Passion for primates leads language instructor to Africa

Rachel Marciano
September 23, 2015

What do you do when you have a passion for ape conservation and a knack for teaching English as a second language? Just ask Courtney Berne, an instructor in DePaul's English Language Academy. For six weeks this summer, Berne taught English to the caretakers of Chimfunshi Wildlife Orphanage, a primate sanctuary in Zambia, located in southern Africa.

After receiving two grants, partial support from the sanctuary's chairman and supplementing the rest of the trip's costs through crowdfunding, Berne landed in Zambia in the middle of July and immediately began working with about 12 middle-aged men, mostly caretakers of the chimpanzees and employees at the sanctuary. Though English is the country's primary language, it is mainly used for official business and in schools, avenues many citizens cannot access. Local and indigenous languages are more commonly used, and range from village to village. Within two weeks, word about Berne's willingness to teach anyone who wanted to learn spread throughout the village. By the fourth week, the number of students had grown from 12 to nearly 100; men, women and children alike.

"What amazed me the most was their patience. The sanctuary has resources like hot water, chalk boards and desks; but there is little technology, no means of instant gratification like we have here in the Western world," Berne says. "No one fussed when I had to write out every word on a small white board, and then pass it around to each person in the group. Their patience and desire to learn were beyond anything I expected."

Berne (right) landed in Zambia in the middle of July and immediately began working with the caretakers of the chimpanzees and other employees at the sanctuary. (Image courtesy of Courtney Berne) 

Berne brought to Zambia eight years of experience in the English Language Academy, DePaul's intensive academic language program that helps international students learn the language and academic skills used at the university and in professional endeavors. Though Berne is accustomed to teaching and interacting with non-native English speakers, the conditions, and sometimes locations, of the classrooms were completely unlike anything she had experienced before. When classes were not held at the regular schoolhouse, Berne taught in a school on the village's farm. Situated at the end of a long, dusty road bordered by trees, the school was a simple brick building with a tin roof and dirt floor. There was no electricity or windows. The teacher's desk was a turned-over refrigerator.

"We would even hold sessions while the caretakers prepared meals for the chimps, rather than in classrooms. It was kind of a 'do what you need to do' situation," Berne recalls. "Sometimes we'd sit right on the dirt in circles. At the farm school, women often had their breast-feeding babies with them."

After the experience, Berne feels strongly that there is degradation of life in Zambia as a result of the lack of access to education.

"The majority of women at the sanctuary could not read or write in their respective languages, and the child mortality rate for the country is very high," she says. Sanctuaries in Africa are also often vulnerable to intruders and violence due to the imbalance of resources inside and outside of sanctuary boundaries. Berne believes education could off-set some of these realities.

The benefits Berne gained from this trip go beyond adding another line to her resume. She plans to bring her experiences into the classroom at DePaul and encourage her students to find their niche, no matter how unusual it may seem.

"I'd already been teaching for a few years when I discovered my passion for primates and conservation. But because of the support I received from my colleagues in the English Language Academy, I was able to share my skills in teaching with people who had skills in caring for these animals," she says. "I also have a newfound understanding of culture shock and flexibility, which may help me relate even more to my international students."