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Connecting students' personal and community experiences and knowledge to literature instruction in Setswana secondary classroom.

Abstract

This article draws attention to the relationship between academic literacies and students' personal and community experiences that are privileged and marginalized in teaching Setswana literature in Botswana senior secondary schools. It addresses the questions: To what extent is the teaching and learning of literature in secondary school classrooms of cultural relevance to adolescents? What strategies do teachers use to encourage adolescents to respond to, talk about and make connections to literature in ways that draw on their personal and community experiences and knowledge? Using post-colonial theoretical perspectives as a framework for examining discourses in literature lessons that I observed as part of my ethnographic study in two Form Four Setswana classrooms, this article concludes that students view academic knowledge in the form of prescribed literature texts as relevant to their lives beyond the classroom when teachers tap on familiar knowledge and experiences. Yet, the findings of the study also suggest that limited transactions between Setswana literature texts and students' personal and community experiences are embedded in the nature and purposes of intertextual relations that are proposed, accepted and privileged in literature lessons. An analysis of the relationship between pedagogical practices in literature lessons and the knowledge and experiences students bring to the classroom has implications for the place of literature as a tool for cultural understanding, particularly in classrooms that privilege communicative approaches to literacy instruction.

Introduction

Students and teachers bring to the classroom multiple realities and knowledge that defines their identities and membership to varied social groups or communities. Consequently, students often come to the classroom with knowledge and experiences about a variety of issues such as teenage pregnancies, HIV/AIDS, marriage, and death, which may be privileged or marginalized in the classroom. Literature invites multiple interpretations of representations of the social world, which are built in part on the interests and prior experiences of readers (Rosenblatt, 1995; Thiong'o, 1986). Consequently, this article seeks to address the questions; to what extent is the teaching and learning of Setswana literature in secondary school classrooms of cultural relevance to adolescents? What strategies do teachers use to encourage adolescents to respond to, talk about and make connections to literature in ways that draw on their personal and community experiences and knowledge? This paper will examine these questions within the framework of the Setswana novel Form Four students read and made sense of during my ethnographic research in their classes (Jankie, 2001).

I begin the paper by providing a description of the setting of the study. Then, I describe the legitimated role of literature in the senior secondary school curriculum. Next, I provide a brief synopsis of the theoretical perspective and related literature and its relevance to Setswana literature instruction. This is followed by a discussion of selected classroom discourses that privilege and marginalize knowledge and experiences students bring to the classroom. I conclude by highlighting the role of teachers in promoting education that authorizes students' out-of-school experiences.

The context of the study

I conducted my research in a senior secondary school in Botswana that I refer to as Kgololo senior secondary school. The goal of the larger study on which this article is drawn was to examine the relationships between Setswana education and students' personal and community experiences. I conducted semi-structured interviews with teachers, community members, Setswana education officers and students as a way of getting insights into the nature of discourses, beliefs, attitudes and perspectives towards incorporating students personal experiences, community knowledge and experiences in Setswana literacy instruction. I further focused on the practices of two experienced teachers, one of whom was involved in professional and curriculum development activities through dual participation in Setswana Task Forces that developed the current secondary school syllabi and in the Textbook Prescription Committee for secondary schools. This is significant in that, not all senior secondary schools have teachers who participate at policy-making level in this manner.

As a participant-observer I visited each of the two Form Four classes for the duration of two school terms between May and November 1999. This allowed me to get a picture of the patterns of discourses in Setswana classes and their relationship to students' personal and community experiences. I took fieldnotes of classroom activities except when I was videotaping classroom interactions in order to capture the details of students and teachers' interactions and the context in which those interactions occurred. Again, I audiotaped and videotaped classroom interactions to transcribe for data analysis. In addition to reading and analyzing selected educational documents, I also participated in discourses teachers invited me to be part of. Although this created possibilities for me to further establish rapport with the teachers and reciprocate for letting me research in their classrooms, at another level they may have influenced instructional practices. Moreover, while I triangulated my data to check its validity (Anderson, 1989; Glesne and Peshkin, 1992; Hammersley, 1992; Kvale, 1996), its analysis and interpretation are social constructions of the discourses that I observed and learned about. These interpretations may not parallel those of the participants.

