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Project Overseas (CTF-FCE) – by Nadia Charest

I was selected from amongst my peers to travel to Benin, West Africa for Project Overseas to conduct teacher workshops there. While it was a tremendous honour to have been chosen and even though I was excited to be immersed in a culture I knew very little about, I admit to having struggled with the preparations. I was quite concerned that my identity as a white, 50-year-old woman would seem imperialistic. I wanted to share my experience and convey what I found to be good practices. I put a lot of time researching the material I would present to ensure it would reflect on the people I was going to share with. I also struggled with the language. Despite my name being French, I am not fluent in written French. My identity, the language barrier, and the difficulty I had visualizing how I would conduct the teacher workshops were my first hurdles. Because of these concerns which were all valid, there was some anxiety while preparing for the workshops, but still, I focused on making sure that I would not need to freewrite in front of the participants. Despite these struggles, the monthly team meetings were encouraging and helpful. All this to say, while this trip to conduct teacher workshops in Benin was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I was so grateful to have been a part of, it was also a tough and grueling experience. This is why, when asked about it, I hesitate to answer as I am filled with wonderful yet conflicting emotions.

On the two days prior to my departure where the first stop was in Ottawa to meet with my team, I faced the dilemma of what to pack and bring along. No one told me how to pack! I didn’t know what attire to bring, how much food to take with me, and whether I should carry stationery. Inevitably, I overpacked and brought a heavy suitcase that caused me a lot of aggravation and back pain. With the help of my supportive team and the determination not to let this hinder my experience, I was able to endure the pain and discomfort. The three days spent in Ottawa were a great opportunity to bond with my team and learn about the goal of Project Overseas. They helped me understand the importance of working in partnership rather than dictating terms.

After 16 hours of travel time, we arrived at the Benin airport and were met there by our hosts for the cultural exchange on Saturday night. They then took us to our hotel for a meet-and-greet supper. I was a little nervous and struggled to keep up with what they were saying, secretly hoping it was only fatigue playing tricks on me.

The next day, we convened with the team with whom we would collaborate during the workshops. Nicole, our team leader, did the orientation at our first meeting, which was an absolute relief as I was still adjusting to the incredible heat, time zone change, and the language and didn’t feel ready to handle it.

Each of us presented our first workshop, and our partners were to choose whom they wanted to work with first. Two men, who were school inspectors, and two women, who were teachers, talked amongst themselves and came back to tell us whom they had chosen. One of the inspectors chose me. When we got together to discuss my proposed workshop, he countered with a different idea of what I was to present. It seemed he either didn’t understand what I was communicating to him or he didn’t know what was discussed in the meeting. This left me feeling out of sorts and a bit insecure about how the next week would unfold.

After the meeting, we were treated to a visit of the city.

As I read through my journal entry from the first day of our workshops in collaboration with our partners, it reflected how nervous and insecure I was feeling here. In my journal, I wrote: “I already feel it like a blanket slowly enveloping me, the heat ever-present, thick and sticky.” It had been a long, long time since I had been in an environment where I doubted my abilities; did they pick the right person? Would I be able to make an impact or will I end up wasting their time? Fortunately, my team leader was a natural – I think she sensed my confidence wavering because her confidence helped ease some of my tensions.

The participants arrived early in their bright-coloured clothes and eyes wide with curiosity, ready for holding their copybooks, eagerly anticipating the start of the workshops. When the time came, the team leader introduced us and started the session with a song. This helped ease the tension among the participants and our team. We divided the participants into four groups and then each of us was instructed to take a corner of the room. I walked over to one corner, with my whiteboard, a marker, and my partner. The group I was starting with dragged their heavy chairs over to me in my corner while I waited nervously to begin. As soon as I started speaking, I quickly realized that nobody understood me. Luckily, my partner helped me by translating everything I said so I was able to keep going. I gave the participants Post-it notes to write down their objectives but the activity took a lot longer than expected, and we had to stop before we could finish. To my dismay, I noticed that the objective of the activity was completely missed. Moreover, it was difficult for me to hear and understand the participants because of the intense noise level in the room with all four groups talking at once.

When it became clear that what I was trying to convey was not being understood by the participants, my partner took over and from what I could understand, my partner himself didn’t seem able to speak for me. He too, it seemed, did not understand. He had not conveyed what I was trying to express to the point where one of the groups disagreed with him. This clear misunderstanding and misrepresentation of what I want to present left me feeling completely deflated.

Our team met and came to the consensus that the setup was not conducive to meeting our needs. I volunteered to move out into the hallway, which luckily wasn’t busy but at this point it was evident I had lost control of my workshop. I needed to make some changes, and quickly. So, I looked around and adapted to the groups and the environment. Overall, the workshops improved.

Once we completed all the workshops, we met again as a team to discuss how things went. Even though my partner enjoyed his day, we agreed that the hall was challenging to work in. We arrived at the hotel at 6 p.m., ordered our food, and I took some time in my hotel room with my team leader. After supper, we made posters to put up on the wall for our participants, summarizing what we had done the previous day. We called it a night at 10 p.m., and I fell asleep quickly. As the week progressed and I worked with other team members, I continually adapted my workshops, finding my voice and making them more interactive. The improvements kept coming.

And so it was, at the beginning of the week I was crying from despair, and by Thursday I cried with joy. I had found my rhythm, and the participants were thoroughly enjoying my workshops. Some of them even expressed their desire to try these methods in their own classrooms. What’s more, the attendees were now more involved in the workshops, viewing us as collaborators rather than mere lecturers. We had some great discussions going around our little circle. On the last day of the first group, one of the participants who initially seemed skeptical of my methods came up to me and thanked me for the love and care I put into my work. That was the best part of it all – I was giving back.

Over the weekend, our host took us for what was to be an emotional visit of “la Route des Pêches.” This is a route that had once been used by those who were captured and sold into slavery. They were chained and taken to the ships waiting at the coast then transported to the Americas to be sold. Learning about this history was an honour and a moving experience. Additionally, we visited a city built entirely on water, called Ganvie, the Venice of Africa. Our hosts were excellent about sharing their culture and proud to show us the beauty of their country. I was very grateful to have had this experience.

In our last week, we met 50 new participants. Word had gotten around and we received a much better response than our first time around. These participants were enthusiastic and ready to receive what we came to do. I learned from my previous mistakes and readjusted my workshops, which worked out much better this time. On Thursday, before our last day, I was in for a lovely surprise. They had planned a birthday celebration and everyone was waiting for me, making my day even more special.

“If I were to sum up my experience in Benin, I would say it was both exasperating and exhilarating. Nevertheless, I hold great appreciation for this opportunity that was given to me to offer workshops in Benin and in the process, to learn and grow from it as well. This experience has made me more conscious and mindful of the environment in which I teach.”                                                                                 

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