While the water project was progressing, we also initiated economic and social projects.
Since I had a degree and a passion for education, I was assigned to start the preschool. I spoke no Arabic, so I managed to get a few key words translated and began to gather a motley group of women who were interested in learning to become preschool teachers. There were the young unmarried ones, maybe 17 years old, like Moza and Gamalet. Magida, Om Gedullah, was an indomitable grandmother. Nadia and Wagida were of Nubian, black African descent. All of these women were willing to risk their social status in the community to do something no woman there had done before.
We had very little money, so we improvised. An older woman first donated the use of her front room. We bought a couple of plastic potties, a ream of paper, and 3 boxes of crayons. Luckily, since I had no Arabic, I could not speak to the kids, so I had to dramatically act out what to do, and the teachers made it happen. This prevented me from taking over, and made my work catalytic.
We tore the paper into half sheets, broke the crayons in half, and gave them to the kids. They had never seen a pencil or crayon before and scribbled happily, teachers joining in.
When I could get translation, and as my Arabic improved, the teachers and I began creating curriculum together.
One week the curriculum was about families. By this time we were in a cavernous dusty space built as a youth building, the nadi. We needed dolls, but there were none in the community. One of the teachers showed us a place where we could get clay that was used to make clay water jars. The teachers brought a big tub of clay and water to the nadi, and the first day’s lesson included making small dolls of clay and setting them out in the sun to dry. After class we all went to all the tailors in the village and begged for leftover scraps of cloth too small to use. When the dolls dried, we wrapped them in the scraps of cloth and played house with them. The teachers had never had dolls before, either, so sometimes it was not clear who was playing more, the teachers or the children.
Another time the curriculum was about life cycles. Birth was not difficult, as the children had all seen animals giving birth, although nobody talked about what was going on. We persuaded an old man named Barraket (“blessing”), who had Parkinson’s disease, to come and talk about what it was like to grow old. A hush descended on the group, as the children and young teachers thought about aging.
Death was the hardest topic in life cycles. We took the whole preschool out of the nadi to the edge of the desert, and stood in a circle. Wagida, old and wizened like a witch, lay down in the sun and dirt and lay very still until everyone thought she was really dead. Then we led a reflective conversation on death.
One day the government-appointed village administrator came during preschool class time to inform us that he had decided to turn the nadi into a garage for the government tractor, and that we would have to evacuate the building the next day. We had no other options at that point, since the village had no other vacant space. I strategically cried as I told him about the impact of the preschool on the community. He was helpless to resist the crying of a foreign woman, and gave us a month to find a new place.
Eventually someone offered an uninhabited mud house in the centre of the village, but it had no roof. We canvassed the farmers to get sorghum stalks and balanced them on sticks across the top of the walls to provide shade.
Meanwhile, someone started up an adult Arabic literacy class in the village, and my teachers as well as a few other women could be seen slipping across the village to the school in the shadows at dusk. By the end of a year and a half, the teachers were not only running the daily classes, but were also literate and planning curriculum on their own.
Village women in Egypt are known by the name of their oldest son. My village name was “Om Haroun”, “Mother of Aaron”. Every time someone called me that, I felt a knife through my heart, I missed my son so much. About 7 months into the project, we had clean water in the village and a safe place to live, and we decided it would be safe for our now almost 2-year-old to be with us.
So one day during the Khamsin, the 50 days of strong winds at the end of March, I was on my way to Cairo on my own to return some borrowed books. I was to send a telex asking if Aaron could be sent with a new couple that was coming. I had never traveled on my own in Egypt, so I procrastinated leaving. Wayne was sick in bed. The air was heavy with dust and humidity. Finally, in late afternoon, Nadia’s brother Jamel was ready with his felucca to take a load across the Nile. I sat in the boat with my heavy bag of books, head down, worried about the trip. Suddenly, in the middle of the Nile, I heard someone shouting my name, in English! “Jo! Jo Nelson!” I looked around, and there in a felucca coming the other way, was the new couple, Jean and Mark, and between them, a small, very white, fat child. Suddenly I was standing in the boat, calling out “Ebni, ebni! – My son, my son!” All the villagers in both boats started shouting “Haroun! Haroun henna! — It’s Aaron! He’s here!”. The boatmen brought the two boats together in the middle of the Nile and I jumped ship and went back to Bayad.
Normally when a child of that age is separated from his parents for that length of time, it takes a long time for them to connect again. Aaron was calling Jean mama. I somehow managed to corral the one taxi that served Bayad and bundle us all into it. As we bounced the mile to the veterinary building where we lived, I winked at Aaron in Jean’s lap. He winked back at me. By the time we got to the biteraya, he came to my arms and called me mama. Then he asked, “Where dada?” As we went up the stairs, all our staff came out to welcome the newcomers. As he saw each man, he said “Dada?” and I had to say no. Eventually we made it to our room. Wayne got out of bed in his galabaya (Egyptian farmer dress) and I said, “There’s Dada!” Aaron took one look at him in the long skirts and buried his head in my shoulder. I said to Wayne, “Quick, put on a pair of pants!” and he did. Aaron looked at him in pants, said “Dada!” and went to his arms.
By that time, all my preschool teachers were gathered under our window, calling out “Haroun! Auseen shuf Haroun! – We want to see Aaron!” I held him up to the window and they jumped up and down shouting “Gameel – Beautiful!” Needless to say, when he went to preschool the next week, they spoiled him mightily.
There is much more to this story, but let me draw it to a close here for now. Before I went to Egypt, I thought I was generous. When people went hungry in order to share food with me, I learned radical generosity. I thought I was dedicated to development, until I learned from Abdel Hamid that dedication means taking great risks – and loss — to make a better future. I thought I was passionate about education, until I worked with women who were willing to risk their entire social status to become preschool teachers. I thought I was selfless, until I saw that what I was getting back from my work was more than I was giving.
Now I know deep in my being that every single person has wisdom about what they want and need, and my job in history is to draw that out to form consensus and commitment to take them into the future.
Dear Jo, A very touching account, especially that vignette of being reunited with your son and the response of the villagers to that event. It is amazing how similar many of the things your mentioned in your account was to my experience of working in villages in India. Like you, I am so glad to have had these experiences – they are a treasure trove of food for thought.