Monday, May 10, 2010

Girl Power

Yesterday, the vast majority of my time was spent procrastinating writing a lesson plan for my Junior Achievement meeting today and dreading the pending meeting in general. When I woke up this morning after tossing and turning all night the meeting looked even more formidable. A fight with the taxi driver who wanted to charge me a ridiculous rate and the lycee technique professor's shock when I requested a flip chart or chalkboard be brought into the room weren't good omens either. I became even more panicked when the two professors who were supposed to help me told me that they weren't going to sit in on the meeting and left. With that, I was left with 36 high school students, at least the number dropped from 47, in a room with no writing utensils, but from there things took a surprising upswing.

At first I did have trouble controlling the class. I wanted to open with introductions. I introduced myself and then asked everyone to say their name, their specialty at the lycee technique, what they wanted to learn from Junior Achievement, and what their favorite Senegalese dish is. Most of the students were not listening to each other and talking which made it very difficult to hear the students introducing themselves, but when I called out one boy for making up a dish, in Wolof no less, I think a lot of people took notice that I wasn't going to take any sh*t. The most interesting part of the introductions were the answers about Junior Achievement. Every single person said they wanted to learn how to make money. I could have predicted this answer. The higher pursuit of knowledge isn't a big draw here.

My first question was "is there a specific business need in Thies." This was greeted with blank stares. Creativity not being a big thing here, someone ventured a guess of car repair shop. There are only 29387498725 auto shops on my street alone, but another student did jump on this fact and the discussion started rolling from their. The students did understand there there needs to be differentiation for your business to survive and prosper, but they had no idea how to make that happen. After a few minutes of this discuss an especially cocky boy told everyone that he had opened his own "froid" shop, which means refrigerators, air conditioning, and other things along that vein, but he wasn't getting any business because he doesn't think there's any demand in Thies.

Fortunately, he let me use his business as an example and from there the discussion really took off. The first aspect of a business we discussed was the name of the business, which no one thought was important. His business was some word in Diallo, which is one of the ethnic groups here, and which only about 1/3 of the class actually knew. The owner didn't think the name was important even after so few people actually knew what it meant so I proposed an example. There's a restaurant here called Les Delices or Delicious and I said that I was going to opened a restaurant called Disgusting. Everyone laughed, but everyone also got my point and we brainstormed some more creative names for an air conditioning store like Anti-Heat or The Cooling Station. It was fascinating how intense the discussion became and how little marketing knowledge is out there. Some people were really catching on while others were skeptical that any business strategies could actually affect their bottom line.

We then discussed how we could differentiate generally available services since all of the students already have their certificates and a set of skills from the lycee technique. One girl, who is obviously whip smart, posed the idea of working together and opening a store that offers multiple services. She was then absolutely attacked by the majority of other students. Profit sharing was absolutely unthinkable even if the risks would also be shared. While almost everything is shared here: food, beds, homes etc. the thought of collaborating on a business was abhorrent. With their distaste of working together fresh in my mind I split them up into groups to start their own businesses.

Since we don't have a lot of time until summer recess and the book provided by JA for the high school program is slightly ridiculous, I started to make my own lesson plan with the idea of making JA a competition and pitting the different specialties against each other. No one was very enthused by the idea of working together, except maybe the one brave girl who originally had the idea, but my promise of a prize at the end and an actual judging panel of "experts" swayed popular opinion.

The groups' tasks for today were to come up with a creative business idea, a good name, and an interesting write-up they could put on a flyer as a marketing tool. One interesting observation was which groups were really working. There are four girls in the class two girls with the "froid" specialty and two as metal workers and those two groups were really getting the information and making good progress, the three other groups composed of all boys weren't nearly as motivated. I don't want to make any sweeping generalizations, but Go Girls!

I had a couple of people come up to me after the meeting to tell me it was interesting which made me feel good and I hope that I did a fairly decent job and that people didn't have too difficult a time understanding my Frolof.

From the lycee technique I ran over to Dioss' because we had a meeting with one of the schools were we're going to do an art atelier with the supplies my aunt's class is sending. We have a date on the books so I'm really excited about that and we're going to visit the other school tomorrow.

It was a fairly exhausting although very satisfying morning so I hung out at home for the rest of the day. I ate some ceebu jenn for lunch and then sat down with my host brother Ziabata who had some English questions. He's currently working at a factory with some British people who don't speak French and not surprisingly, is having some difficulty communicating. He had me write down some basic phrases that he could practice or show to the Brits if they didn't understand. My favorite part of this interaction was at the end when he told me that he is so much more tired each day after work because he has communication issues. It makes his work so much harder. He neglected to make the connection to the fact that he had just described my every day life...


  1. Wow what an interesting day!!! Among other things I'm fascinated that there are girls with backgrounds in HVAC and metal working. That is uncommon in the US. I would like to hear more about them. Is it common for women to own businesses?

  2. Alyssa,

    It sounds like a great day and that your aprehension about leading the class should be gone. It will not be clear sailing but calling out the one boy and having students come up after is great. Hopefully they will do their homework and think about the issues that you raised. Did you mention the issue of communication to your brother after his comment. Maybe you can get even more street cred.


  3. Wow Alyssa,

    What a great day! What is the saying... "Educate a women and you educate the whole village." Something like that. What an interesting class. I can't wait to hear more about the JA progress and the kids.

    Aunt Cindy