WHAT MAKES US DIFFERENT: FRENCH CLASS AT SEGL
A guest post by SEGL French teacher Mairéad O’Grady:
“So, what country are we visiting this week?”
This certainly isn’t a question that my own high school French teacher was likely to hear. And even if she had an answer, it was never Mali, Guinea-Conakry, Côte d’Ivoire, or Senegal. But by the end of this week, the SEGL French students will have visited the embassies of all four of those countries, and our “passports” will fill up even more as the semester continues.
This summer, while working and traveling in Senegal, I picked up a collection of excerpts from famous works of Franco-African literature, thinking at the time that it might come in handy in my advanced French class here at SEGL as I prepared students to take the AP French Language and Culture exam in May. The authors featured in the collection come from almost every former French colony in sub-Saharan Africa, and the overarching theme of the book is le déracinement, or uprooting. Many of the questions that the characters in these passages face parallel the experiences of an SEGL student who has been “uprooted” from her or his recognizable life and placed into a new context: How do I form an identity when everything and everyone is unfamiliar? What role should my parents and my friends play in my personal development? What do I do when my preconceptions of a place don’t match reality? To what extent should I solicit advice from the people around me and when should I choose to forge my own path?
My French students are considering these questions and others as they study a different passage each week. Aside from the new vocabulary and grammatical structures they are gaining from these readings, we are also addressing the themes of identity formation and self-discovery that come from leaving familiarity and delving into the unknown. And the SEGL French students have had the opportunity to ask many francophone African people about these experiences firsthand, because with every new passage that we read and analyze, I have set up a meeting at the embassy of the author’s home country, giving my students the opportunity to have conversations – always in French – with people whose lives often intersect with those of our literary characters.
We began with an excerpt from Malian author Seydou Badian Kouyate’s famous work Sous l’orage (Kany). Kouyate is known not only for his works of literature but also for his composition of the lyrics to the Malian national anthem. Set in the 1940s, Sous l’orage focuses on generational divides in Mali at a time when French cultural influence was prevalent and Malian children, educated in the French system regarding issues that were new to their parents, found it difficult to balance their Malian upbringing (for example, eating from a communal plate and drinking from a public gourd) with what they were learning in class (microbes are the cause of illness and shared food and drink are the culprits).
After many intense discussions in the Balcony Classroom comparing our own experiences of generational differences to those of Malian youth, we walked over to the Malian Embassy on R St to meet with M. Salif Sanogo, Counselor for Communication at the embassy (and a well-known Malian journalist and TV/radio personality. We asked him questions – in French, bien sûr – about his upbringing, his relationship with his parents and grandparents, and how he is raising his own three daughters in America with a mix of Malian and American cultures. He spoke at length about combining the best parts of each culture in order to raise the best possible children, citing his own background as an example, and we were fascinated to learn that he grew up the son of a high-ranking military official and actually spent much of his childhood in Russia (and speaks fluent Russian!). We also asked him questions about Mali’s recent events (the 2012 coup d’état and terrorist activity in the north) as well as earlier history (the 1968 coup d’état that left our author Kouyate imprisoned and in exile). It was quite a shock to learn that M. Sanogo’s father was actually one of the military officials who performed the coup d’état in 1968! But we jumped at the opportunity to learn more, and he was very open to sharing his thoughts on military uprisings from his perspective as a recent diplomat.
M. Sanogo set the bar high, and we had a different but equally fascinating experience at the embassy of Guinea-Conakry the following week. It was difficult to get a meeting confirmed via phone or email, and when I walked over to the embassy to attempt a connection in-person, a poster outside revealed why: the country is in the midst of (finally) electing its parliament after three years of presidential reign without one. We were able to secure a meeting with M. Ibrahima Bangoura, who works at the embassy as a financial consultant but happens to be a bit of an expert in Franco-African literature. He even used our textbook as a high school student in Guinea! He reflected on our questions that focused this time on taking advice from others and when to allow another’s experience in a certain place to dictate your own decision to go there. He compared the experience of the characters in the passage to his own, explaining that when his family and friends in Guinea see his photos on Facebook, they think he’s “made it” in America, when really he feels that the illusion he had before coming to this country has been tainted by the intensity of work and the lack of personal relationships that have been his reality here. He compared himself to the driver in our story, whose jaded perspective on life in a big city made him regret his decision to leave his home village. The SEGL French students asked him poignant questions to solicit these types of responses, and they also gained a perspective on the current elections and the state of the Guinean government. On our way out, we ran into the First Secretary for Cultural Affairs, who, though busy with arranging absentee voting that week, insisted that we return to the embassy for further exploration of Guinean culture at a later date. We hope to be able to do so!
Last week, we visited an embassy that is particularly relevant to what we study at SEGL, though no faculty member has ever visited before: Côte d’Ivoire. (Our Admissions pitch to prospective students involves the dilemma of eating chocolate that contains cacao harvested by Ivoirian child laborers.) The passage we read tied in well with the Guinean theme of disillusionment with a new place. The Ivoirian embassy was even harder to contact than the Guinean, and I realized – after two visits and numerous phone calls and unanswered emails – that most of the staff were at the United Nations this week with the visiting Ivoirian president. I was lucky enough to intercept a top Counselor, M. Leon Koffi Konan, on my second visit, and after explaining what we were discussing in this week’s class, he agreed to meet with us on Friday afternoon – despite being the acting Ambassador in the actual Ambassador’s absence! We had a fascinating conversation with him about his experiences as a diplomat, his first impressions of America, and how he reconciled his preconceptions with reality. We also discussed Côte d’Ivoire’s post-independence trajectory, and M. Konan eloquently referred to development as a figurative asymptote: the distance between where you are and where you want to be gets ever smaller as you approach your goal, but you can never quite reach it.
This week, our reading will take us to Senegal, and it is likely that we will have a conversation with the Ambassador himself, who happens to be a personal acquaintance. Senegal is the country that inspired me to focus my curriculum on francophone Africa in the first place: after spending much of my life in France-centric French classes, I spent a semester in Senegal during college and have maintained a relationship with my host family there ever since, returning every year or two to visit and to bring groups of high school students abroad. Through our miniature “case studies” this semester in French class, I, too, have learned more about the shared history of these former French colonies before independence and their varied trajectories since 1960. I jolted awake the other night with an idea that after analyzing the contemporary issues in a handful of these Franco-African countries, we could visit the French embassy to address the same questions of obligation and intervention that we grapple with in the Rwandan genocide case study and in current discussions of Syria. It’s just a dream for now, mais qui sait? Perhaps we’ll close out the semester with some thoughtful opinions to present to French officials about this difficult choice that they have to make time and again – in Rwanda, in Mali, and just this week in the Central African Republic. In any case, we will have many more opportunities to practice our French and to see the practical, quotidian use of what was once considered the language of international diplomacy. In the SEGL French classroom, at least, it still is!
Mairéad O’Grady teaches French and serves as Admissions Director at SEGL. She has a Bachelor’s degree from Grinnell College, where she majored in Music and French, receiving Honors in French and the Steiner Award for Scholarly Work in Music. Her love of French earned her a French Consulate grant to attend the “Festival des Francofolies” in southwestern France in 2007 and took her to Senegal for a semester abroad in 2008. After graduation, she spent more than a year in Thailand, where she worked officially as a Global Ambassador and English teacher at Payap University while unofficially leading bicycle tours and hiking trips and directing a high school musical. Mairéad also serves as the leader on service trips to Senegal with Walking Tree Travel, whose mission is to inspire high school students to become global citizens.