students to answer questions on a prose passage of about six hundred words and to write a summary which involves extracting information from the passage. In neither are students compelled to use their own words unless they are instructed to do so, which occurs in about one fifth of the comprehension questions. The rubric for the summary may demand that a student alter the tense or person of the original. This valid transformation exercise is a new development and is a welcome one. The remainder of the exam, however, makes only limited demands on capable students and gives rise to bad habits on the part of weaker students and their teachers. Because there is scant variation in question style, students are often coached by teachers to notice linguistic indicators, select the appropriate information from the passage and then write out a formulaic combination of the question and the relevant sentence from the passage. "Comprehension'' obviously becomes a misnomer. In addition to this, the selection of texts is at times bizarre. Three out of the last five comprehension passages have detailed aspects of seafaring and it is surely short-sighted to expect a Motswana student to be able to explain the terms "mizzen'' and "brig'' (obviously most have not seen the sea).
The second Language paper demands that students write a composition and that they construct a short piece of directed prose, which can range from completing a story, to including a given set of details in an account, to analysing a set of data. When the composition is assessed, content is essentially irrelevant since it counts for less than ten percent of the final mark. All that is assessed is the student's capacity to write coherent and error-free prose. While this is, of course, a key issue, it is clear how stultifying an assessment system this is in terms of creativity and originality.
Literature studies are in a bad way in Botswana. Consistently poor results over the last years have led to a dramatic decline in student enrolment. I would suggest three reasons for this. Firstly, the examination questions are a peculiar combination of those that demand dull recall and repetition of plot detail and those that attempt to elicit very sophisticated value judgements couched in excessively complex terms. The latter class of question seems to me to be far more demanding than any other "O'' Level question type. Secondly, the selection of texts is Eurocentric, creating an array of didactic complexities. There is conventionally one African text which can be chosen from a list of about twelve. A list of authors prescribed in the last ten years is a good indication of the prescription bias: Shakespeare, Dickens, Greene, Galsworthy, George Eliot, Orwell, Paton, Matthee, Achebe, Ngugi, Katiyo, Priestly, Wyndham, Wells, Rattigan, Sherriff, Conrad and Trollope. Finally, Literature is viewed as the subject into which one ushers students who cannot manage the Sciences. This perception will be aggravated by the recent government paper that has revised national education policy "to emphasize science and technology in the education system.'' (Government Paper No. 2, 1994).
The unsatisfactory nature of both the Language and Literature syllabuses, as well as the examination process, places English teachers in many parts of Africa in a dilemma. While they are aware of several essential faults with the approach to teaching they are forced to adopt, there is little they can do to correct these faults in the face of the recalcitrance and influence of the examination boards, as well as the conservatism of ministries. The situation is complicated by the fact that the boards are located in Britain and that representatives are seen seldom by teachers and never by students. Their distance from the coal-face makes it inevitable that they become a faceless "them''. The situation too closely resembles traditional colonialism for the implications of that doctrine to be avoided. Students and teachers will feel marginal in the process of significant decision-making until they subvert the structures that underlie African education and seize power to prescribe for and examine their own students. To teach in Botswana was to live a colonial educational experience and it confirmed on every level my conviction that little can be achieved in educational terms until the marginalized countries break the European/American monopoly on deciding what constitutes learning and knowledge. In short, we, as teachers of English in Africa, have to take control of our own intellectual lives.
The impact of an examination board lives long after a country makes the decision to cease to be affiliated to it. Botswana made the decision to break with the Cambridge Examinations Syndicate in 1994. The process of severance is a difficult and gradual one. The Revised National Policy on Education of April 1994, which initiated this step, set the date for completion of the process at 2003, but the deadline has already been extended to 2007. Given that those involved in localisation are all trained in Cambridge techniques of examinaton, it will be a long time until the yoke is finally lifted. But the process, no matter how difficult, is essential if the sort of problems I have detailed in my account of the English programme, are to be avoided in the future.
In the course of this essay I have outlined three forms of subversion, the first an inevitable consequence of being an expatriate who engages meaningfully with a new context, and the other two advocated as a means of achieving new power relations in African ESL contexts. It is impossible to provide an abbreviated synopsis of an experience as rich and complex as four years in Botswana turned out to be. It did hinge on struggling with and at the margins of various cultures and contexts. It would not have been (re)constructive had it not been for the productive dialectic that emerged between my past and the forms of marginality that I have discussed. There is an obvious irony in all I have said, for equivalent experiences and realizations should have been possible in South Africa given its own multi-culturalism. Perhaps Botswana simply provided challenges on a more manageable scale. Perhaps the legacy of apartheid creates alienating rifts between self and context that endlessly obscure and complicate.
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Revised national policy on education. 1994.