African Teachers Come to the Rescue of Cajun Country

Joel Millman, Wall Street Journal, May 24, 2010

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Nowadays, [Cajun] history is often taught by newcomers from Africa. Someone like Cyran Hounnou. He teaches seventh grade at the Moss Bluff Middle School near Lake Charles, La. {snip}

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“They [the English] said, ‘Be Protestant, not Catholic,”‘ Mr. Hounnou, 47, continued. “The Acadians wouldn’t. So they were deported. What they called Le Grand Dérangement.”

Mr. Hounnou speaks English, French and Spanish, he says, and “about seven” of the 32 tribal languages of Bénin, his West African homeland. This talented teacher and dozens more from West Africa form a veritable French Foreign Legion of imported educators here. They join staff from Canada, Haiti, Belgium and France itself, as Louisiana’s present-day Acadians–the “Cajuns”–struggle to preserve a language languishing on the Bayou.

Educationally, it’s one of Louisiana’s proudest achievements, using French immersion to rescue a culture that teetered near extinction 30 years ago. {snip}

Calcasieu Parish, which includes Moss Bluff where Mr. Hounnou teaches, battled parents for weeks over a proposal to end French immersion there. The school board’s budget committee voted May 4 to block cuts in the French program, to the relief of pro-French partisans.

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Initially, there was resistance by some Cajuns to African educators, who were often the first blacks to teach in rural schools. Today’s parents take a broader view. “It’s expanded his horizons, having an African teacher,” says Mrs. Comeaux.

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Native teachers are scarce in the immersion programs. Of the 11 working in the schools of St. Martin Parish–considered Cajun country’s epicenter–only one was born in Louisiana. The others are from France, Canada and Belgium. Both Belgians were born in Africa–one in Cameroon, the other in Senegal.

A state agency, the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, or Codofil, handles overseas recruitment. Codofil petitions Washington for temporary work visas to cover 3-year contracts for about 130 imported teachers annually. Top teachers, like Mr. Hounnou, may be asked by their school boards to stay, and eventually earn green cards.

{snip} Louisiana offers Africans good pay and benefits, and a path to U.S. citizenship.

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These days there are Africans from Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Mali teaching in mostly white, Cajun classrooms. And Africans are teaching black students with French-speaking ancestors.

Some Africans say they see their own ancestors’ features in the faces of local African-Americans. {snip}

Others taste their homeland in Louisiana cuisine. “Le gumbó. It’s like what we eat in Africa,” Odile Mobé, a Cameroonian teaching in New Iberia, says with a laugh. Bibá Idé, a teacher from Niger working in Jefferson Davis Parish, notes another similarity: “Here, it’s a feast with a pig. We do a lamb or a cow. But we call it the same thing.”

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The 2000 Census counted just 198,000 Francophones in Louisiana–a 20% drop from 1990. With many French speakers well past retirement age, it is expected the 2010 Census will reveal an even smaller Francophone minority. Francophiles hope an uptick will emerge after 2020, when today’s students start heading households.

“It’s all about spreading French culture,” Mr. Hounnou says. “Remember: No matter how big or great a country you are, you still need small peoples to help.”

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