The Official "voice": What counts as literature instruction

The current Setswana syllabus, which has been in effect since 1998, privileges students experiences and knowledge (Ministry of Education, 1997). Although teachers use textbooks that are centrally prescribed by Textbook Prescription Panels (under the aegis of the Department of Curriculum Development and Evaluation, Ministry of Education), which mainly comprises of selected teachers and education officers they are always encouraged to use relevant supplementary materials. This is essential in teaching and learning literature because texts prescribed are by "design chosen for their illustrative purposes" (Ministry of Education, 1997: iii). Policy-makers see a connection between learner-centred approaches such as the communicative approach to language instruction and students' personal and community experiences. Therefore, pedagogical practices aimed at specific areas of the Setswana syllabus such as literature should create awareness for students to gain knowledge that is important to their lives. It is the intention of policy-makers that by the time students finish Setswana senior secondary education, literature instruction should have provided them with chances "to explore literary aspects in order to acquaint themselves with the philosophy and values of Botswana" (Ministry of Education, 1997: iii). The syllabus also stresses the need for students to relate and evaluate what they read and the themes that emerge from fiction to "real life situations". The idea that students should evaluate what they read in fictional representations in order to see the connections to real life situations, implies that the learning of literature be contextually embedded to interrogate the social fabric of Botswana, in its multiple dimensions. Similarly, it places significance on acknowledging and preserving Botswana's diverse cultural heritage, guiding students to develop the spirit of tolerance, and making appropriate moral judgements (Ministry of Education, 1997). The inclusion of aims and objectives that explicitly address these issues validates the knowledge and experiences that are part of students' identities beyond the school context and calls for pedagogical practices that privilege community knowledge, and students' experiences. Similarly, it shapes students' thinking about what it means to read and learn literature.

Theoretical perspective and literature review

Knowledge is an important aspect of our lives and hence it has gained considerable attention in educational debates in different parts of the world. Part of the contested nature of knowledge lies in that, it is socially constructed and embeds power and authority relations in its production, circulation, consumption and application or utilisation (Goldberg, 1993). Hence, what constitutes academic knowledge is not neutral (Apple, 1992, 1993). Students access academic knowledge depending on classroom discourses established for that purpose. By paying attention to how knowledge is constructed and the purposes it fulfils, post-colonial theoretical perspectives encourage the construction of competing situated knowledge and perspectives.

As a point of convergence for disciplines that address the relationships between the centre and the periphery, post-colonial theories provide a framework for multi-dimensional critiques and forms of opposition to colonialism and its legacy in the political, economic, cultural and ideological spheres. Within this context, for example, there is a recognition and acknowledgement that the post-colonial has more than a temporal or historical significance (e.g. Childs and Williams, 1997; Harding, 1998; McClintock, 1994; Mishra and Hodge 1994; Moore-Gilbert, Stanton, and Maley 1997; Walder, 1998). Additionally, the term post-colonial provides a site for agency and opposition or resistance to forces of domination by decentering colonized knowledge (Willinsky, 1998), recovering and constructing self-identities (e.g. Childs and Williams, 1997; Harding, 1998; Moore-Gilbert, Stanton, and Maley 1997; Thiong'o, 1986), as well as providing possibilities for challenging the literary canon and suggesting other forms of literary criticism and 'reading practices' or strategies (e.g. Ashcroft, Griffiths, and Tiffin, 1995; Moore-Gilbert, 1997; Morrison, 1992; Walder, 1998).

Post-colonialism has emerged as a theoretical framework/project or tool that critiques and problematizes Eurocentric or Western perspectives of knowledge construction. More than often, the discourses of colonialism result in knowledge about the colonized getting constructed and talked about from the colonizer's perspective. Consequently, colonial knowledge produced about the colonized becomes a device or tool for colonial exploitation (Smith, 1999) and is transmitted through institutions such as schools. Moreover, a post-colonial epistemological perspective, provides a strategy or method for questioning and rethinking forms of knowledge authorized or canonized by colonial domination (Childs and Williams, 1997; Gordon, 1995; Said, 1978). By challenging Western types of knowledge, ways of knowing and ideals in this way, it seeks to acknowledge the power of formerly colonized or dominated people to produce types of knowledge that conform to their lived experiences and indigenous heritages (Thiong'o, 1981, 1986, 1993).

