In January, as stipulated by my contract, I began teaching English in Roura, a small Creole village about 45 minutes southeast of Cayenne. Despite missing my students and colleagues in Saint-Georges (not to mention life on the Oyapock River and Brazilian border), I now reside with a lovely host family in a beautiful house in Roura.
The town is charming, made up of colorful private homes lining small quiet roads. There are only a few stray dogs (who have only threatened to attack me once), and not many cars or vehicles, except when school is beginning and ending. Roura is found at the intersection of the Oyak and Mahury rivers, with nothing but hills and pure jungle surrounding. It is quite different from Saint-Georges—the rivers are empty, not bustling with pirogues shuttling people to and from each border. There is one convenience store, a Creole restaurant that opens by reservation only, a natural park, a médiathèque (a tiny library and media center), a town hall, a post office, and a quaint old church constructed in the 1800s when the first Creole people settled the land. There isn’t even an ATM—the closest one is a half-hour drive away, so for people who don’t have a car, they have to hitchhike or get a ride from a friend. Taxi collectifs rarely come here. Most inhabitants work in Matoury, a larger nearby town or Cayenne. People come here to get away of the congestion of the commercial district, and I don’t blame them. It is quite idyllic, a kind of utopia in the jungle.
Ma Famille d’Accueil (My Host Family)
My host mom is from Alsace, a region in France that switched many times historically between France and Germany, and she works as a kindergarten-age teacher at the local elementary school where I teach English. My host father is from Togo in Africa, although he moved to France at a fairly young age to pursue his studies in education and teacher training. He is now working towards a Master’s degree in educational training and develops teacher training formations for local high schools in Cayenne.
They have four children: two sons at university in France, a 15-year-old son in lycée (high school), and a 12-year-old daughter in collège (middle school). I haven’t had the opportunity to meet the older sons, but I have listened to the rap CDs they have recorded. I love the boy and girl I live with, though: despite the fact that they are total opposites (much like my sister and I), their little battles are hilariously entertaining and when they get along it’s very sweet. The girl goes to school in Matoury, about half an hour away, and the boy goes to school in Cayenne, over an hour away on the bus in the morning traffic, making stops to pick up other students. The only two schools in this town are the preschool and elementary school.
The family left France in the early 2000s for Guyane because they wearied of the constant stress and pressure of working life there. They had also encountered little tolerance for being a racially mixed family—I was quite disappointed to hear this, since we always hear of France being so tolerant of human freedoms. My host parents applied for teaching positions in several of France’s Departements d’Outre Mer (overseas departments), and when they were assigned Guyane, they left and never looked back. They arrived much like we did: without housing or a clue of how to get anywhere. Luckily, they also benefitted from the kindness of strangers and found a family to take them in for their first few months. They have been happy here ever since.
La Maison (The House)
The house is a typical Creole house with two levels: the main living space on the top floor where you enter the house, and the children’s bedrooms on the bottom floor. The interior is painted all white, which gives it a light and airy feeling, particularly during the rainy season, with tile floor throughout. The doors and cabinetry are dark bois de Guyane (wood from Guyane). There is a large terrace overlooking a pool and the jungle below. It’s really quite lovely to be at the canopy level, with birds and sloths at eye-level—in Brazilian I had to look up to see these things.
I have my own room and bathroom, and my bed has a mosquito net! Given my strange predisposition to mosquito bites, I am quite happy about this. The money that I pay for rent includes meals with the family: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. My host mom is a wonderful cook, so I am eating much better than I was, mostly because I don’t have to rely on myself to conjure up something in the kitchen (if you know me, you know that this is my greatest weakness).
The family also has two cars and a boat, which makes it easier to get around to places like the grocery store and downtown Cayenne—no more taxi collectif! I usually walk to school because it’s so close, and in the evenings I like to enjoy a run down to the bridge across the enormous Mahury River, which leads to the sea.
Ma Routine (My Routine)
During the week, I work in the mornings and afternoons on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday at both la maternelle (preschool) and l’école (elementary school), teaching English to students ages 3 to 11. I eat my breakfast of Nutella and bread, grab my umbrella, and head out the door. I begin with the very little ones at the preschool, singing lots of songs and playing games. Later in the day I work my way up to the older students, giving them lots of practice speaking but also honing their writing skills with worksheets. Sometimes I help my host mom with the Eco Délégué (eco delegate) meetings at the elementary school: a group of older students who encourage their peers and the school administration to be environmentally friendly.
