Equity & Diversity Opinion

You Can Learn A Lot From A Brick (in Africa)

By Marilyn Rhames — February 29, 2012 3 min read
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**This post was updated a few hours after publishing to reflect new information received via email from a missionary in Cameroon.

They made all the bricks. The villagers squatted low and scooped up red earth in their hands, packed it into block molds, and left the muddy mix to harden in the hot African sun. There’s a heap of 3,000 bricks, I’m told. “So why haven’t they built the school yet?” I asked. Because of a land dispute between traditional leaders and herdsmen. The rainy season is only weeks away, and if the dispute is not solved soon all the bricks will be destroyed.

On March 26, I will fly across the globe to visit remote villages in Cameroon, Africa. One village has a K-2 school; another village has only a 5th grade. I want to shake the hands of the visionaries in the village who had the faith to at least make the bricks, though the future of the school is uncertain. And if the rain destroys the bricks, they vow to make more again.

I wonder what impact I can make in only two weeks time. I will teach the children; I will bring them school supplies; and I will help their teachers create curricula. But I suspect I will receive far more than I could ever give. I think I’ll get an education that is simply too difficult to learn amid the comforts of the United States. For it seems that nothing can separate the Cameroonians from their relentless desire to educate themselves. Not hunger. Not illiteracy. Not even the staggering rates of HIV/AIDS.

I talk about growing up poor on the South Side of Chicago, but my life has been one of privilege and abundant wealth when compared to two-thirds of the world’s population. There are no food stamps for the villagers of Cameroon. Their poverty has never seen a social security check, a homeless shelter, or running water. A girl cannot call 911 after she has been raped. They have no local police department or hospital. No free lunch programs. No proms. They barely have schools.

Yet, the desire for an education burns deep within their beings. Many of the village women never learned to read or write. Every thing that they have learned has come from what they have seen or been told or have been able to figure out on their own. I shudder to think about who I would be today if my primary source of education came from what people have said or done to me. Today, missionaries there tell me that about 30 women in one village sit on a dirt floor and study the patterns of the alphabet.

When will Americans learn from remote places like Cameroon? How can we begin to understand that poverty—especially western poverty—is not a legitimate reason to dumb down our approach to education. Poverty should be the chief battle cry to elevate our expectations and standards for education. We cannot catch students up by slowing the process down. We cannot break the cycle of poverty by allowing it to dictate how we set our learning goals.

The Cameroonians have the determination to look beyond their poverty, but not the resources to realistically do so. It seems that Americans have the resources to look beyond poverty, but not the determination to do so.

Another problem is that some of our students have developed “learned hopelessness,” and schools can either help fix or exacerbate this problem. Students are internalizing the struggles of their communities and deciding that they cannot achieve before they have even tried. And though I’ve worked with many teachers who had high expectations for their students, I’ve also worked with a few whose expressions of compassion (or guilt) may have inadvertently enabled their students’ feelings of helplessness. We must be unyielding in our belief that every student can learn, whether or not the student agrees with us.

Perhaps we can combat learned helplessness by modeling after the Cameroonians. We have to squat low and with our bare hands start making bricks for the School of Hope. It’s hard work, and the hours are long. The heat of the sun will beat down on us. Sometimes we will feel like saying, “What’s the use?” We must acknowledge our students’ poverty, but then take a visionary approach by looking beyond it to provide the best education possible. We cannot let poverty become a self-fulfilling prophesy. We have to stop students from feeling sorry for themselves. We can show our students what desperate poverty looks like in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya or Mumbai, India.

And when our students start to realize the riches they actually possess, they, too, will squat low and help us make bricks.

If you are interested in making a donation to support my efforts in Cameroon, Africa, please email me at MsRhames@gmail.com.

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