The Pink Eraser

by Kate Collins Faber (Arjo 97–99)

AFTER DRIVING FOR TEN HOURS and passing several small villages, I was convinced that the next stop had to be Arjo. And, after two more villages, it was. On the way into town, Arjo appears to be a fairly large village with clusters of tin-roofed houses lining the gravel road. It is only upon passing through the town in a matter of five minutes that one realizes just how small it is.

As soon as the car stopped, what seemed like the whole village, or at least everyone under twelve, came out to watch the farengi unload all her worldly goods. Farenji is a term used to describe anyone who is not Ethiopian. It can be welcoming, hostile, or comical depending on who’s saying it. In this case, it was welcoming. I proceeded to unload my things as quickly as possible, only to end up wondering, as the Peace Corps vehicle drove off, what I had possibly gotten myself into.

The next morning my site-mate and I went to school with hastily prepared lesson plans in case we would actually have to teach. There didn’t seem to be any activity beyond standing around, greeting each other, and being assessed as the new arrivals. We were the first Peace Corps Volunteers to enter Ethiopia after a 20-year absence. As the only women teachers in the town, and the only foreigners, we were by far the most interesting topic of conversation. Unfortunately, we exhausted our command of Oromifa, the local language, after a few exchanges. After dazzling everyone with our rehearsed lines, the gap between basic conversation and fluency became increasingly apparent.

When we finally ventured into the town in search of food and entertainment, we realized that, although the town itself was very small, the youth population appeared to be growing at an alarming rate, judging by the crowd of small children that followed us. Having explored all possibilities for recreation, we returned to the school determined to start teaching.

While the other teachers competed in the Wimbledon of table tennis, we went to class armed with elaborate 4MAT lesson plans and visions of an interactive classroom. The dark mud-floored room was crammed with over forty students, most sitting three to a desk, many older than me even though it was ninth grade, and all staring at the blonde-haired and blue-eyed farengi who had come to teach them English. I was met with blank looks in the classroom and uproarious laughter as soon as I left.

Completely consumed with the thought of what I was going to teach, I forgot that I would also need chalk and an eraser. The first day I got by with a small stub of chalk and a piece of paper as an eraser. The next day I arrived with several pieces of chalk and a bandanna as an eraser.

Finally, I thought, things were beginning to fall into place. The students' laughter seemed to be confined to my mispronunciation of their names and a few students were starting to raise their hands and cautiously participate. After an exhausting first week, I arrived in class on Friday and realized I had forgotten my trusty bandanna. I vowed to use the board sparingly so I wouldn’t actually have to erase anything. Obviously flustered, I continued the lesson as best I could and counted the minutes until the bell rang. Practically running from the classroom, I tried to put the whole week behind me and concentrate on relaxing over the weekend.

As I left the class, one of my female students came running after me, calling, "Teacher, Teacher." She had yet to speak in class, and I didn’t recall her name. "Teacher, duster, for you," she said as she handed me a small, pink, cloth eraser she had sewn for me. The gesture took me completely by surprise and, given the ups and downs of the previous week, I practically wept with gratitude. Despite the amused looks of my fellow teachers, I happily carried that eraser with me everywhere I went. Now I could get to work!

Kate Collins Faber was an education Volunteer. She also worked to construct a latrine for the female students at her secondary school. She has a B.A. in English from Georgetown University.

This essay first appeared in Peace Corps: The Great Adventure (Peace Corps/USGPO, 1997, 1999)

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