â€œIt’s this very calm, green space that you come upon very suddenly in the middle of this very chaotic shantytown.â€
-Producer Emma Jacobs
Hi, Aaron Henkin here, your host for the NPR Station Showcase with PRX. Each week on this podcast we shine a little extra light on the outstanding and original work thatâ€™s being produced locally at hundreds of public radio stations across the country. This week we get treated to an international story by way of New York City. Producer Emma Jacobs is currently an intern at the WNYC program Soundcheck â€“ sheâ€™s also active as a mentor for younger radio-makers at the Columbia University college station WKCR. And as if thatâ€™s not enough to keep her busy, Emma is also in the midst of completing a major in Francophone Studies. She recently spent some time in West Africa, and during her stay she visited a unique independent school in Dakar called the School of the Roadâ€¦ Emma spoke with the schoolâ€™s founder, a self-educated man named Amayatou Mbaye. She also talked with a fellow American named Chad Goodroad, whoâ€™s volunteering at the school as a teacherâ€¦
What brought you overseas to Dakar, and how did you come across this story?
I’m working on completing a major in Francophone studies. I had done a lot of academic work around immigration to France and post-colonial literature, and eventually I realized I really wanted to go to West Africa, so for a semester abroad, I decided I wanted to be in Dakar. Chad Goodroad was another American student I met in Dakar, who told me about the School of the Road, where he was working. This story begins the day I went along with him and met everyone you hear in this piece.
When you visited Amayatou Mbaye’s school, what were your first impressions of the place and how it operated?
It’s this very calm, green space that you come upon very suddenly in the middle of this very chaotic shantytown. Impromptu, but very peaceful. The group of mostly very young students recites their lessons, and they’re a very cute, curious bunch. There’s a sort of nursery school–a group of four-year-olds just sitting happily in the corner, watching everything that’s going on. You can feel that it’s an operation run on a shoestring, but it has the feel and the atmosphere of a school. I think Chad and I both felt some ambivalence, because while such an attractive project that M’baye has put so much into, his school’s lack of formality can make it difficult to see how much the students progress. But, as Chad points out, it does reach some students with an education they might not find otherwise.
It sounds like the public schools in Dakar don’t have a really stellar reputation… Are they under-funded? Disorganized? What’s going on with the system there?
Senegal’s schools are over-crowded, and under-funded, particularly in poorer or rural areas. M’Baye told me the teachers in the public counterparts to his schools go on strike a lot too. The more well-known piece of the system, which I learned more about, is the public university, which had strikes going on nearly the entire time I was in Dakar.
Are there any particular memories or mental images that have really stuck with you since your visit?
Well, directly after this visit the School of the Road, I went straight to the doctor’s, where they cut this living, half-inch long larva out of my ankle. But, more seriously, there was this point every day on my walk home from school where I would turn in off a busy road onto a side street. And very suddenly, all the noise of the cars would fade and you’d hear bird song and maybe children playing. It’s something that conjures up for me all the abrupt contrasts of the city and of being there and walking through it.
Tell us a bit about your background and your radio career… you’re an intern at WNYC currently? What sort of work are you doing there?
I think I’ve always thought about radio, but only recently I realized it really seemed to be what I do. I programmed jazz for a year in Chicago and then I came to New York, where I co-run a youth radio program for high school and middle school students at WKCR, and work on some of my own pieces. While I was in Dakar, I got to see a lot of radio as a grass-roots tool for community activists. I worked with a Senegalese human rights worker there who aired a weekly program on the issues of refugees in the country and I made a visit out to another community station in a very poor suburb of the city. Radio there could mean something so different. Since I got back, I have gotten to peek into the major leagues this summer at WNYC, interning for Soundcheck, where I’m sorting the mail, and screening the calls, and getting to learn the dynamic of how a show’s team works together and how to hone my own skills.
As you continue to study the craft of radio-making, what are some of the more valuable things you’ve learned along the way about taping, editing, writing, voicing a story? Any advice for other young producers who are looking to get started in the field?
I wish I knew enough to give advice on this one. I’m learning by trial and error just trying to work my way through pieces and listen to what works and what doesn’t. I make my friends listen. I have completed some truly terrible pieces of radio to figure out how it works, but they’ve got to be done, too. If being overseas has opened my eyes in any way, it’s to bring home the reality that there are stories everywhere and you won’t run out.
You can hear more from Emma Jacobs online at the Public Radio Exchange. Thatâ€™s where producers from around the world share their work. Log on, write your own reviews, and have a say in what ends up on the radio at www.prx.org.