“Now, after you’ve boiled the empty bottles for ten minutes and let them cool slowly, you can add in the tomatoes,” I explain. Today in environment club we are canning. Most of the students are paying attention, but Colette, I’ve noticed, seems suddenly distracted by something behind me. I turn around just in time to see Thierry skitter away from a pile of burning twigs and leaves. I sigh, “Thierry, c’est quoi, ça?” What’s that? I demand, pointing to his quickly growing brush fire. He giggles.
“Go get water and put that out right now!” He prances around the leaping flames, ignoring my order, so I throw a clod of dirt in his direction and hit him squarely on the head. The other students erupt in cheers, and finally someone grabs the basin of water and douses the flames.
“Let’s not start a forest fire during environment club, ok?” I scold, “Especially not on school grounds – Club Rule #2: No lighting random things on fire!” It’s only the second week of environment club, but at this rate, we’ll have a new rule each week. Last week during a lesson in mud stove building, I sent two students to gather dry grass to mix with the clay. They came back with a big fat snake, proceeded to behead it, and then failed to see the irony in needlessly killing wildlife during environment club. Hence, Club Rule #1: No killing things.
* * * *
I guess with a debriefing like that, one could conclude this club is not going well, but I’m actually quite pleased with our progress. We’ve built a fuel-efficient mud stove and successfully used it in a tomato canning experiment. We’ve started nature journals. And we have at least ten committed club members who are all enthusiastic… if not always well-behaved. So, we get a little out of control from time to time, but hey, that keeps things exciting and the club growing!
Last year, getting kids to participate in my clubs was like pulling teeth, but this year it seems there’s a kid around every corner eager to join a club. It’s not unusual for me to get visits from students wondering how they may s’inscrire (enroll) in one of my clubs. This is one of those Beninese formalities that makes me chuckle, and I’m always a little tempted to throw my hands up and say, “No inscription necessary! Just show up, kid!” But there’s no need for irreverence, so I grab the most official looking piece of paper I can find and ask them to write their name and age, sign, say an oath I make up on the spot… (well no, I don’t usually take it that far).
Girls’ club is definitely the most popular club by number of participants. We’ve met twice, chez moi (probably half the reason the girls want to come), and it was a blast both times. At our first meeting, seventeen girls showed up. Second time around I forgot to remind the girls we’d have a club meeting, so I kinda figured only a few would come, but I was wrong. All seventeen from week one came, along with seven newbies! I didn’t even know I could fit twenty-five people in my house! I think the boys get a little envious that we’re having so much fun, but they get their time in running club. Running club is supposed to be co-ed, but it might as well be bro club since the usual turnout is me and a band of about twenty barefoot boys. Oh, and the dog. Sami loves running club. She gets right in there with the pack of boys, slowing down only now and then to wait for me to catch up.
* * * *
Sami is popular around the village, even though she hardly lets anyone touch her but me. English club is just starting, and I ask the students what they want to study. “Get the Sami book!” says Raphael. The ‘Sami book’ is a grammar book that Sami chewed up. Fortunately she didn’t chew off anything important, and the grammar exercises are still intact. We’re on a new chapter, so the students must fill in new vocab before continuing. I stand by and watch as they practice using their French-English dictionaries. They divvy up the page of words and begin loquaciously scrambling to find all the French translations.
“Pupkin!” announces Enock, “What’s pupkin?”
“It’s pumpkin.” I correct, “There’s an m there.”
“Peakin!!” he exclaims.
“No – puMPkin.”
“Fought,” says Raphael.
“Thought,” I say, “Fought and thought are different.”
“Fought,” he says again.
“Look at me,” I say, then stick out my tongue, “Thhh-ought.”
He sticks out his tongue and tries again, “Thhh-ought.”
“Please, teacher – what is driveway? I don’t find it in my dictionary,” says Loukemane.
“It’s a place you park your car.”
“Then it is parkway?”
“That’s a place you drive your car. It’s not important. Go to the next word.”
Half an hour later, Roberta triumphantly claims, “Finish!” when she sees that all the blanks have been filled in. We proceed through the grammar exercise and conclude the evening with a mini spelling test. I’m exhausted, but these students hardly seem tired. Then again, I’ve had over six hours of club time today, so I take a turn sitting while they pack up their things.
“See you tomato!” says Raphael.
“Tomorrow, Raphael. It’s tomorrow. I’m not a tomato.”
“Yes! See you tomorrow!” he corrects, “Samiiii – good night!” he says to the dog, who’s never really sure what to do when someone else uses her name. She growls but wags her tail a bit too. Raphael laughs, “Good dog.” Indeed – and a good day.