A volunteer teacher in one of the world's poorest countries, Rae Carter returned to Warrnambool during the pandemic but continued to teach her students remotely. KATRINA LOVELL reports.
While most students and teachers grappled with remote learning from their homes across town, Rae Carter was running classes on the other side of the globe.
For the past two years, the former Warrnambool maths teacher has been working at an international school in one of the poorest countries in the world, Niger.
And when the coronavirus started spreading worldwide, closing businesses and schools, Niger was no different.
Rae was able to return to Australia at Easter, which meant spending two weeks in a hotel in Melbourne's Docklands under quarantine - something she didn't mind after having lived in "pretty basic" conditions.
But that also meant keeping in touch with her students from half a world away - and with the time difference that required staying up until midnight most nights and even getting up at 3am or 4am for a couple of Zoom hangouts.
"I was staying up to midnight every night with the kids and plus I was jetlagged," she said. "One of my classes is a remedial class, especially for those kids I was trying to make sure every day they were touching base with me and submitting something."
She said she had heard the stories of people complaining about the conditions in quarantine hotels but for Rae it was relaxing. She was able to put the free Wi-Fi to good use and even catch up with the latest shows on Netflix - something that is harder to do in Niger where internet is unreliable and Netflix is limited.
But she almost didn't make it home with commercial flights out of the country that were cancelled soon after the first case of COVID-19 was recorded on March 19.
Rae had planned to return home to visit family when the school year ended in May but with that flight in doubt she put her name down with the Australian High Commission in the neighbouring country of Nigeria in the hope of finding another way home.
She got lucky and was offered a seat on a military plane headed back to Belgium - that was the start of a 70-hour journey back to home soil via Germany and Dohar.
"I was already teaching by distance, and I had planned to come home to see family and that flight was looking like it wasn't going ahead, I thought at least this is a guaranteed way of getting home," Rae said.
"It was quite a long trip. Four days. I've never done that before.
"I slept at the airports. I slept on the plane because it wasn't busy. There was hardly anyone on the planes. I got a whole row to myself."
After six weeks of distance education, the school is now on summer break. But Rae - who is supported by the missionary organisation SIM Australia - hopes to return as soon as possible.
The trip home also gave her the opportunity to join her family in saying goodbye to her grandmother who had passed away the day before she got her ticket to fly home.
They were able to postpone the funeral until she was out of quarantine. "That was really special," she said.
The school in Niger has kids from all over the world - about a third from America, a third from continental Africa and a third from the rest of the world, countries like Korea, Switzerland, Norway and Canada.
About 70 per cent of families at the school are involved in some form of mission work, Rae said. "All the teachers at the school are volunteers," she said.
"The classes aren't huge and I have four high school maths classes - year nine to year 12." There are about 160 children at the school, not much different in size to King's College in Warrnambool where she went to school.
Rae worked for five years as a maths teacher at a school in Essendon before heading overseas.
"I always felt called to teaching. Definitely that's my passion and my skill set but I wanted to know how to serve the church in doing that," she said. "It seemed pretty obvious that if missionaries were going overseas with their kids then they needed quality teachers as well."
For Rae, the school community extends beyond the classroom. "It's much more than just a work environment. I see a lot of the families at church, at dinner and the other teachers are great friends," she said.
"I've tried to get out of that bubble as well and see some of what it's actually like for some of the Nigeriens who actually live there."
Her neighbours have six kids who all speak French. "They're helping me improve my French and I'm helping them with their reading. Their parents are illiterate so they can't read or write but they really value education so they're sending their kids to school," she said.
"The city is certainly not what we'd think of as an urban city. There's some big buildings and a lot of government departments there. There's no chain stores, there's no fast food restaurants.
"There's a lot of poverty. It's one of the poorest countries in the world so even in the capital there's not really that divide between the rich and the poor because there aren't that many rich.
"The divide is more who has a house and who has a mud brick hut."
Rae describes the house she lives in as "pretty basic" but comfortable compared to what others have and it does have running water, electricity and an air-conditioner.
"We don't have hot water in the kitchen, that would be really nice," she said.
"I feel safe there. The people are so lovely and welcoming."
Niger, a country of about 22 million people, has recorded only about 960 cases and 65 deaths from coronavirus.
"They were pretty strict. They closed the borders, they had a night time curfew and closed the city off from the rest of the country so people couldn't travel in or out of the capital. They closed large meetings like churches and mosques," she said.
While the number of cases has been low compared to other places, Rae said that could be because they had a young population - the median age is about 15.
"The whole population is 50 per cent children. I guess from that regard they don't have the elderly that are going to get affected as much as other countries," she said. With so much poverty, many suffer from malnutrition from their poor diets.
The landlocked country borders Nigeria, Algeria, Chad and Libya and sits on the edge of the Sahara making it 80 per cent desert.
Despite its dry climate the river that runs through the capital is prone to flooding, this year coming right up to the wall of the school.
"We were all sandbagging, that was interesting," she said.
"The unfortunate thing is most of it comes from rain in other countries that flows down the river. We can actually still have a drought but be flooding which is a cruel irony.
"I love it there. It's just a different way of living and I think life is more simple. Things just take longer so you value what you put into your day. How much time it takes to cook, how much time it takes to go places and do your shopping.
"It just makes you a bit more appreciative of what matters and you have less of that clutter in your life."
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