A Global Citizenship Experience in Africa led Louis Williams to a teaching position at a First Nations reserve
One hot afternoon, Louis Williams lay down in a field to gaze at a Ghana sky, but was soon interrupted by worried students - and a cold splash of water. "The kids were asking, 'Are you sick?' while pouring water over me to make sure I was okay," he says.
Evidently, Williams' effort to connect with his students was working, in spite of the cultural differences between them. He was a foreigner from a far-flung Western country and, being of Sri Lankan heritage, was neither African (bibini, in the local Twi language) nor Caucasian (abruni). "They'd never seen an East Indian or Sri Lankan person," says Williams. But, this didn't come as a surprise, given that there were limited televisions or computers in the remote, agricultural community of Apemanim.
To narrow the cultural divide, Williams befriended them: he sat with the kids at meals and made a special effort to spend time with them after class. "As a teacher, it doesn’t matter what you know; if you can't relate it to the people you're speaking with, there's no point," he says.
At the time, the U of A education undergrad was participating in a Global Citizenship Experience. For four weeks, he and his U of A peers taught students in several small communities, under the guidance of local teachers and facilitators from the U of A.
Having spent most of his teenage years in Malaysia, Williams felt comfortable living in a new culture. Nonetheless, his Ghanaian field experience had its share of challenges. In addition to bridging the cultural and language barriers, Williams had to find ways to teach without the resources of most Canadian schools. In Apemanim, the school had a blackboard, but few desks and no books. "We really had to use ourselves," he says. "We were the resources."
After graduating in 2008, he decided to continue his cultural education - but a little closer to home. Through the grapevine, he'd heard of a teaching job at Eden Valley, a Stoney-Bearspaw Nation, Eden Valley - Gahnha(now spelled Gahna) Nakoda First Nation reserve southwest of Calgary. When he learned the area's name in the Nakoda language - Gahna - it felt like fate. He interviewed for the job and was hired.
While the similarity between Gahna and Ghana started off as "a textual coincidence," as Williams puts it, he quickly discovered some startling comparisons. Like the schools in Ghana, the school at Eden Valley lacked extensive classroom materials, including books for each student. Since arriving in the community, he's found himself photocopying textbooks for his students, due to budget limitations. While schools in Canadian cities are funded provincially, reserve schools are funded federally and are often resource-deprived, explains Williams.
Some of the other similarities are historical and cultural. The communities in Ghana and Gahna are both recovering from centuries of colonization. In Eden Valley, the legacy of residential schools - which traumatized generations of First Nations people across Canada - still looms large. Teachers (and government authorities) can be unpopular. Once again, Williams' Sri Lankan heritage has been an asset. "The majority are Caucasian teachers, so I get to be in that middle-place, between 'the other' and 'our own'," he says.
Both communities are community-focused, as well. Williams knew early on that to reach the kids in Eden Valley classroom, he'd need to connect with parents and be seen as a member of the community. "They don't care about credentials, they care about 'Who you are as a person. How are you with my kid, my parents and grandparents? How do you respect my culture,' " he says. "They won't respect you just because you're a teacher."
Williams has actively sought acceptance from the community. He and his young family live on the reserve, not far from the school or the kids he teaches. In his spare time, he gives piano and guitar lessons to any youth who'd like to learn, at no charge to the student. Funding is provided by the Legacy of Music Foundation. He's also in a band called Back to the Blanket (a reference to a Lakota Sioux author, Zitkala-Sa), with several of his older students. His efforts to connect have worked: attendance rates at school have improved and elders have told him they hope he'll grow old at Eden Valley.
Williams dreams of going abroad again - he's set his sights on Sri Lanka, in particular - but it won't be anytime soon. He feels invested in the success of his students and honoured to be part of a unique community. When he finally moves away, Williams knows he'll always come back: "People say they're happy I'm here, but I feel blessed in the experience of being here."