Not only do post-colonial theories encourage the production of competing situated knowledge and perspectives, they also seek to legitimate indigenous stores of knowledge by acknowledging the power of the people who have been subjected to colonialism, to name, and construct their multifaceted identities. Within this context, a post-colonial framework has opened doors for postcolonial African writers (e.g. Achebe 1994; Thiong'o 1981, 1986, 1993) to write in ways that privilege the production of new types of knowledge and perspectives about African people from their perspectives or worldviews and thus based on their experiences. Although the notion of experience is a constructed disputed phenomenon (Scott, 1992) acknowledging its historical nature recognizes too the discourses that produce it both in local and global contexts as well as discursive practices related to that (Scott, 1992). Individuals in varied contexts "are constituted through experience" (Scott, 1992: 26) and hence the importance of settings in which experience occurs and its relationship to identity, in that identities are formed in part as a result of individual and communal experiences that occur in specific social contexts (Scott, 1992).

Post-colonial theorizing has also opened doors for former colonial countries like Botswana, to challenge Western/Eurocentric knowledge through the institution of schooling. Thus, Setswana literature instruction can be viewed as a tool or means for encouraging students to reject and resist colonized knowledge (Willinsky, 1998) and in the process perceive themselves and the whole world from perspectives of their lived experiences, community ways of knowing and history (Achebe, 1994; Thiong'o, 1981, 1986, 1993). For Setswana teachers, this suggests creating discourses that support or foster their authorized roles as managers, directors and facilitators of learning (Ministry of Education, 1997) and a recognition that all students bring to the classroom experiences, knowledge and ways of knowing that can make academic knowledge accessible to them and enable them to learn about and produce knowledge relevant to their lives. At another level, it suggests that all students bring to the classroom valuable knowledge and experiences from their communities, and Setswana teachers face the challenge of acknowledging these as part of the discourses valued in their classes. Therefore, post-colonial theoretical perspectives suggest possibilities for examining the perspective from which academic knowledge is constructed, legitimated and the roles it fulfills. At the heart of this, is the fact that, the production and use of academic knowledge is a political activity; hence the need to question academic knowledge in terms of what it is, how it is constructed, whose perspectives, realities and experiences it considers legitimate, its purposes and influences on pedagogical practices (Apple, 1993). Thus, it is within classroom contexts that knowledge in the form of fictional texts to be read and made sense of can be challenged as part of an agenda to construct knowledge that values students' multiple identities, experiences and indigenous stores of knowledge of their community.

Although in Africa "few attempts have been successfully implemented to realize a localized and indigenized curriculum" (Semali, 1999:311) the emerging studies that attempt to move African cultural knowledge and experiences from the periphery of pedagogical practices to the center are indicative of this move. Moreover, these studies suggest that this can be manifested in different ways to meet the needs of different societies or groups of students. For example, privileging personal and community experiences involves recognizing and acknowledging elders as experts and sources of knowledge (Semali and Stambach, 1997), contextualizing instruction by using resources that are connected to students-out-of-school experiences (Lubben, Campbell, and Dlamini, 1996), and decolonizing the knowledge of marginalized groups such as the San, notably regarded the indigenous peoples of Southern Africa, by privileging and acknowledging the contributions their languages could make to the formal education system as well as the forms of academic knowledge that relate to their out-of-school experiences (Le Roux, 1999; Pridmore, 1995; Tshireletso, 1997). Similarly, emerging research such as by Cleghom's (1992) and Prophet and Dow (1994) which is concerned with the implications of using African languages to facilitate meaning-making and understanding of Science as a school subject not only challenges the institutionalized practices of teaching content-area disciplines primarily in English, but also recognizes the importance of language as a significant tool in constructing identities for African children through legitimation of their home languages as part of the officially prescribed curriculum, and in the process fostering academic success. In all, research studies of this nature consider schools as social and political institutions that have a specific role in decolonizing the knowledge of specific communities such as from a dominant group in the society or from a former colonizer. This makes it possible for students and teachers from dominant and marginalized groups to interrogate competing situated forms of knowledge and hybrid identities that form part of their lives within and outside the classroom. From a post-colonial perspective, this exemplifies how schools are challenging Western/Eurocentric knowledge by calling for or producing new forms of knowledge and perspectives to encourage students to learn about their identities and acquire knowledge that is important to their lives. This opens opportunities for cultural knowledge, personal and community experiences to be problematized because if they are not, they might run the risk of being essentialized.

