Benedicto Kondowe, a soft-spoken education expert from Malawi, met with me a few weeks ago to explain what it's like to get schools up and running in his home country.
Each class has about 200 or more students per teacher, he said. Rather than meet in some traditional school building, they assemble under a large tree somewhere to temper the heat and the rain.
And yet, despite conditions we would consider intolerable, he was passionate about the value of this effort. For the past six years, Kondowe has led 81 civil society organizations in his country in a joint effort to secure the right to a quality education for all his nation’s children.
I thought about Kondowe as I read about schoolgirls being kidnapped in Nigeria by a group whose name, Boko Haram, translates to “Western education is sinful.”
As African nations go, Malawi is not exactly close to Nigeria, and yet they share common struggles with poverty and ignorance that only education can solve.
In the United States, people take education for granted. But in these nations, children sometimes risk their lives to acquire basic skills that are absolutely essential to them and their nation’s future.
And their heroism is vital to us on this side of the world, as well.
If we have learned anything since 9/11, it is that the fruits of ignorance and extremism can indeed fall far from their trees. Those who equate Western education with sin will not necessarily be content keeping their brand of hate local, and the ignorance and fear they spread destabilizes their own nations, as well as regional politics and international relations.
Kondowe came to me as a guest of Results, an advocacy group that focuses on ways to help the world’s most impoverished people. In the interest of full disclosure, the group gave me an award three years ago for opinion pieces I’ve written on poverty.
Specifically, he was urging my help in getting Congress to appropriate $250 million over the next two years to the Global Partnership for Education, a tightly monitored program that directs funding to struggling nations that have identified specific targets and goals.
The good news is Congress seems of a mind to grant the request. The bad news is education has no shortage of enemies in the regions where it is most needed.
When officials from Results start listing the benefits of education in struggling Sub-Saharan countries, it’s easy to see why Boko Haram considers little girls in classrooms to be such a threat to their form of power and thuggery. Citing figures from UNESCO, Results says that without at least 40 percent literacy, no country can hope for long-term economic growth.
More to the point, children are 50 percent more likely to live past the age of 5 if their mothers can read. And far from benefitting only girls, boys become 20 percent less likely to engage in violent conflict for every year they attend a formal school.
That last statistic comes from the 9/11 Commission, which noted, “The United Nations has rightly equated ‘literacy as freedom.’ ”
Education also tends to promote a greater desire for democracy and stable government, just as it leads to higher wages for both genders.
Knowledge, like music, calms a bitter heart. Terrorism, on the other hand, demands ignorance and desperation.
As I write this, Boko Haram has admitted kidnapping 276 girls last month with the intent of selling them into slavery, followed by eight more abductions Sunday. The group is believed responsible for an attack on a village that killed 150 people.
Colin Smith, deputy director of communications for Results, told me Nigeria only recently became a partner in the Global Partnership for Education, but the country has yet to receive any money as it works out an acceptable spending plan.
Nigeria’s official response to the kidnapping has been curiously tepid, which may be a reason to think twice about giving it money. On the other hand, as my friend Benedicto Kondowe knows, the only real answer to such a thing is an even deeper commitment to more education.
That’s a commitment that ultimately will keep us safer over here, as well.
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