Pushing our children to overachieve — even in Africa

The Huang family newsletter

july 2019
While we were still in language school in France, someone had told us about preschool opportunities for Nolan at Bongolo.

Preschool? That sounds wonderful!

Nolan’s best friend in France, Toby (who was several months older than Nolan and, more importantly, potty-trained) had been going to French preschool during our time there. It sounded like it had been a great opportunity for Toby to socialize, learn French, and get involved in the community. We thus looked forward to putting our firstborn child into a local preschool for the first time.

After all, it’s preschool. How different could it be?
Easy for you to say, Mom and Dad — but I'm the guinea pig here.
Thus, a few weeks after landing in Gabon, we found ourselves touring the local, private, Catholic preschool. (In fact, preschool here is basically always private, as public education doesn’t start until grade 1 at age 6.) Nearly 200 children crowded alongside several long, boring, cement buildings which partially surrounded a worn, grassy field. A few chickens, one tree, some precariously low power-lines, and an empty flagpole otherwise populated the schoolyard. Numerous children were running and playing; many more were enjoying their morning snack that their parents had packed for them, throwing their empty bag of chips on the ground after they finished.
A typical classroom at preschool. Normally about 30 students would fit on these three tables.
Peeking into the classrooms revealed dark rooms with a number of long tables and wooden benches. A solitary light bulb in each room hung from the ceiling, unused. A chalkboard was filled with immaculate, cursive writing: the alphabet, the days of the week, the months of the year. A small Gabonese flag was taped to the board.
The learning items listed include pets, wild animals, the number 4, and proper respect for the flag.
We sat unceremoniously into the director’s office, a stout woman with haughty face who spent several minutes writing something in a large ledger on her desk before acknowledging our presence. Finally, we proceeded to ask her our questions, to which she had short, clip answers.

How many kids were there here?

Six classes, about 30 kids per class. Two classes for the 3-year-olds, two for the 4-year-olds, and two for the 5-year-olds.

How much did it cost?

Excluding enrolment and uniform fees, 5000 francs (about US $8.50) per month.

What were the hours?

8:00 to 11:30 AM, five days a week.

Could we send him less than five times a week?

Yes, but the price remained the same.

Were there any other foreigner kids?

Yes, many. Burundians, Congolese, Malians...

Um, but, like, non-African foreigners?

No. Never had one before.
We thanked the director and left. Recess had finished, and the kids were in their dark and cramped classrooms with their heads down on the tables, taking a mandatory rest. Between a long recess and the rest time thereafter, we wondered when there was any time to do actual teaching.

Suddenly, sending our only son to preschool seemed like a much bigger decision than we had expected. No other Westerner from Bongolo had ever sent their kids there. Was there a reason we didn’t know about? Should we send him when he would be the only visible minority? Would he be safe? Would he be bullied? Would he be traumatized? Would the other kids ever stop touching his lighter skin or his black-but-not-curly hair? Would he actually learn anything?
Nolan arrives on his first day of preschool and meets his teacher.
We are now happy to report, some 8 months later, that Nolan seems to have thrived at preschool. He goes three times a week, catching a ride with five or six other kids from our station and immediate neighbourhood. (The other two mornings a week are spent homeschooling with Kimberley in Mandarin.)
The Bongolo station carpool includes a number of other kids, most of whom are children of African physicians. The preschool is just over 5 km from the hospital.
It’s not to say that preschool is completely fine and dandy. The weaknesses of African primary education (notably, the emphasis on rote-memorization and the lack of developing critical thinking skills) are evident even from the earliest stages of preschool. The short, academic calendar also leaves much to be desired.

Additionally, there are days where Nolan screams and cries and says he doesn’t want to go. We worry: is this a warning sign? Is it because he’s being abused at school somehow? Or is it all normal?
For the most part, however, Nolan comes home at lunchtime in a happy mood. He tells us who he played with at recess and rarely tells us what sort of activities he did during school time. He notes somewhat disdainfully that some of the other kids will call him le blanc (that is, the white one), instead of by his actual name, though it doesn’t seem to bother him nearly as much as it does his definitely-not-white parents. He’s gotten good marks on his 16-point report card from his teacher.
Honestly, we were surprised that Nolan's teacher observed so many items, including poetry recitation, road safety, letter tracing, and colouring inside the lines.
He’s made friends amongst our African neighbours. He regularly tastes African life outside of our cloistered station. He’s even learning the Gabonese national anthem at school (apparently).

And perhaps most satisfying for us, his French has improved immensely. We’re looking forward to sending him back to school in the fall (or, the short rainy season, as it were).

And now...for some family pictures!

For the end-of-year school celebration, all the students had tailored outfits made of the same fabric pattern.
Nolan poses with his preschool teacher and his year-end portfolio.
We took a one-night weekend trip to the Gabonese coast. While the surf & sand were great, the kids vomiting on the winding road there and back was not.
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Copyright © 2019 The Huang Dynasty, All rights reserved.

This newsletter is about Andrew, Kimberley, Nolan, Solène and Ewen Huang, and their time in France, Gabon, Australia, and beyond.

The views and opinions expressed here are solely ours, and they do not necessarily represent those of Samaritan's Purse or World Medical Mission.

The Huang Dynasty PO Box 820152 Vancouver, WA 98682 USA
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