Classroom discourses that privilege students' personal and community knowledge and experiences When familiar knowledge and experiences relevant to the students' lives within the micro contexts of the school and beyond are made part of Setswana literature instruction, students get positioned as knowledge producers or contributors to the knowledge-base in Setswana. In this regard, what discursive practices do we recognize at play in Mrs. Lesedi's classroom? Mrs. Lesedi's intention in requesting part of her class to role-play chapters seven and eight of Mothei's (1989) Mareledi a sa le Pele (2) was to help students understand the story better and to provide variety to the ways in which students were reading and responding to the novel. In previous lessons she had focused on reading the novel in 'round robin' fashion with interactions limited to explanations of unfamiliar words encountered in the selection read. She models the activity and encourages students to improvise or be creative as they write scripts for their presentations; such as creating dialogues on events not described in the novel. In doing this task, the students make decisions on what to include and exclude based on the discourses of wedding ceremonies they are familiar with. Consequently, in reconstructing the wedding scene described in chapter seven in the form of a dialogue, they extend it by adding the vows of the bride and groom at their church wedding. Within this context, the students role-play an event in which the minister inquires from the bride and the groom if they agree to take each other as partners until death separates them. Following each of their responses, which the minister directs by telling them how to respond, he declares their union official and blesses it. The role-play on the wedding scene therefore reveals students' knowledge and awareness of discourses used in marriage ceremonies within the context of some Christian churches in their communities to name or construct identities of the individuals getting married. This is important because experiences and identities are contextualized and fluid (Scott, 1992). Christianity is a significant religion in Botswana and thus a part of the literacy communities that some students belong to. When students were invited to provide feedback on the role play, they appreciated the relevance of the events role played to their knowledge and experiences of Christian marriages and the power of the role play to guide them in unravelling textual meaning in the novel. Moreover, by commending the level of improvisation, especially the appropriateness of the language used by the church minister, Mrs. Lesedi was acknowledging social practices that are part of the students' and her out-of-school experiences.

Students' personal and community experiences are also authorized into the classroom through integration of literature and essay writing. In addition to debate being a topic in the syllabus, using it as a pre-writing activity serves to make Setswana instruction holistic. Mrs. Lesedi focuses the debate on whether pregnant students should be allowed to continue with their secondary schooling uninterrupted. In response to my question on why she chose this topic, Mrs. Lesedi explains that, it was motivated by the actions of Naledi, the main character in Mareledi a sale Pele who commits abortion while still a secondary school student. Moreover, the topic is important in that it focuses on an issue of relevance to adolescents that is often debated in varied sections of the society. Therefore, the choice of this topic as a basis for essay writing can be viewed as the teacher's effort not only to invite students to respond to literature through writing, but also to link literature instruction to students' personal and community experiences. As soon as the teacher announces the debate topic, shouts of "Naledi" are heard in the classroom and thus signaling students' recognition and acceptance of intertextual links that exist between the debate topic and the novel. The teacher in turn acknowledges the connection students are making by encouraging them to consider their knowledge of events in the novel as well as their personal and community experiences in developing their arguments for the debate activity. Mrs. Lesedi's actions in this regard affirm the importance of recognizing, privileging and conveying the social significance of intertextual relationships that are proposed or established in the classroom (Bloome and Egan-Robertson, 1993). Students are invited to use knowledge and ideas from the debate to plan for and compose persuasive essays on the same issue. Again, she informs the students that the issues they debated about are not only important to them but also to some members of the society. To reinforce this, she shares with them the newspaper article "New Approaches to Pregnancy" (Tsie, 1999: 22). Writing essays serves to acknowledge students' personal and community experiences on issues that are of concern to them and thus encourages them to share views of what is important in their lives.

