Thursday, April 26, 2012

Can Education Prevent Starvation?

Robin Crews,
Returned Peace Corps Volunteer

There is a Hausa proverb: “ Rishin illimi ya hi dare duhu”. That means, “Lack of education is darker than night”. To tell someone he or she “had illimi” was the highest compliment. Not only did it mean you were bright, you were educated. While serving for two years in Peace Corps in rural West Africa, I learned that education is invaluable.

Everyone in my village was starving to death. This may sound like hyperbole, but I assure you it is not. Niger is one of the poorest countries in the world. There is barely enough rain to do subsistence farming. They are in a perpetual famine.
When I arrived, I was in complete shock at how the Hausa lived. It was horrifying to see extreme poverty at your doorstep every day. I’m in hell, I would scribble in my journal. Flies and excrement of all kinds surrounded me. The village children thought I was there for their entertainment. As the children clustered around me, touching my skin to see if I were really that white, laughing at my broken Hausa, I scribbled even more furiously, I hate these people.

Then, a little boy with eyes as big as saucers asked me to write his name. Ibrahim, I wrote. He was amazed that it took me a blink of an eye to write his name. It was so monumental to write the one thing he possessed in the village, his own name, so flippantly. I was immediately humbled. That was the crucial moment for me. I knew immediately that my villagers valued education.

After a year of wrestling with the Hausa language, I decided it was time to host a Hausa literacy program. Several villagers had asked me to teach them to read and write. It was important they learn how because the previous volunteer had established a Grain Bank Cooperative in the village. The bank stored grain and sold it for a profit during planting season, when grains are not widely available for consumption. We were granted 10 tons of grain the year I started the literacy program. The villagers rejoiced.

However, along with the ten tons came just as heavy a burden – the burden of keeping records for the government on the grain bank sales. If the records are not recorded correctly, the bank will fold. One problem – my villagers were pre-literate. The literacy program was more than a calling. It was my duty to teach.

Fifteen people were chosen to learn to read and write. I had previous experience teaching literacy, but it was fruitless. I tried to teach Haitian immigrants to read and write in English. This was difficult for two reasons: Most of them could not read and write in Kreyol, their native language, and though I spoke some French, I had a hard time getting past the Kreyol barrier. Ultimately, it seems nearly impossible to learn to read and write in another language before learning to read and write in your own.

As a result of this experience, I was nervous about a new venture.  However, when I received free literacy books from Dutch missionaries, I decided it was time. Though I didn’t know how to pronounce Hausa vowels at first, I was lucky enough to have two former Koranic students in the class who could help me sound them out. It also helped that the book had Hausa fables. The Hausas have a long oral history, so the students found it easier to learn considering it was from stories they already knew. The class was a success for two reasons: I spoke Hausa, a language of mutual understanding, and the material was in Hausa, the language of my students.

 Three months after starting the class, the students began writing me notes about how thankful they were to have the gift of literacy. Five years later, I still have those notes. They are among my most prized possessions.

After the literacy program, my villagers and I went to several business meetings on the grain bank. These meetings were not conducted in swivel chairs but on plastic mats. Impressively, these educated men saved the village from going hungry.

            I had a real “Peace Corps moment” after I ended the literacy program. Some of the students were sitting under a neem tree, reading the books I gave them, sounding out the words with their little brothers and sisters. These would be the future record keepers of the Grain Bank Cooperative, I hoped. This gave me chills, and it still makes me proud to this day to know that I was a part of this marvelous experience. Education can save the world from starvation, poverty, and darkness. Education is our ticket to a better life.