Teaching as grassroots feminist militantism
Teacher, journalist, and photographer, Ndeye Seck, talks about feminism and her teaching practice, the Senegalese education system and her passion for football.
- Interview by
- Rama Salla Dieng
Ndeye Debo and I met in Dakar in November 2012 during a conference on governance put on by the organization I was working for. She was a journalist in training at the Senegalese daily newspaper Sud Quotidien. After she introduced herself, I remember saying: “you wrote the article on Felwine Sarr, I love your writing!” We have been in touch since then. (Ndeye has previously published on Africa Is a Country – Ed.) She is now a teacher in Kaffrine, in central Senegal. In this conversation, she tells how her basic feminist activism feeds on her teaching practice, the Senegalese education system, her passion for football and well-being.
How do you like to introduce yourself?
Hello sister, I am Ndèye Debo Seck. I am a journalist and a teacher of English. I have taught in Bounkiling in southern Senegal, and now I am in Kaffrine in central Senegal. I am the elder of a big family, women mainly. I am a photographer (for fun) and I have a passion for agriculture.
How do you live a feminist life and how easy is it to achieve that in (rural) Senegal?
I am a believer of what I call action pedagogy. I live by certain standards in private and in public. I try to show that you can live with feminist standards without having to choose between being a feminist and belonging to a community. Now, it’s easier than it seems. I have found a way to negotiate my identities: I am a Senegalese woman, a Lebu, a Muslim and a feminist. Many cultures, practices and values intersect in me. The difficulty was to acknowledge that these systems of belief didn’t exclude one or the other. And to see that at the core of them all is the integral development of the human being, which brings us back to the National Orientation Law. Now that I am conscious of this, I navigate through these identities with emotional and social intelligence.
You worked in journalism and blogging before. I was really impressed after reading your article titled “lessons of domestic economy” in 2013 in which you were critically assessing television programming, which according to you focused mostly on “Senegalese women’s sufferings, and men’s diseases.” Has that changed?
To some extent, there are important changes in the media-scape. Now national television stations are airing shows where women are center-stage, decision makers … and not solely the angels in the house. On the other hand, all the shows I referred to in that 2013 article are still airing. Today more than ever, religious predicators are given a platform to dictate women’s dress code, wife and mother duties, etc.
Recently a show has kind of shaken the public opinion, “Maitresse d’un homme marié” (MDMH). The main protagonists are women but they clearly get to decide who they date, how they live etc. MDHM is remarkable in that it shifts the perspective and presents the protagonists not solely as a fallen woman, an angel in the house etcetera. It shows the power dynamics at play in Senegalese relationships and how complicated the issue is (not as it appears in opposition between the good wife and the mistress). But how clearly patriarchy, men of course, and women work to keep the status quo. The show is so successful and triggering that it steered religious censors who were then invited to read the script.
Thanks, Ndeye, I too have read several good reviews of MDHM including this one by Marame Gueye. So, what led you to becoming an English teacher?
To some extent, my mum sparked my love in teaching. She never attended university whereas she had been an excellent student up to high school. She was our home tutor, and many of my classmates would come home to benefit from the after-class reinforcement. I always think that she would have been a great teacher. So, I am kind of carrying the torch.
When I was in high school, I wanted to complete a doctorate and become a university teacher. I literally left university after an M.A. certificate in English. I trained and became a journalist, but I hadn’t defended my M.A. thesis. So, I graduated and went to the Teacher’s College (FASTEF) for two years. Fast forward, and I have been teaching English in high schools for six years now.
You describe your teaching as “grassroot feminist militantism,” can you tell us more about that?
