Saturday, February 5, 2011

Hit Happens: Corporal Punishment in Mozambique

This afternoon I set myself up on the veranda to enjoy the fading daylight. Just as I opened my book, the neighbor boys spotted me and asked for English help. How could I say no? They ran off for their notebooks then crowded around my chair. I helped them answer questions like “What is your name?” and “How old are you?” We repeated the pronunciation until I could at least decipher what they were saying. Then they sat at my feet to copy the answers into their notebooks. Their writing was interrupted now and then with questions.

Pretty soon they bored of English and the conversation moved on to other subjects.
“Ugh, tomorrow we have phys ed! Our phys ed teacher is really crappy.”
“He likes to hit children.”
“Oh no! Hitting children is bad.”
“No, hitting children is not bad. You must hit them in the ‘primary area.’ Hitting them in the ‘secondary area’ is illegal.”
“What?!? What is the ‘secondary area?’”
“Private school... I think.”

Clearly the kids were confused about the definition of the “secondary area.” I was just disturbed to find out that hitting was sanctioned by the school system. Hitting children is wrong, regardless of what “area” it’s in. Of course I have seen students being hit, but I had hoped that it was at least technically prohibited even if that rule wasn’t enforced. Perhaps this explains an episode earlier this week.

I had finished my class but stayed in the classroom to write in the grade book. The next period’s teacher came in but said I could stay and continue working while he taught. He asked the students to open their notebooks to their homework and began walking around the room checking, ruler in hand. Whenever a student presented unsatisfactory work, which was nearly every student, he proceeded to whack them repeatedly about the head and shoulders with a ruler. Some students laughed nervously, others flinched, others hunkered down and took it.
“No, you must write ‘y’ here! How can you forget to write ‘y?!’ Hurry up, write it, write it!”
Whack, whack, whack.
“Where’s your ruler? Rulers cost 4,5 MTN! How dare you come to class without your ruler!”
Whack, whack, whack.
“This isn’t your homework. These are exercises we did in class! Don’t lie to me!”
Whack, whack, whack.

I watched silently. Clearly the students were used to such treatment. Clearly it was ineffective. I don’t think it was hurting them physically, but the psychological toll was obvious. When he got to one of the female students she nearly dove under her desk. “What? Are you scared of a ruler? It doesn’t even hurt!” He said, but the girl was gun-shy. I had noticed this early on when I pretended to tap students on the head with a stack of papers. The way they flinched indicated a history of abuse.

Hitting is not confined to school. Far from it. Hitting seems to be the only form of discipline in Mozambican households. If a child has a black eye and you ask where he got it, he will tell you, “I was hit.” If you ask why, he will respond, “because I fell playing and scraped my knee.” As if a scraped knee wasn’t lesson enough.

Valerie and Louise understand the hitting problem all too well. They both work at a preschool here and are constantly trying to get the preschool teachers to employ alternative methods of discipline. When one child hits another, a common occurrence at a preschool, the teacher punishes the child by hitting him. The volunteers tried to explain that hitting a child only teachers him to hit others.
“It is never necessary to hit a child,” they said. “There are other methods of discipline.”
To which the teachers responded, in all sincerity, “there are other methods??”

Living in a place where hitting children is standard practice made me think about what discipline was like in American schools 50 years ago. I was fortunate to grow up in a school environment where hitting was not allowed, but a generation before me hitting was still acceptable discipline. Two generations before me children were whipped or hit with rods. I expect that Mozambique follows the same trend and I hope that the next generation of Mozambican students never experiences this abuse. Non-violent discipline can be far more effective, but it requires creativity, persistence and an understanding of child psychology. I hope that students and teachers will learn from the example of Peace Corps volunteers and see that there is a better way.

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