Coming to Terms with My American Dream

I was walking down the street, calling out my usual Hausa greetings when suddenly a man greeted me in perfect English. That stopped me short. In a country where less than half of the men and less than a third of the women have even attended primary school, foreign language skills are a rarity. Most of the time that I am greeted in English, I’m either greeted in the confused English of the middle school boys (i.e. “Good morning sir” to me, a woman, at 5:30 in the evening) or the broken English from the men who have spent time working manual labor jobs in Nigeria (such as: “Wherez you goin?”). There are three men who greet me in proper English; all three of them are teachers. This man was not one of them.

So I stopped and chatted with him for a bit before finally asking him, “Where did you learn English?” He responded that he learned it in the middle school and that he was the best in his class. I couldn’t help but ask him, “So, what do you do now?” He told me that he is a builder and my heart nearly sank to the floor. It wasn’t so much that there is anything wrong with being a builder but simply that there isn’t a lot of architectural skill to building in Niger. You build bricks out of mud. You let them dry in the sun. You mix clay and manure and put it in between the bricks in a square-like formation and then you throw a tin roof on top. I’m not trying to downplay Nigerien construction—its hard manual labor and I certainly couldn’t do it. But that’s the thing: its hard manual labor, not the type of labor that requires English or any education at all for that matter.

I teach English in Safo’s middle school. I have close to 100 students, all around fourteen years old. I would like to think that their hard work will pay off, that the ones who succeed at their studies will go on to high school and then university. Unfortunately, I recently read a book called Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell that thoroughly destroyed my belief in the rags-to-riches American dream.

The book looked at success stories—everyone from geniuses to lower-income kids who overcome the statistics against them and attend college. In every story, there were a series of factors that led to success: hard work, timing, culture and just plain dumb luck. At one point Gladwell looked at the births of hockey players and decided he could accurately predict who would become a professional simply by looking at their birthday. This has nothing to do with horoscopes but rather is shaped by the cut-off birth date for each age group; players that are old for their age group are simply more likely to do better since they are more mature.

Of course, there’s not a ton of hockey in the Sahel Desert but what I took from Gladwell’s book is that hard work alone doesn’t lead to success. The probability that any of my students will make it to university is very, very slim. First, they need to graduate my middle school with unbelievably high scores on a test that is given in a language that none of them speak at home (French). Then, they have to have the money and the connections to move to a large town where there is a high school. Lastly, they need to have the money to move to one of four major cities to attend a Nigerien university or, if their English is good enough, a university in Nigeria.

Money isn’t the only problem. Particularly for the girls in my class, their culture is a major impediment to their education. Most Nigeriens simply don’t believe that women need to be educated. A Nigerien women plays a very simple role in society: have as many children as possible (preferably male), keep the house clean and cook good food. Obviously, none of these tasks require so much as a primary school education, much less a university one.

This does not mean, of course, that I am giving up. There is always a chance that one of them could make it and, despite the near impossibility of my very American dream, one of the many quotes on a wall of my mud house says “you’ve got to have a dream to make a dream come true.” Cheesy, maybe but when you live in the poorest country in the world, you’ve got to have something to keep you going.