I truly believe in the transformational power of education. I am privileged to have had many experiences which led me to where I am now. I attended a feminist institute with Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML), I worked for Sud Quotidien, one of the first private newspapers in Senegal, and for an environmental NGO. I volunteered in a farming network, I am a dormant (I haven’t attended meetings for years) member of the Conseil National de Cooperation et de Concertation des Ruraux (CNCR), I have work experiences in child welfare, agriculture advocacy, development communication. Well, I really had the privilege to learn first-hand from strong women like Dr Fatou Sow, Vore Gana Seck, Khady Ndao (of the Fédération Nationale des Groupements de Promotion Feminine). And I am fortunate to be able to bring that background in my teaching practice. I work with pre-teens and teenagers. My students are literally at an age when they build their personalities, and at that stage, issues of representation, self-esteem and confidence are at play.
Also, in my daily practice I abide by the recommendation of the national orientation law which proposes “to link school to real life.” I make a point to always design material that in one way or another addresses my students cultural, social and religious background. For example, for two years, I assigned them to write tales from their ethnic groups. The Fulanis wrote a Fulani tale, the Mandjak also did so, and so on. This way, I am sure to indulge their sense of community as well as their command of the English language, because, they do research, make use of dictionaries, collaborate, etc. I also introduce them to current world issues. I try to command their rootedness in their communities as much as their cultural sensitivity and critical thinking.
I remember reading an emotional piece you wrote on your late student, Mamadou Saliou, who died in Libya trying to migrate to Europe, and you describe the “situation of migrants as the crisis of our citizenry.” Can you tell us more about that?
That year, we heard many rumors of schools which lost students to clandestine immigration. We can’t know exactly how many students from all over Senegal died in the seas or in Libya. How many are constrained, subjected to exploitation, systematic abuse, human trafficking. We have no idea. And I always think that if they had a little hope in the future, they would not have left, or they would have taken less desperate and fatal decisions. Mamadou Saliou attended one of my classes in my first year in Bounkiling. I admire students in Bounkiling or any other destitute place who, against all odds and defying all prognostics, graduate from high school. These kids are the epitome of courage. It’s a miracle that they overcome poverty, long walks to get to school, hunger, and so on, with some working as maids or cart drivers after school.
Of course, not everyone can make it out of school, but essentially, we have built a system where school is the way out of poverty. It’s not a matter of education, or lack of, per se. It’s a matter of equal opportunity, employment policy and jobs availability. We can’t keep on glamorizing indecent work and systemic survival skills. And we are responsible. Our collective, poor citizenry makes us elect leaders not based on their programs but on their charisma, or fake closeness to the people. We give them license to loot our resources and never hold them accountable. So in a word, I was devastated by the news of Mamadou Saliou’s death. But I definitely understood him.
Several other teachers or academics have written about the long-term crisis of the Senegalese educational system, including private schooling. What are the reasons for the crisis of the educational system in Senegal and how could we solve it?
The reasons are very simple: bad governance and poor management. Every few years, the government comes up with new projects, the majority of which don’t bring systemic improvement. They often aim at one aspect of education, like literacy rate, reading skills, etcetera. Concomitantly, school budgets have been decreasing with drastic cuts on the resources allotted to equipment. Teachers have ridiculous salaries and dire working conditions. And every year, the government, parents, civil society and every other segment of our society call on the God given responsibility of teachers. One minister used to say “Nous vous avons confié ce que la Nation a de plus chere” (we entrusted you with what is dearest to our nation).
For the solutions, we would start with a better distribution of resources, an increase of school budgets and teachers’ salaries.
We are currently facing this global COVID-19 pandemic. How do you sensitize your students?
Since the beginning, i.e. when we learnt of the COVID-19 in Wuhan, I have been discussing with my students, setting quizzes on the virus, its origin, prevention measures etc. The aim was to incite them to watch the news; many did usually, but to raise awareness among students who didn’t have access to information. So, we discussed the basics, the basic prevention, handwashing, etc. Every day before the government decision to suspend classes, I had literally five minutes to discuss it. An anecdote, in one of my first form classes, the day the first case was detected in Senegal, I decided to talk about it at the end of the lesson, and one of the students, Mayacine, out of nowhere said quite loudly “coronavirus.’’ I first ignored him, but he insisted and I told him that we would be discussing it before the end of the class. The following day, I met two students outside and one of them wanted to shake my hand, his mate literally pushed him aside, saying “on a dit on ne sert pas la main” (we said no shaking hands). These kids are 11 to 12.
