Though there are a few government-commissioned billboards commemorating Guinea’s 50 year anniversary of independence, people here do not seem to be in much of a celebratory mood. Though it is true that Guinea’s independence from France united many tribes behind a strong feeling of nationalism back in 1958, the reality here today is not one of national glory, as this West African country ranks amongst the world’s lowest in terms of health, economic and educational indicators.
Another persistent worry preventing jubilant celebrations is the endemic political unrest here; in the five decades since independence, Guineans have endured coups d’etat, political purges, a repressive period known as ‘The Terror,’ guerilla wars, food shortages, mass violations of human rights, a ban on all private trade and a wide range of social unrest. There is pervasive fear that the widespread riots and street protests of 2008 will intensify in the coming months, leading perhaps to another coup.
Perhaps the greatest deficiency plaguing Guinea is the under-funded and woefully-inadequate educational system. Less than half of Guineans between the ages of 15 and 24 can read and secondary school enrollment here is only 39% for boys and 21% for girls (due to 75% rate of child marriage among the rural girls here). Guinea has never enjoyed a decent school system, which goes back to the days of French colonial rule. When the independence leader Sekou Toure rebuffed Charles de Gaulle’s offer to enter into a free federation with France in 1958, famously declaring, “We prefer poverty in freedom to riches in slavery,” the French departed, but not before looting the country of its resources, sabotaging its meager infrastructure, burning all of their files and canceling all investment and cooperation. As a result, upon independence, Guinea had almost no technical expertise and only 6 college graduates, which may be why their planned economy (without planners) was such a failure.
Besides the depressing educational indicators mentioned above, teachers are extremely underpaid, with some of the best being paid only $80 a month. Teachers I spoke with complained about extremely high class sizes– up to 150 students for an elementary school classroom, with kids squeezed in 4 to a desk. Many schools are not equipped with any textbooks; teachers are given chalk and a lesson plan and expected to “teach” the 100 kids in front of them. Without textbooks, rote memorization is emphasized, which stunts any critical-thinking skills and causes students to lose interest in their schooling.
The horrible state of the country’s educational system is directly linked to many of the social, economic and political problems here, as a population that has not received a basic education or developed any critical thinking skills cannot be expected to rationally address their problems or seek well thought-out solutions. After hearing about the challenges faced by a high-school math and science a teacher from a rural village called Wonkifong, I decided to apply the resources of my donors to help address the shortage of textbooks and supplies. After getting a wish list from the principal, Operation Schoolbook was officially underway. I went to the textbook supply store in the capitol of Conakry and purchased 60 French textbooks (the country’s official language that most rural Guineans cannot speak due to educational shortcomings), as well as 200 textbooks for 9th and 10th grade physical science. In addition, we bought 200 notebooks, 200 pens, 200 rulers, 2 globes and 2 compasses for the teachers to use on the chalkboard.
After schlepping the goods three hours to this little village, I spent the night on a mattress with lizards living inside (no joke, I could feel them squirming underneath me) and at the crack of dawn, I enlisted the help of a few students and a wheelbarrow to help me haul the supplies through the village to the school. The grand total for these supplies came to about $600 and upon delivery, I could see just how valued the donation was by teachers and students alike. The principal, a gentle man named Boubacar, handled each new book like a treasure and assured me that this contribution would make a lasting difference upon the quality of education at the school. As he told me himself, “Few things in this world have the lasting power of schoolbooks.” Words of wisdom indeed.
From the 9th and 10th grade students and teachers of Wonkifong that can actually learn science and French from a textbook, thanks to all of my donors. Your generous contributions are touching lives and it’s a profound pleasure to act as your dutiful conduit, even if I did pull a muscle in my back lifting the boxes of books!