The debate and subsequent writing task encourage students to connect teenage pregnancies to their experiences and identities and in the process bring their own perspectives on issues of concern to them and to the community at large. "Teenage pregnancy has always long prevailed in Botswana" (Tsie, 1999: 22) and this has contributed to a lot of secondary school girls' failure to continue with their education. These students are doing their secondary education in a school where this is possible. In the debate as well as in their essays, students express their feelings that allowing pregnant students to continue with their education is beneficial not only to the mother but to the nation as a whole. The child would have a caring, loving parent who is able to provide for him/her financially as well as contribute to the growth of the country's economy. In addition, "tshenyo ya dimpa e ka fokotsega. Fa ngwana ale mo mmeleng ga a ka ke a akanya go senya mpa ka gore o itse gore o tla fiwa sebaka sa bobedi go boela sekolong" (The rate of abortion would decrease. If a child is pregnant she won't think of committing abortion because she knows she will be given a second chance to go back to school) (Dikwankwetla group essay). Students further draw on macro contexts by linking their argument to the UN declaration on human rights issues. Their argument that "mongwe le mongwe o na le tshwanelo ya gore a rutege" (everyone has the right to be educated) and thus withdrawing students from school "ba tla bo ba rontshiwa ditshwanelo tsa bone" (they will be denied their rights) (Fieldnotes of Mrs. Lesedi's class, July 8, 1999) reflects students awareness of discourses circulating in other contexts that contribute to their identities as secondary school students. The issue of human rights in particular sparks an interesting discussion when students share their essay drafts orally in class with some expressing that students who fall pregnant are in fact the ones violating their own rights to education.

Students' knowledge and worldviews on the theme of pregnancy further emerges during the debate in the form of social taboos associated with it. While some students use this knowledge as a foundation for the argument that pregnant students be allowed to continue with their education, others challenge the relevance of social taboos to their own lives. Following the debate, Mrs. Lesedi acknowledges the arguments and uses them to make community knowledge problematic by examining the relevance of social taboos such as new mothers not being expected to be seen in public for a lengthy period of time in the lives of working mothers such as teachers. She further seizes this moment to explain the concept of maternity leave for teachers and in so doing extending the students' knowledge of the whole topic. Similarly, she uses this knowledge to make students realize the value of cultural norms of the society and the need to view them from a critical perspective rather than essentialize them. Moreover, through the newspaper article on teenage pregnancies Mrs. Lesedi familiarized students with the "Diphalana" project, a Botswana Government/UNICEF supported project based in one junior secondary school in the country, through which pregnant students are retained in school and continue to receive tuition until due for confinement and thereafter, with their babies cared for at a child-care centre, while allowing them block-time for feeding and bonding with children.

The letter-writing task I gave the students also gave them an opportunity to reflect on the importance of learning Setswana literature. In their letters to friends who wish to do senior secondary education at Kgololo, some students reveal that literature is important for understanding the world around them. They express that events and the theme of the novel they read are relevant to the lives of adolescents like themselves and hence teach them about 'life'. In one student's view, "literature is something that opens your mind and teaches you about life. It's food for the mind and a source of entertainment."

In a sense, learning about and using students' experiences, knowledge and worldviews as partially reflected in the literacy events and practices I observed in Form Four classrooms can be regarded as a post-colonial practice. It is about centering the knowledge and experiences of the students and moving them from the margins of the school curriculum to its centre. Similarly, it opens doors for teachers to acknowledge the multiple selves, and identities the students bring to the classroom and recognizing their role in teaching officially prescribed school knowledge. The multiple selves, identities, competing situated forms of knowledge and experiences the students bring to the classroom become a tool for validating and interrogating these multiple selves, identities, competing situated forms of knowledge and experiences as part of constructing and maintaining reality. Again, it is a way of understanding how "identities are ascribed, resisted or embraced" (Scott, 1992: 33). This is important too because experiences and identities are contextual and fluid (Scott, 1992). Moreover, as Goldberg (1993) rightly points out, to acknowledge things by naming them or marginalizing them by refusing to do so, "existence is recognized or refused, significance assigned or ignored, being elevated or rendered invisible" (Goldberg, 1993: 150). Hence, the importance of naming, acknowledging and making visible the role of students' experiences, knowledge and identities as part of the authorized curriculum in Setswana classrooms.

