I have been a believer in the ability of education to lift people out of extreme poverty for a long time. I have spent 15 years working in education, with a pretty even mix of time spent with the rural poor in the developing world and with those effected by urban poverty in the US. Even so, I am still frequently blown away by the sheer power of literacy to make meaningful, sustainable change.
According to the United Nations, “Literacy is a fundamental human right and the foundation for lifelong learning. It is fully essential to social and human development in its ability to transform lives. For individuals, families, and societies alike, it is an instrument of empowerment to improve one’s health, one’s income, and one’s relationship with the world.”
I have recently returned from Malawi where I met an amazing group of people in the remote village of Nkhono. buildOn partnered with the village of Nkhono to build its first primary school in 2011. The school was completed 20 days ahead of schedule with almost 3,500 volunteer workdays –three times the the standard. They embraced the buildOn methodology requiring them to be true partners in the project rather than recipients of aid. As a result, the new classrooms and latrines are just part of their success story.
On my last trip to Malawi, I drove through the countryside along a two-track road that often left me questioning what was actually road and what was the beginning of a farmers field. I arrived in the afternoon, just in time for the adult literacy class facilitated by community members who have been trained and are supported by buildOn. The 50 participants are mostly women. They have been taking the class for just six months, but have made great strides in literacy and basic arithmetic.
I asked the group who among them was able to sign their names to the buildOn covenant in advance of the 2011 school construction. Not one of them raised a hand. That meant that each of them had to indicate their commitment to the project with a simple fingerprint. I next asked them who was able to sign their names now. Without hesitation, every hand in the group shot into the air. With great pride, each of them came up to the blackboard to show me her new-found skill.
Being able to sign one’s own name is a source of pride, but what else can basic literacy do for villagers living in such a remote location? The adult literacy participants have started a village bank. Together they have collected the equivalent of almost $100 to make loans for small businesses. One woman took a loan of $3 to buy and sell tomatoes, another $4 to buy and sell fish, and another $3 to brew local beer. I commended them for their efforts, but asked them why they waited for buildOn’s literacy class to start this project? We didn’t contribute any seed money or give them the structure. Their answer was quite simple. Without basic literacy and numeracy skills the women would not have been able to organize themselves, record deposits and loans, or account for the money.
Next, the women told me they asked the chief for a small plot of land where they worked collectively to plant peanuts to be sold in the market. With their earnings, they bought school uniforms for five orphans in the community. I immediately thought to myself, “An NGO can do the noble work of providing uniforms for orphans to go to school. But, what happens when the NGO leaves the area or runs out of money?” Instead, the women of Nkhono have been given the basic skills to Break the Cycle of poverty, illiteracy, and low expectations through service and education! They have the skills and confidence to solve the problems of their own community!
As I left the school, I ran into the headmaster and asked him about the impact of the new school structure. The enrollment has increased by 58% and the 8th grade passing rate has jumped by almost 400%! I asked the headmaster why there has been such a huge change in just two years. The teachers are the same, the headmaster is the same, and the curriculum is unchanged. He told me, “This school has attracted and motivated many learners. This school is a source of pride for us and encouraged us to take education very seriously.”
Indeed, the construction of a safe, permanent school building provides a more conducive learning environment, but that is just part of the change. If the villagers are made true partners in a development project, as is the case for the buildOn school construction and adult literacy class, they will continue to make change long after the NGO leaves. Instead of a culture of dependency, the buildOn methodology of true community partnership is creating self-reliance through education!