How can the Western world help Africa’s forgotten children?

Having recently returned from Africa, my head is still spinning with so many sights and experiences and now a whole host of questions about how the western world can best help African street children and others in such desperate states of poverty across Africa. My trip this time took me to Tanzania, a country with a very similar social situation to Kenya. I had the amazing privilege of teaching in a school, helping out at an orphanage and playing with the children, home schooling a girl of 13 and teaching an adult class. I was only there two weeks but what a lot of life I saw in those two weeks!

I totally believe that education is the way out of poverty. Handouts are important to get people on to the ladder where they have the ability to help themselves but that must ultimately be where we are leading them through education. They must not become reliant on handouts long term. I hope that that is always our focus in the charity but it never hurts to continually re-assess and keep checking our progress and our path.

As a Christian charity, education in the orphanage predominantly consists of Christian teaching because English, Maths, Science and all other academic subjects are taught at school. We provide Bible teaching, Sunday worship, and all forms of teaching about our Lord and His amazing love for us. This is to provide a loving Christian environment for the children to grow up in, to understand the wonder of a relationship with Jesus and to become Christian followers themselves but also to encourage them to be good citizens who will be an asset to their community. Saying that education is the way out of poverty, yes I believe it is, but I am also aware that if used wrongly in society it can, of course, compound the problem of a bigger divide between educated and non-educated, between rich and poor. A Christian upbringing is a good moral grounding for how to use their skills and education well once they leave the security of the home and go out in to the world.

Let’s not get too complacent though. We mustn’t forget that in teaching Christianity, without careful handling, we end up creating “rice Christians” meaning those who come apparently believing in God, paying lip service to their love for Jesus but actually only doing so because they believe it ultimately secures them food, supplies and care from us. I’ve certainly seen situations where that happens in Christian led charities. It’s a very delicate balance and we need to keep reinforcing the fact that we will love and care for them regardless of whether they choose to be a follower of Jesus Christ or not. After all, Jesus loved and cared for everyone regardless of whether they even said thank you and that is the message we must get across.

With regards to their education at school, what form does that academic education take? School education in Tanzania, or rather in the small amount of the school system that I witnessed, was quite bizarre compared to the teaching we are lucky enough to access here in the UK. I taught in a class of 80 children which was fortunately divided in to 2 classes of 40 as the days went on, split between myself and another volunteer. Before the class was “handed over” to me I watched the teaching conducted by two of the school’s own teachers trying to educated this ‘Standard 1’ class of 5-10 year olds. The lessons of Maths, English and Science were taught in English even though the children barely understood it. Swahili is fortunately taught in Swahili. The only thing that I could see being achieved was that the children were just learning the art of copying from the blackboard. There was little comprehension of what they were writing and they couldn’t particularly understand the teacher as she explained it in English. Reading took on the form of the teacher insisting that the children chant the words on the board over and over again, louder and louder and louder until she was happy that they could read it even though they hadn’t got a clue what the words meant.

In science, children were taught about HIV/AIDS and how to avoid catching it. Of course, none of them understand what it is or what “sleeping with people” (as they were taught) is let alone why it can transmit HIV. At one point I had to correct the teacher on what the difference between HIV and AIDS is because she didn’t really understand herself and was teaching it incorrectly. Not that it mattered because the children couldn’t understand the English sentences she was writing on the blackboard anyway!

I was then asked to teach English and I picked up where the teacher left off in teaching about animals. Knowing all the time that they couldn’t really understand me, I pursued a teaching system of drawing a lot of pictures then using the simplest words and methods I could possibly think of to explain what they were, alongside Swahili words from my dictionary, all the time struggling to be heard over 40 children talking, none of whom were ever sitting in their seats for more than 5 seconds. After 2 weeks I was exhausted! No wonder the teachers assigned to watch over us spent their time sleeping at the back! I think in 10 days of teaching the only wisdom I managed to impart was the names of a few animals and even then many of the children still couldn’t even pin the word on the picture. They couldn’t understand why I didn’t want them to just copy everything in to their exercise books and call it a day.

I personally haven’t taught in a school in Kenya yet but I would love to for the experience alone. I’m prepared that it is likely to be very similar. Obviously, children are indeed learning in this system but you would have to be a reasonably switched on child to be able to keep up and get much from it. It was clear which children in the class were the bright and able ones who will do well anyway and who were coping well in this system of learning. Many children, however, were not keeping up and were completely lost. I couldn’t see much of a future for them. The 13 year old girl whom I home schooled for a short time was in that exact situation. She had been asked to leave school from her class of 100 pupils because she could not keep up as a result of her learning difficulties. Indeed, how on earth was she ever going to be able to progress in that environment? But, in home schooling her, that was where I was able to really make a difference through 1 to 1 learning. Aside from some help with Maths and English I was able to teach her the skill of crochet and could leave her with crochet needles and lots of wool to start to develop the skill. With her own drive leading her now, she has enough of a start to go on to earn a living from what she can make even if she would never have enough support to progress in academics.

How long will it take for the education system to start meeting the needs of the students? The answer is… decades! In the meantime, the able will progress and the weak will continue to fall by the wayside trampled by the stronger ones on their way up the ladder. Children will continue to drop out or be pushed out of school because they can’t keep up and the streets will gain more lost children. I hope that the Christian teaching we offer in the home will break that cycle amongst our children but there are so many more out there. Africa desperately needs more westerners to get involved, to donate, to go on short mission trips and teach, to adopt pockets of children or communities and live amongst them and help educate them. My experience was that they were so grateful for anything I did for them especially teaching, it wasn’t all about handouts. They want to be able to help themselves and we can help them to do that if we are just prepared to step forward and do it. Please do join us and get involved either with skills and volunteering or a donation.  Any level of donation will go a very long way in Africa.  Volunteering and teaching, even just for 2 weeks, will last a lifetime within those that you teach.