Classroom discourses that marginalize students' personal and community knowledge and experiences

The marginalization of students' experiences was primarily evident in the treatment of intertextual links that were proposed by students. As stated previously, it is important to recognize, privilege and convey social significance to intertextual relations that are proposed or established in the classroom (Bloome and Egan-Robertson, 1993). In literature lessons, intertextual links proposed and privileged were often limited to the relationship of events in the novel. Firstly, reading the novel from page to page, with the teacher interrupting only to request students to explain words or phrases used in the novel mostly resulted in lengthy explanations of the events in the story and how they are interrelated. Moreover, the emphasis on literary conventions as a key feature in Setswana literature lessons I observed further reinforced intertexuality in terms of linking key events in the novel. Focusing on identifying and interpreting literary devices aims at equipping students with the skills required for literary analysis, and yet making it the sole focus of literature instruction as it was the case in one Setswana class I observed can limit student interactions with literature texts in ways that acknowledge their out-of-school experiences. Closely reading texts in order to identify and interpret literary conventions used, and assessing students in ways that emphasize their knowledge and application might make them conclude that texts are read primarily to analyse literary conventions. Hence, in their letters to friends who wish to do their senior secondary education at Kgololo senior secondary school most students informed friends that they have to learn and understand literary conventions such as theme, setting, characterization, conflict and plot.

Secondly, teachers' views or beliefs about the role of students' out-of school experiences and knowledge in the classroom contributes to marginalization of intertextual links students often proposed. In response to my concern that students expressed in interviews that their views and responses are often marginalized whilst teachers' responses are privileged in Setswana literature lessons Mr. Tumelo expresses that, in reading the novel "students bring their real life situations into the book, what they know, what they experienced to address issues in the text. So, they want to reflect what they know rather than actually using textual evidence to support their views. That is why we always differ" (Interview with Mr. Tumelo, January 6, 2000). This suggests why, in some instances, intertexual relationships were not acknowledged and subsequently built on. For example, in one literature lesson that focused on the theme, one student inquired repeatedly from his peers, what the youth can really learn from reading Mareledi a sale Pele. His argument was that the group that had been assigned the task of analyzing the theme of the novel did not explore this issue in terms of real life situations as adolescents know them. However, his attempts to establish intertextual relationships between the thematic significance of the novel and personal experiences were not acknowledged and given social significance by allowing a whole class discussion to focus on this issue. Doing this would have privileged and interrogated individual and communal experiences that occur in their community (Scott, 1992). Similarly, in another lesson, the teacher encouraged the students to judge the credibility of Naledi's actions against their personal and community experiences. Yet, when the students affirmed that Naledi's actions somehow parallel real life situations and provided examples in this regard, the teacher's only response was that for their age, they seem to be knowledgeable about a lot of issues. Hence the teacher marginalized an opportunity for learning about students' experiences, the nature of these experiences, their relationships to students' efforts to identify themselves through lived experiences and cultural knowledge (Achebe, 1994; Thiong'o, 1981, 1986, 1993) and their relevance to the novel.

Conclusion

Literature is a powerful medium for making students aware of the realities of their environments. Reading literature meaningfully involves knowledge of both the literary conventions as well as linking fiction to students' out-of-school experiences. Teachers need to interrogate their beliefs about teaching as well as make students aware of the personal and social significance of teaching and learning literature. Similarly, they must build a community of learners in the classroom to make it possible for students and teachers themselves to share personal and community experiences. Achieving this requires commitment from teachers to use pedagogical practices that value knowledge and experiences from students' communities. In all, if opportunities are provided for students to respond to literature in ways that relate to their personal and community experiences, they might respond more interactively to what is being taught and learned and value its relevance to their lives.

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Dudu Jankie

University of Botswana

Footnotes

(1) This article has benefited from the critical commentary and suggestions of my colleague William Kemotho Sentshebeng who teaches courses in the Sociology of Education in the Department of Educational Foundations, University of Botswana.

(2) The title of this novel is derived from the Setswana proverb "se tshege yo o oleng mareledi a sale pele ", whose literal translation is "do not laugh at the one who has slipped along the way for your misfortune(s) might be just lurking down the road". The wisdom of this proverb is that it is an injunction/advice against deriving pleasure from other people's unpleasant situations because fate might just visit the same upon the individual concerned and they would end up 'laughing on the other side of their face'.
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Author:Jankie, Dudu
Publication:Journal of African Children's and Youth Literature
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:6BOTS
Date:Jan 1, 2004
Words:5859
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