Rea­sons to Rhyme

How ABBA and Humpty Dumpty helped me teach English in Ethiopia

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Aida Ede­mariam

The sum­mer job wasn’t a rite of pas­sage when I was grow­ing up. Ethiopia in the eight­ies had a com­mu­nist command econ­omy, for one thing — jobs were scarce, gov­ern­ment is­sued, and often held for life. Food was ra­tioned and cloth­ing ba­sic, so there were no cloth­ing chains or Mcdon­ald’s or any of the other places where Cana­dian teens typ­i­cally find work. And sum­mer—well, it was the rainy sea­son, mean­ing there was a storm ( usu­ally with thun­der, some­times with hail) nearly ev­ery day. All I wanted to do was hun­ker down, read stacks of Agatha Christies, and wait for the sun to re­turn. But I did, nev­er­the­less, find work. My first job, when I was fif­teen, was teach­ing con­ver­sa­tional English to a group of Catholic nuns and priests. The school, a clus­ter of long, low build­ings set in wide gar­dens, was up the road from my home in Ad­dis Ababa. Given chalk, a black­board, and carte blanche, I treated it as a game, like those I had sub­jected my younger sib­lings to for years. I split my stu­dents, who ranged from early twen­ties to mid­dle age, into groups and gave them topics to dis­cuss. I taught them to play Si­mon Says. “Si­mon says stand on one leg.” “Si­mon says rub your tummy and pat your head.” “Stand on one leg, rub your tummy, and pat your head...ah, you’re out! I didn’t say, ‘Si­mon says’!” I asked them to imag­ine that they were his­tor­i­cal char­ac­ters tak­ing a trip in a sinking hot-air bal­loon. Whom would they throw out first? Could they ex­plain why? In English, please! I got them to write down the lyrics of pop songs and then led ren­di­tions of ABBA’S “Fer­nando,” “Danc­ing Queen,” and, es­pe­cially, “Money, Money, Money” — that an­them no­table for its col­li­sion of an in­fec­tious, up­beat tune and a bleak cap­i­tal­ist re­alpoli­tik. I thought this was amus­ing, though I’m not sure any­one else did. A cou­ple of sum­mers later, I taught English again. By this time, the coun­try’s lead­er­ship had changed, and with it the lan­guage of gov­ern­ment. Ethiopi­ans speak more than eighty liv­ing lan­guages. The so­lu­tion to this had pre­vi­ously been to re­quire ev­ery­one to be ed­u­cated in the lan­guage of the dom­i­nant group, which had been Amharic. Now ev­ery­one was to be lin­guis­ti­cally self-de­ter­min­ing, and chil­dren were to be taught in the lan­guage of their fam­i­lies. One char­ity, how­ever, wor­ried this would mean iso­la­tion for stu­dents, who might then grow up un­able to par­tic­i­pate in the wider world. They de­cided to help by pro­vid­ing English-im­mer­sion classes, start­ing in pri­mary school. The trou­ble was that few pri­mary-school teach­ers were trained to teach in English. And so the char­ity brought groups of them to Ad­dis for a sum­mer in or­der to get them up to speed. This time, I faced ap­prox­i­mately forty se­ri­ous-faced women, notebooks and pens at the ready. I was not a pri­mary-school teacher. I could not be­gin to help with les­son plans. But I could pro­vide trans­la­tions of use­ful phrases, and I did have a large fund of English nurs­ery rhymes. As Iquickly learned (and have since redis­cov­ered with my own young child), when in doubt, sing. So I sang. And then I wrote the words on the board and we all sang to­gether. We sang about plum pud­dings and tuffets, the old lady who lived in a shoe, and that other old lady who was tossed up in a bas­ket, nine­teen times as high as the moon. We sang about the grand old duke of York, the crooked man who went a crooked mile, Incy Wincy Spi­der, and Humpty Dumpty. We did this over and over again. Then, dur­ing one break a few days into the course, a small group of the women asked to speak with me. They liked learn­ing the songs, they said, but how, re­ally, were they to pro­vide an en­tirely English en­vi­ron­ment? They were work­ing hard in a lan­guage that was a sec­ond, even third or fourth, one for them. Les­son plans and games were man­age­able—just—but what about the lan­guage of com­fort and feel­ings? What if a small child were weep­ing, or missed her par­ents, or had been hurt, they asked me. Wasn’t it cruel to in­sist on re­ply­ing in a lan­guage the child didn’t un­der­stand? I made re­as­sur­ing noises, but I did not know the an­swers to these ques­tions nor did I have the author­ity to pro­vide any. Af­ter the break ended, I re­dou­bled my ef­forts with Humpty Dumpty. When in doubt...but, re­ally, there was too much doubt, and I could not see how some things could eas­ily be put to­gether again.

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