I’ve been lucky to visit Room-to-Read schools in Laos, Vietnam, Nepal, South Africa, and Zambia.
Although there’s a huge range of intensity and formality—fortunately not many of mine have been four hours long– “Project visits” have certain rhythm. There’s generally a performance by children, speeches by officials (may or may not include additional requests), maybe music or refreshments, generally a symbolic gift.
My favorite part of the visit for SURE is interactions with the children.
I want to talk to the children, to hear about their lives, about their dreams, their chores, their favorite part of school.
But first I have to get down on the floor and get dirty.
No surprise, local children are shy around a foreign white woman coming into their school. I’m sure they’ve been warned to be on their best behavior…if I was on the other end of things that’s what I’d do.
There’s a “Touch N Go Game”, checkers with bottle caps. Nsolo, a logic game with stones that I can’t make head or tales of. Some children read aloud. And my favorite is a jacks-like game with stones. Soon enough I’m sitting on the ground and ask for a turn.
They don’t laugh at my poor performance, but give me a larger pod that is easier to use as the “ball” in the game. They are as proud of me as I am that I improve quickly. And then I show a couple of hand games I whip out in international settings. Easy to show, hard to do. They laugh. I ask a couple of teachers to give a try. They fail miserably, just like the kids do. Everyone laughs.
Now the kids will talk to me. I know that education is by rote here. “The shirts that several of the teachers wear,” I ask, “Can anyone tell me what they say?”
“Teachers for gender equality,” says the clear young voice.
“What does that mean?”
Silence. No idea. This is not hypothetical. Girls in this region most often drop out…or rather are forced to drop out at puberty. Legal age of sexual consent in Zambia is 16. Legal age for marriage age is 21. But by age of 14 arranged marriages, to much older men are extremely common. Room to Read started its girls scholarship program in Zambia three years ago here in the Chongwe District with 200 seventh grade girls. We guarantee the family to support the girl in everything she needs for school, including health insurance, as long as she passes. After three years 63 of those 200 girls have dropped out.
I ask one 11-year old girl what she wants to be.
“Wow, that is an ambitious goal. Good for you. You will need to do well in school for that.” But even if she does, is that goal close to possible?
The next girl says she wants to be a model. I pretend not to understand. So she explains, in
very good English, what a model does. Wow. Where to go with that one? I move to geography.
“Can any of you guess how long it took me to get here from my home in the United States?”
“Two days,” says one boy. The children talk amongst themselves and come to consensus. “Yes. Two days.”
One clear and right answer that we can agree on.