With the older students, 4th form, we have had WhatsApp group chats since the beginning of the year. With the virus spreading in Senegal, I have tried to debunk fake news, while always making an effort to forward posts that are relevant, which alerts them to be cautious about the news they receive and share.
We have seen the heartbreaking photos of teachers trying to reach their schools out of Dakar by rushing into the (insufficient) buses available to them, not to mention the risks in terms of physical distancing; as a teacher, was that the right time for reopening?
That was absurd. Classes were suspended on March 14 when there were very few cases. I was happy President Macky Sall took that decision. And I appreciated the response put forth by the Senegalese administration. But clearly, there were shortcomings in the government communication and the initial message got blurred. The skepticism about the very existence of the virus grew among many and many others simply stopped observing the barrier measures. They returned to their routines and resumed the practices that were deemed at risk. Now there is a lot of stigma, some people who have been infected started hiding etc. As of today, June 6, there are 4,249 cases of COVID positive patients. In such a situation, resuming classes is inopportune. Not only was the teachers’ return chaotic and disorganized at Terminus Liberté 5 but schools are not all equipped to observe barrier gestures. Many do not have running water or toilets. In many places there are still temporary shelters or classes that are in ruins. Hygiene kits and masks are available, but I wonder if anyone can wear a mask for an hour and if learning can happen in such conditions. It’s extremely difficult to breathe with a mask on; now to imagine talking in a classroom, with temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius, that’s nonsense. Now physical distancing, one has to be really mindful to observe it rigorously. In this context, it will be difficult for teachers to stay focused, let alone for learners.
In the areas I have been serving, I think football is more watched because, football matches are say, more democratic. For a long time now, wrestling has become a business and recently some promotors came up with private screenings and the like. These days, unlike a few years ago, wrestlers are no longer literally the role models and opinion leaders they once were. There used to be daily shows, showing them in their dwelling, with their families, sharing their routines, diet (fonde, pain ndambe) but now they are aloof. In Bounkiling, I remember during my first years, we talked a lot about wrestler Balla Gaye 2 who is from Casamance. Over the years, Sadio Mane featured more in conversations, not just because of his talents but because he is from Bambali, which is not far from Bounkiling. Many students can literally identify with him, or look up to him like a brother or a cousin. Fun fact, Sadio Mane is a frequent name in the area and I had a girl student named Sadio Mane.
If you were to cite three life lessons that you learned teaching English to young people in rural Senegal, what would those be?
Humility. Resilience. Faith.
You are also a PhD researcher, a photographer and a blogger, how do you reconcile your work with teaching?
I registered to complete a doctorate program at the Laboratoire d’Etudes Africaines et Postcoloniales (LEAP). I haven’t formally renewed my registration. However, I am still working on the PhD; I always read, write, review. Now for photography, I do it for fun, not as a professional activity. I claim that I am a photographer because I have been practicing for more than 10 years. In French I would say “Je fais des photos.” Same for blogging; it’s for fun. Plus, being in a rural area, with connection not always available, I blogged very sporadically. So, to some extent, I don’t have to arbitrate between research, photography and teaching. I kind of manage to reconcile it pretty well.
Now let’s talk about literature, your other passion. Which three or four books have left a great impression on you that you would recommend?
Weep Not Child by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Murambi, le livre des ossements by Boubacar Boris Diop, The Color Purple by Alice Walker, The Waves by Virginia Woolf.
What acts of radical self-care do you practice?
The first one is photography. I used to reach out to a camera or my phone when I was pissed off. It instantly soothes me. I regularly do yoga. When I am home, i.e. in Dakar, I have long walks along the beach, in which instances I take pictures too. I practice knitting and sewing sometimes as a way to disconnect and kind of reboot. I have karite sessions too, where every morning I soak in Shea butter after a shower.