In the afternoon, there is a long hour-and-a-half break as la pause de midi. During this time, the family returns home to eat lunch. We always eat our biggest meal of the day at this time, usually a stew with rice or pasta
On Wednesdays, there is no school in Roura. Because the children go to school from so early in the morning to so late in the evening (4:00 pm), even with la pause de midi, they need a day off. My host mom and I clean the house in the morning, prepare lunch for the family, then take my host sister to her dance class. In that time, we go to the nearest supermarket, a huge giant of a food store, probably the closest thing to WalMart down here. Every time we walk out, I am floored by the prices and how much we’ve spent to feed a family of four (well, five, including me).
At night, everyone returns home from school or work and usually enjoys a quick siesta before getting back to homework or lesson planning. For me, I take an evening run once the temperature has cooled down. Dinner is a casual affair, the children and I eat at the kitchen table while the parents eat on the couch and watch the news on Guyane Première or Canal+.
Since I technically only work part-time as an English Teaching Assistant, I have no classes on Fridays, so I use that time to catch up on lesson planning, laundry, and visiting friends. Some weekends I spend traveling, while others I have passed quietly at home, enjoying the tranquility of this tiny town. On Saturdays, my host mom and I usually go to the market in Cayenne to pick up fresh local fruits and vegetables. Every week, there is a new kind of specimen I haven’t yet seen.
La Vie Scolaire (School Life)
When I first began working in Roura, the biggest shock for me was the difference in age and scholastic level of my students. I had grown so accustomed to teaching older kids, from ages 12 to 16, that I didn’t know how to handle the little ones, especially at the preschool. Instead of working with whole classes and a full-time English teacher to accompany me, as I did in Saint-Georges, here I am totally on my own. I like having control over my lesson plans, but I found at the beginning that I had trouble thinking creatively about how to keep the younger students occupied while learning at the same time. Slowly but surely, I have developed their respect and they are making more rapid progress than they were when I first arrived here.
Like in Saint-Georges, the student population is incredibly diverse. The kids are Creole, Guyanese, Amerindian, Brazilian, and French métropole (from metropolitan France). They all speak French (or are at least learning to) as well as another language: Creole, Amerindian, Taki Taki, or Portuguese. For this reason, it is even more difficult to teach English to them, as they already have no less than two languages taking up brain space. Sometimes, however, they surprise me and retain a song really well.
The school day is broken up into a morning and afternoon session, with la pause de midi and two periods of la récrée, la récréation (recess). Students at the elementary level have one teacher for all subjects, much like American and British schools. The music teacher and I are the only exceptions, taking small groups at a time.
Teachers often organize sorties (field trips), excursions to local attractions to expose the children to their own environment. For many of them, they don’t know much beyond their own backyard. The trips can be simple, such as a trip to the market in Cayenne to speak to the agriculteurs (farmers) and learn about regional crops. I participated in a sortie to an Amerindian heritage site, which included an outdoor exhibit of ancient rock carvings that were unique in all of South America to Guyane. It was fascinating—the most interesting thing I learned was that modern-day archaeologists consult the texts of early explorers traveling in Guyane to determine prehistoric sites of Amerindian villages, where they are likely to find pottery, rock carvings, and other artifacts.
Les Écoles (The Schools)
The public preschool and elementary school where I work are the only schools in Roura. Some students travel very far in the commune to get to them. There is a private bus contracted by the school to transport the children back and forth. Many children come from a small Amerindian community downriver, and they take a pirogue. Both schools each have a small library and cafeteria, where the students who live too far away to return home during la pause de midi are fed. Classrooms here are very well equipped with paper, colored pencils, markers, paint, glue, scissors—everything little kids need to develop at that age.
The walls of the elementary school are dark bois de Guyane (wood from Guyane), but the insides are painted white and covered in posters about everything from the local flora and fauna to world maps and vocabulary. At the center of the L-shaped group of classrooms is a large carbet (pavilion) where the children eat their snacks and play during la récrée (recess). They are not allowed to bring toys to school for two reasons: 1) If the toy gets broken, teachers should not be responsible; and 2) They promote jealousy, especially since the children come from varied economic backgrounds.
Administratively, there is one principal that serves both the école (elementary school) and the maternelle (preschool), as well as two speech instructors. Some of the students who have a learning disability (quite a few have severe vision impairment, while others have a physical handicap or behavioral problem) are partnered with an aide.
Looking ahead, my contract ends on the 17th of April. I submitted an application to extend it until the end of the school year, but evidently they only reserve a few slots for those of us who want to do so. I am still waiting to find out. As l’Académie de Guyane just appointed a new recteur (director), the department is a bit of an administrative mess at the moment.
In any case, I have made plans to travel to the United Kingdom, France, and Germany in late April and early May to visit family and friends. I am looking forward to seeing some familiar faces!
In the meantime, I’m quite content with the new but now familiar faces of my young pupils here in Guyane.