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Sounds from the Central African Republic in a classroom in Heerlen

Sounds from the Central African Republic in a classroom in Heerlen

Theatre performance around Marieke Hopman's research project

Bang! Playwright Daniel van den Broeke beats on an old-fashioned school desk with a  chicotte , a whip made from wood and several strands of rubber, used in schools in the Central African Republic (CAR). The three VWO4 pupils from Sintermeertencollege in Heerlen who are sitting at the desk jump with fright. With their classmates, they will be shown today not just what it is like to be a child in CAR, but also what research Marieke Hopman carried out into the right to education while she was there.

When Hopman, a philosopher currently based at the Faculty of Law in Maastricht, returned from CAR, she wanted to share her research with the world. She asked teachers, parents but especially children what the right to education meant to them. Of course, there are the official methods: articles and lectures. “But that usually attracts a certain audience, those who are already interested in the subject,” says Hopman. The idea of a theatre performance arose when her brother, who is a theatrical producer, was doing his graduation project. When she spotted Van den Broeke’s engaging performance on De Parade festival, she knew that she wanted to work with him. “Fortunately, Marketing and Communication also saw this as a good way to give pupils at schools insight into the work of a researcher and was prepared to invest money in the project.”

The VWO4 pupils are silent as Van den Broeke tells them that 88 per cent of the children in the African country are regularly beaten with a chicotte. They are standing in a circle around him and his school desk, with headphones on their heads. Through them, they hear sounds from an African schoolyard that Hopman recorded during her research. We hear birds chirping, the hum of children and Van den Broeke’s voice taking on various roles. That of the teacher, the child, the school inspector and a Western journalist. But there is also music: drums, children singing and rapper Umberto, who uses his songs to draw attention to the situation in his country.

Because the situation is not good at all, says Hopman to the pupils in a discussion afterwards. “It is the poorest and unsafest country in the world. You would be better off in Syria.” The performance made quite an impression on many of them. “What do you have to do to deserve corporal punishment?” a girl asks. “That depends on the teacher, but giving a wrong answer is one thing,” says Hopman. “But that is exactly why you are in school?” a bewildered girl reacts. A student who gives a wrong answer in CAR is seen to be lazy, Hopman explains. “People think that by hitting, the children will remember better. Beatings are never carried out in anger or frustration; it is a regular pedagogical method. They think that they are putting children at a disadvantage if they don't beat them, that they won't be able to get the most out of their studies.”

There is a moment in the performance when Van den Broeke, in the role of a teacher, says to a girl that she has to stay after school. That was cause for a lot of reactions. Sexual abuse is a huge problem in schools there, says Hopman. “Sexually transmitted grades is what they call it. Girls have sex with their teachers for a higher grade so that they can pass into the next year. An extra complication – besides pregnancies – is that many teachers have HIV/AIDS.”

Should we do something about this here, Hopman asks the group. One boy is quite definite: “It is not our responsibility nor the responsibility of our politicians. They have to focus on our problems.” Others think that something should be done, but what and by whom, that is the big question. “You can't do much as an individual,” someone remarks. A classmate disagrees. “The first step towards a solution is always taken by a single person. Someone has to take the initiative.” Hopman says that she has doubts every day as to whether her contribution is useful. “I want to listen carefully, share the stories, make people aware, and talk to people there about things such as an alternative for the chicotte. But will that ultimately bring any change? I don't know.”

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