They arrive in small groups. Each group in uniforms that differ only slightly from girl to boy, but greatly between groups. A few with head coverings for the girls. Several with school emblems or insignia on pockets. Some dresses; some pants; no real consistency except neatness.
Black shoes and white socks appear almost a requirement for girls, although styles vary. Ruffled socks and patent leather Mary Jane's being favored by the youngest girls; sport socks and ballet type slip-ons by the oldest. Only an occasional tennis shoe.
For boys, ties appear the common denominator. Although also, tucked in shirts. And belts holding up pants. Only one boy wears a belt that comes close to testing the outer limits of permissible.
It is early Thursday morning when they arrive. I arrived Monday evening after a full day of travel. Three continents in twenty six hours, with enough time changes that my hour count could well be off.
My two days here have not yet given me a sense of the country.
The children come from nearby schools. Their travel has not been far, although road conditions may have made it long.
They are a well behaved group as they sit on folding chairs surrounding the open air stage at the U.S. Embassy in Benin, West Africa.
They are semi-finalists in a debate contest sponsored by the Embassy--twenty-four teams of three; eight teams in each of three age groups; ages ranging from seven to sixteen. Twelve teams will move on to finals that will be held next month. Three teams will ultimately win. I hear hints that Kindles will be awarded.
I arrive as a judge. Chosen partly because I'm a native English speaker. But mainly because my daughter is one of the persons in charge of the contest. She's not quite sure what to do with me for my month long visit. The contest promises to take up a full day.
It is serious business. The sheet describing the day's events lists debates about plural marriage, the role of parents in teen pregnancy, the importance of world history versus national history, the value of co-ed schools, among others.
The topics amaze me.
"Chosen by teachers from the competing schools," my daughter tells me. I can't imagine that these topics would be debated in American grade schools.
The debates will be conducted entirely in English.
This amazes me even more. I completed twenty years of schooling and speak only one language.
My arrival in this French speaking country found me with little more French than what you can pick up from a restaurant menu. In the two days that I've been here my conversations have been limited almost exclusively to , "Bonjour," "merci," and some awkward pointing.
The children arrive on stage and, in proper English, thank the Embassy, the judges, and the fellow participants. They stand tall and confident with no podium to hide behind or lean on, and no French translation dictionary in their pockets.
There are some strong accents to be sure. And a tendency to speak very fast. So that there are times when I take it on faith that English is being spoken. Until I listen more carefully, and the words begin to come through. In full and structured sentences. Without slang or short-cuts. In a language that is not their own.
On the rare occasion of a mis-step--a forgotten word or a lost train of thought--a gentle clapping comes from the audience of participants. Not in derision, but in support. A sort of, "it's okay," type of crowd speak that is touching. It is noticed and remarked upon by each of the judges.
It is one more reason why it's hard not to score each of the participants at 100%.
My sense of the country is good.