Most of the evenings here have been spent fighting a slow internet connection – it can take an hour of failed attempts to get a photo up for the LearnAsOne blog, so we’ve been working on that pretty much flat out.
We’ve been at the school now for four days, and the kids have gone from being nervous and shy around us on the first couple of days to chasing us around, singing and dancing. I know a lot of their names now, and a fair few of their stories and the hardest thing about writing about this place for LAO is treading the fine line between being a fundraising activity – which has to describe the incredible poverty here – and wanting to be completely objective about these people.
Everyone we’ve met, from the illiterate farmers to the brilliant, brilliant headmaster (who, incidentally, is my new hero) is eloquent, polite, friendly and determined that what they don’t want is long term charity dependence. Just a leg up to buy the materials they don’t have for their school.
It’s not just about giving the children a primary education, which won’t just improve their lives and give the community the long term knowledge base it needs for economic development – it may save their lives too. The school is the only resource they have for learning about HIV, hygiene, malaria treatment, dietary requirements, what the signs are that you need to call a doctor.
The headmaster also runs a health outreach program. It’s hard to comprehend the distances between all of the huts and farms that make up the Simakakata community, but it’s home to 5,000 people.
There are no roads, no power, no water mains. The volunteers for this program do rounds, walking several kilometres a day visiting each shack in turn, and noting down any illnesses, births, deaths or other problems and offering advice. They report to George (the head) and he passes the relevant information on to the government. Any demographic information – vital for malaria and AIDS projects as well as the civil service – comes to the school in the first instance.
Without a good building with some utilities and housing for teachers, schools like Simakakata can’t attract trained teachers. George came a year ago, leaving a good school where he lived on site in a nice house voluntarily to cycle 16km every day to work in a derelict farmhouse without even a toilet or tap – without being offered a payrise. Because he wants to change the way things are for communities like Simakakata, and has worked in places that have been revolutionised by having a good school. Without good teachers, the only hope this community has is that it will carry on as it is now – living a bare existence and subsisting on bags of corn flour provided by aid agencies. With teachers, they can start to learn how to do things for themselves.
At the very least, some of the children can leave to get a good job and send money home. They deserve more – those involved with the school project all believe that in 10 years time this place will be completely different – a proper, modern town that can generate its own wealth.
Right now, it’s all I can do to stop myself crying when I see a beautiful girl I’ve just been teaching a song to run off and – basically – drink out of a ditch because she’s walking 7km home in the late afternoon sun and is thirsty.
They say a church is more than a building. This school is much more than education, but there is nothing that it needs more than bricks and mortar.