Walking to my daughter's kindergarten, we pass a makeshift boutique that sells everything from soap to spicy peppers. Down an unmarked sandy road, we pass a herd of goats nibbling on cut bushes, women in their compound pounding millet, and children who don't go to school: wide-eyed youngsters with distended bellies and ashen legs who giggle and point when they see us. At the end of that short street, we turn right, past a pharmacy and an aid organization for the blind. My daughter's school, run by an Iranian couple who have lived in Niger for over 20 years, is on the right. Of the hundreds of students at the school, 95% are from Niger. The rest are foreigners: mostly from Togo and Benin.
The first day of school, Athena sobs. She clings so tightly to my husband that he doesn't have the heart to peel her off of him. Her teacher comes outside. He's young and soft-spoken. French by birth, he did his schooling in Belgium and is married to a Nigerien. This is his first experience in Africa and he seems as overwhelmed as we are. Don't force her, he says, there's always tomorrow.
The next day I explain to Athena that it's going to be hard but that she is going to go to school. She'll feel shy at first, but she'll get used to it. "Even if you cry, you have to go, Lovey. I'll be back to pick you up."
She grips my hand and screws up her face as we walk toward the classroom. "I'm shy, Mommy," she says, tears in the corners of her eyes. "I know, Sweetie," I say, tears in mine, too. Somehow she manages to let go of my hand and stand in line with the other kids. She's so brave, marching into a room of people she doesn't know speaking a language she can't understand.
When I pick her up she's serving pretend tea and biscuits. "I made two new friends, Mommy!" she cries, "Salmata and Leila!" She skips all the way home.
I arrange with her teacher, Julien, to bake bread with the kids on Fridays, like I used to do at my older daughter's school in the States. He's says it's okay for me to bring my 2-year-old. My heart feels happy. How did we get so lucky to find such a nice school with such a nice teacher? Athena is centered and confident, hurrying to dress and eat breakfast because she loves school so much she doesn't want to be late.
During break we invite Julien and his wife over for dinner. We make a fancy meal of French and African food. They don't show up. They don't call. The cell phone network has been down for days so if they couldn't find our house it would be difficult for them to call. We wait outside for awhile, looking for the car, and then at the table with the food getting cold.
The Monday after vacation the phones are still down. I'm eager to see Julien to find out what happened but he doesn't come to school, doesn't call, and doesn't send anyone to explain his absence. He's not there on Tuesday either.
Julien's wife runs a shop, so the principal, Fara, sends a guard there for news. "They're in Europe," the clerk tells the guard. "They're gone."
I feel like a slighted lover. How could Julien have left 25 children without saying goodbye? How could he have left my daughter? I lie awake at night imagining that he and his wife have been murdered, their bodies moldering in their house with no one to discover them.
"We have a new teacher," Athena announces the following week.
"What's she like?"
"She has hoods over her eyes and wrinkles and hair in a ponytail," she says.
"Is she old?" I ask.
Athena's description is totally accurate. The new teacher is a very thin French African woman with hooded eyes and a face that looks downcast, even when she smiles (which she rarely does). I ask her about baking bread. "I am in favor of anything that promotes the development of the students," she says. Athena starts dragging herself across the floor and whining, "I don't want to go to school, I hate school," she cries. She can't remember the word for ruler so she draws one for me. "She hits this on the desk really hard, Mommy," she says. "She's always yelling."
Friday is bread day.
"Tierno," the teacher says in a loud voice, "you forgot to hang your name tag on the board." Tierno looks for his name but brings back Tarek. "Well, how do you like that," the teacher snarls, "Tierno doesn't even know how to read his name!" Then she holds up a notebook that is slightly frayed at the edges. "Is this normal?" she thunders. "Is it normal to treat a notebook like this? You must be careful with your things, children."
If the teacher humiliates and screams at the children in front of a parent (me), how does she act when she's alone in the classroom?
"She has a solid academic program," the director says when another parent and I approach her. But the truth is I don't care about the academic program for my five-year-old, I care about her self-esteem.
One of our reasons for coming to Francophone Africa was to expose our children to French. It's been my dream to have them in a French-speaking environment. But Julien isn't coming back, the new teacher isn't going to change, the director isn't going to listen. It's time to find my daughter another school.