Thursday, 10 September 2009

There is no darkness like ignorance

Thanks to TWK for sending me the link on International Literacy Day. It was just 2 days ago.

I was making fun of myself how I have felt "illiterate" in countries like Japan. You must have felt that way too sometimes. Can you imagine:

- trying to find your way to somewhere but can’t read street names;
- trying to order food while at a restaurant but can’t read the menu;
- trying to keep up with current affairs but can’t read newspapers.

I sure can. I have experienced illiteracy first hand.

5 months ago I was in Ethiopia visiting a World Vision development project. We visited one of the local school and I had my first "real" contact with the African children. At the school, when our arrival was officially announced, the children ran into the classroom with such enthusiam. They were active, curious and eager. We will never find such zeal amongst the students in our schools back home.

Fittal Primary School

There were many of them packed onto one bench. The children were of all ages, some clearly overaged for primary school. They were chatting, murmuring; most were smiling. Their excitement of meeting with their foreign friends were obvious and perhaps, they even felt somewhat privileged. Really, the privilege was mine.

The kids were so happy that we were coming and they arrived in the school compound early that day to wait. They brought all their books, even though some had no classes for the day. I flipped through a torned and tattered notebook from one of the boys, careful not to damage it any further, to see what kind of stuff he is being taught in school. Algebra, arithmetics... not bad. Even I am still struggling with those.

The school is doing a great job, especially when operating in a difficult environment like this and with limited resources. Teaching materials have to be shared by all the classes in turns. They are painstakingly prepared and painted by the teachers. Such commitment to their profession deserves our uptmost respect. The most impressive part is that the school's curriculum is very comprehensive: English, Mathematics, Geography, History, Biology are some of the subjects covered.

Teaching materials

Literacy is the basic product of an education. There are a thousand and one reasons why parents do not send their children to school, even if education is available to them for free. Cultural differences, gender discrimination, poor health, distances are some of the likely reasons. But more so, the competing requirements in their daily lives are the biggest hindrance.

In the village of Yaya Gulale which I travelled to in Ethiopia, most of the parents are farmers. Their children help out in the fields as soon as they are strong enough to do so; usually at the age when they should be entering school. Between subsistence and an education, the choice is clear. One needs to fill one's stomach, as well as those of the family's.

If they are not working out in the fields, the children are responsible for the daily water supply. They trek in the wilderness, walking long distances only to fetch water from dirty streams. They are lucky the water did not make them sick. Even if so, one trip to and fro may take hours. Who has time for school?

To increase the chances of these children receiving an education, we first have to relieve them from their burdens of subsistence. A new water point closer to home, for example, will save the children half a day’s walk each day. They can now use the time they have to attend school instead. Providing tools and training to the farmers in agriculture techniques increase their efficiency as well as yields. With that, the children will have to suffer less hours of toil in the fields.

Kuchu Tengego Water Point

Education and literacy rates are intertwined with basic livelihood matters. I did not know there are so many indirect ways we can help to shape the future of a child differently. In Yaya, I finally understood it. Although education is no solution to all of life’s problems, it is the means towards having a better future, at least to be presented with opportunities. It helps one to live with dignity too. I recall an account of a Cambodian boy who is a HIV carrier. He told stories of how he used to be discriminated by his school mates because he is “different”. However, he is passionate about learning and despite his frequent headaches (side effects from his HIV medication), he persisted in his studies. Now, he has top the class and won the admiration and acceptance of his peers.

Presenting prizes to top students of the school. A school bag, a book and a pen bought with some of the money my friends have contributed before I set off for the trip. Thanks!

I will now share a quote written on the wall of Fittal Primary School in Ethiopia: "There is no darkness like ignorance".

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