Student Killed by Teacher's hand, 2005
Ending corporal punishment in the Gambia has proven to be a tedious effort that has gained small and shaky ground at best. I recently read a blog entry by my site-mate, (Site mate's blog)
who had to confront the issue in a more personal way than most of us can imagine- by trying to effectively teach middleschoolers who have never known an alternative, and facing the daily obstacle of students who don’t seem to respond to anything else.
As volunteers, we usually walk an obscure line between maintaining our conditioned worldview and acquiring that of the people we serve. For some this is the goal- assimilation, integration. Volunteers may become compound heads, second wives or convert to Islam. They may begin to support cultural practices that as Americans, they once found deplorable, such as female circumcision. Others resist this in favor of maintaining their distinct, “outsider” perspective, and appreciate the culture as a backdrop against which their development agenda may unfold. Of course there is a more common middle ground wherein the volunteer comes to accept their surroundings to the degree they see possible, and finds ways to hold in mind the moral ambiguity of cross-cultural goal-setting as they proceed towards mutual understanding on the part of their community, if not integration. They may never agree with certain religious doctrines, or rites of passage, or corporal punishment, but they understand why it happens.
As outsiders, most of us take exception the use of corporal punishment, but facing the classroom, some come to the conclusion that there is no alternative, a perspective many Gambians would argue is true. And if we decide to cross that line towards integration, does that mean we should stop pushing issues (like corporal punishment) that may seem to gain most of their momentum from “outsiders?” Should we, for that matter, start beating in order to gain the respect that other teachers have? Is corporal punishment really the preference and design of “insiders”? And do those who support it do so because it is the reasonable preference for Gambians, or are they held by the systemic trappings of having no alternative? Here’s my take on it:
Corporal Punishment in Gambian schools was introduced by the British during colonization and continues as a replication of this, alongside other remnants of the colonial education system (rote memorization of information, head boys and girls, assemblies, etc.). It is not an endemic practice necessarily, (nor is formal schooling for that matter) at least not to the extent that one could argue it is "the way" of Gambian society, whatever its level of support in the country. Yes, beating occurs in homes, and many (illiterate, unschooled) families may argue it is favorable for the school environment, though many disagree with it as well. In most cases, communities and families have little knowledge of what occurs in the schools, and only possess a vague desire for their children to emerge with some profit to their betterment as a family/community. At a celebration to honor some visiting Swedes, (potential donors) the representative of our village development committee said ‘We’ve been praying for many years now that graduates of this school will go on to help us all.” This man, like most of the elders, never went to school and does not exactly know what it will take for his children to learn, he just wants them to go into the world, make money, and send it back to the village or family. His notion of whether the child is gaining the requisite skills for this to be possible is based largely on faith and few alternatives. A community member in strong support of corporal punishment in the classroom could just as easily sing the praises of a head master who gives away school furniture or sells donated rice, if it benefits the community. Unfortunately, community members need to understand the inner workings of schools before being expected to rap on the value of corporal punishment.
In a society where age is a sign of status, a parent is more likely to side with a trusted adult than their own child. This does not mean that the child’s rights have not been violated if beaten, and certainly doesn’t prove that it’s “the culture” which perpetuates beating in school, only that some cultural beliefs have kept this imported practice going strong. If the belief holds that when a child does something wrong, they should of course be beaten, then a beaten child will return home and the parent will assume the child has in fact done something wrong. This may not be the case at all. I’ve seen students beaten for a failure to understand, being late, sleeping, or because they couldn’t read the word Tuesday. I’ve seen entire classes receive the same corporal punishment. Were the parents aware that all 40 children did something “bad” on the same day? Isn’t that a wildly convenient coincidence for the teacher? The parents in my community have their way with the stick as well, for infractions such as stealing, lying, fighting with a sibling. Not to condone any beating at all, but am I alone in seeing a difference? If the community Parent teacher associations are any indication, I am not.
When communities in Kiang and Jarra formed PTA constitutions, many community members spoke out against corporal punishment in schools, including for the very reasons we “outsiders” have “imposed” on communities (such as children being beaten for having incorrect answers.) Some also spoke in favor of it, particularly out of fear that their students seem increasingly rude and difficult to manage. Whether in favor of beating or not, most community members were confronting the issue with the most information they’d ever been given, because rarely are teachers, head masters, parents and students all present in such a forum. Most schools would agree that corporal punishment has been reduced in the country, (which is an astonishing thought when I walk by the upper basic school and casually witness any variety of beating, holding up of rocks, kneeling in sand, taking place openly and nearly every day) and some blame the problems with their children on this fact. I’ve spoken with enough teachers and heads to notice that while many have reduced or stopped beating students, very few have actually implemented an effective alternative. They’ve thrown up their hands instead and said, “see, you can’t do this with our children.”
A school system that centers around the numerical ranking of students from best to worst (such as here in Gambia) would be more likely to produce students who would support punishing of offenders by harsher means, in some cases, even by students who are likely to be punished. A student or group of students suggesting corporal punishment to resolve problems does not necessarily indicate that it is fair, or that it is what students truly want. A poor, tired wife will of course advocate for her husband to get a second wife. This doesn’t mean she believes in the strength and correctness of polygamy, perhaps she’s just tired of doing all the work alone. If it was even within her realm of comprehension that her husband could do some of the work, she may choose that option, but that’s not even on her radar, much like alternative discipline is not even a thought to most Gambian students. Students who are the beneficiaries of a beating system, that is to say, children who know how to avoid being beaten, would never speak out against such a system; they don't have any incentive to protect their peers, but every incentive to let them get beaten. Additionally, if beating has been demonstrated to students as the only effective way to curtail disruptive behavior, and they are among the handful that desperately want to learn, why wouldn't they suggest its use? In a world of only coca-cola, I emphatically choose coca-cola. It may taste like shit, but I’m thirsty and that’s what’s available to me.
Add to that the fact that teachers don't have any reasonable motive to implement other means of punishment, except perhaps legal prosecution, which has happened in a few cases, and you can see why it becomes an even harder habit to shake. What teacher would donate, for example, extra time to detention classes for deviants when they can hardly be motivated to teach through the regular school day on the salary they make? It is particularly easy and fast to motivate students through using a stick. Most alternative methods are more time consuming, require a better understanding of child behavior, work better in smaller classes, are more effective if implemented early in the child’s life, and work best when used consistently. The problem is not that alternatives could not work for “these” children, who only understand the stick, it’s all the work these alternatives require, and the time lost to 6th, 7th, 8th graders who would be much harder to discipline through other means.
In the end, changing behavior through other means (imposing consequences for various actions, denying privileges, children coming to understand their rights and responsibilities, utilizing positive reinforcement, etc and so forth…) would probably expose scads of other problems in schools, including the misbehaviors of teachers themselves. Detentions for skipping class? How is Mr. Demba, who’s own absenteeism exceeds 25% going to reinforce that? Is absenteeism of teachers a cultural practice that “outsiders” should stop insisting on curbing in schools? Everyone knows the importance of family here, and missing out on key ceremonies goes against that cultural connectivity and sense of community, doesn’t it? Why should school get in the way?
Volunteers face an interesting challenge, no doubt. There are countless good reasons why corporal punishment cannot easily go away here. Perpetuating sad colonial practices in the name of avoiding "outsider interference" isn't one of them.