Monday, January 6, 2014

Holidays, Children and Wise Men

Post by Alberto Begué, Senior Education Advisor at Plan International USA.
This is a cross-post from the Global Campaign for Education blog.

In my native Spain, today is a very special day for little boys and girls. All over the country the Reyes Magos (the Three Wise Men) riding their camels brought the gifts and toys the children requested several weeks ago. These imaginary characters, with a little help of the adults in their lives, will fulfill the children’s dreams. Some will be disappointed. They will not have received the doll they asked for or the expensive video game their friend owns, but, even if they don’t get all the toys they wanted, they will have what many children can only dream about. They will return to school the next day.

Unfortunately, millions of children are still deprived of the right to education. Nearly 120 million school-aged children worldwide — most of them girls — are not enrolled in school. Some are not in school because their parents cannot afford the fees. Some are not in school because culture and traditions do not value education for girls. Some are not in class because the closest school is too far for them to walk to alone.

There are a myriad of reasons that keep children out of school, but the good news there are solutions that can grant these children’s wishes, with a little help from the adults in their communities. Adults like Mr. Kassoum, a local hero from the village of Weyzebangou in the Tillabery region of Niger.

As a boy, Mr. Kassoum attended the local school, and, though he didn’t do very well, he had ambition. He left the village to immigrate to Nigeria. In Nigeria, he established a business and made a small fortune.

Kassoum returned to Weyzebangou to visit relatives. On these visits, he saw that there wasn’t much progress being made in the village. He found his old school lacking infrastructure, classrooms and materials. When he asked about the situation, he found no action was being taken.

During one of his visits, he attended a meeting held by a community facilitator. The facilitator was part of the USAID-Niger Education Community Urban Strengthening Program (NECS) that is implemented by Plan International (Plan), Aide et Action, and Volontaires pour L’Integration Educative (VIE) Kande Ni Bayra. The program’s objectives are to improve education in Niger and increase community support for students. The program trains community facilitators to mobilize communities into action that will improve the learning environment for their children.

The facilitator addressed all of the communities concerns about breaking with tradition and explained all the benefits of an education during the meeting. Kassoum was touched by what he heard at the meeting. He reflected on his own education and wondered how much better he would have done in school if he had the support that he needed. He realized that the children in the village faced the same obstacles.

Inspired, Kassoum committed to change things. He pledged not to return to Nigeria without finding a solution to this problem. Though he was not a permanent resident in his village, the community chose him to attend the training on school management because he was well-respected in the village. After the training, Kassoum provided funding, organized the villagers and gathered materials to construct eight new classrooms.

The children of the village of Weyzebangou only had one wise man, but a pile of bricks, a roof, some benches, some books and a trained and motivated teacher was the best gift they could receive. Thanks to motivated community members like Kassoum, these children have the opportunity to set up the foundations that will allow them to be responsible citizens, to acquire the knowledge they will need to flourish as individuals and as members of a society and, hopefully, to find a good employment. They can be the generation that lifts their community out of poverty.

As an adult, I now believe in Wise Men, who bring gifts to little kids. They don’t always have camels.

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