The Day of the African Child has been celebrated on June 16 every year since 1991, when it was first initiated by the Organisation of African Unity. It honors those who participated in the Soweto Uprising in 1976 on that day. It also raises awareness of the continuing need for improvement of the education provided to African children.
In Soweto, South Africa, on June 16, 1976, about ten thousand black school children marched in a column more than half a mile long, protesting the poor quality of their education and demanding their right to be taught in their own language. Hundreds of young students were shot, the most famous of which being Hector Pieterson . More than a hundred people were killed in the protests of the following two weeks, and more than a thousand were injured.
On June 16th every year, governments, NGOs, international organisations and other stakeholders gather to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing the full realization of the rights of children Africa. For 2014, the theme chosen returns to the roots of the movement: A child-friendly, quality, free, and compulsory education for all children in Africa. (Wikipedia).
22 Years of Observation
During the time of my Peace Corps service in Benin in the early 1990s, educational infrastructure, especially in rural villages, was sorely lacking. There were not enough schools or teachers, and many schools were literally outdoors, with a shabby roof and few tables and benches. Many did not even have a chalkboard or chalk. Kids did not have basic school supplies. Teachers were underqualified (some with only an 8th grade education)and their work ethic was poor. They were underpaid and often unpaid for months at a time. They would simply not show up to work for long periods.
It was especially remarkable that girls in school ranks were at best 25% of the total. Rural families did not see the value of sending them, much less paying their fees and buying supplies. The rare students who advanced beyond the primary level, girls or boys, were often many miles away from a high school, with no means of transportation other than their bare feet, and no support system near school. For girls especially, domestic responsibilities overshadowed the need to study, and rarely would there have been electricity.
I did what I could in my little town, Boukombe, to promote scholarization. I talked with parents about the importance of literacy and numeric literacy in a changing world. I provided some school supplies for kids in my neighborhood, and provided a safe, well-lit space for studying at my home. My primary mission as a Volunteer was agriculture and the environment, however, I realized, with a whole systems view, that education had a major role to play there too. I arranged for some interested and dynamic students to study at a world-reknown sustainable agriculture installation, Centre Songhai, in the South of the country for several months.
This video is part one of an inspirational series that I highly recommend.
A lot has changed in terms of education in Benin over the years; mostly for the better. There are more and better schools, largely funded by donor nations and NGOs (a whole other story). Atacora’s Executive Director, Jacob, is also a rural primary school director, and he reports that his classes are nearly 50% girls, now! This alone bodes very well for the future.
The legacy of poor education, and such horrific undereducation of girls continues to have a negative impact on the society and the economy. Most rural women remain illiterate, making their integration into the economy nearly impossible. That’s over 50% of the population whose potential remains locked down. Adult literacy programs are springing up, but are still too few, and lack the means to be effective. On the positive side, parents are really understanding the value of education for boys and girls. Primary school is paid for by the government (albeit corrupt and inefficient). Global campaigns for girls’ education are quite effective at getting the word out.
Atacora is Promoting Education in Benin
Atacora is the biggest employer in the Boukombe area. At the peak of Baobab season this year, we had 52 women applying their traditional processing tehniques to produce the finest Baobab Superfruit Powder available in the world. The wages they receive, according to their own testimony, are largely applied to the education of their many children. The more than 500 producer families of whole Baobab fruit are paid handsomely for their product, and during our many trainings, meetings and interactions with them throughout the year, we discuss how they might apply the chunks of cash they receive. Education, especially for their daughters, is at the top of our list of advice. Many have expressed their pride in being able to have all of their kids in school.
We distributed soccer balls to several rural schools, and received a letter of appreciation from the directors which said that our gesture did more to promote attendance than even free lunch.
When we first started buying neem seeds to produce our cold-pressed African Neem Oil, we noticed that a number of schools had many Neem trees in their courtyards. Kids were sweeping up the seeds with the fallen leaves and burning them! Atacora now purchases the seeds, providing cash resources for the schools to be used for lunches and supplies.
Now that the idea of girls’ education is well instilled in Benin’s collective national psyche, it will require economic advancement among the rural population to maximize the effect. Atacora is branching out and embracing other producer organizations who promote women as primary economic actors and advance educational initiatives. For example, both the producers of the virgin red palm oil and moringa leaf powder that will be on our container very soon are groups who provide training to rural youth and women on integrated, sustainable agriculture, similar in philosophy to Songhai, mentioned above. No one person or organization can effect substantial change alone, and I know some that try. The power of association and Fair Partnership is expanding, and will begin to have a greater political voice, and social change will gather momentum. The Camesino a Campesino movement in Central America is a good example of this.