Written by: Tamara Cummings-John
When I met Bintu she was suffering from a mild bout of malaria; it was at a Girls Empowerment Summit organized by the Visao Foundation and Women Change Africa. Although she was experiencing symptoms like aches and a fever, she insisted on staying for the whole day. We gave her pain relief medication and allowed her to sit out any activities that she didn't feel up to. I was moved by this petite 14 year old who dreams of becoming a lawyer some day. As with many of the girls in the class, she comes from a very poor family and attends a school that had been built by the phenomenal NGO FAWE (Forum for African Women Educationalist).
As I watched Bintu struggle throughout the day to take part in the numerous activities, perking up at times and finding her voice as she spoke about things that she was passionate about, I felt extremely proud to have chosen her as my sponsored child. It's seems a no-brainer to me that children like Bintu who face adversities on a daily basis yet struggle to overcome them, deserve our support. The things some of us take for granted are obstacles to education for many children in developing and to a certain extent developed countries. The idea of having to worry about getting a balanced meal before going to school so that they can focus in class or having the money they need for transportation to get to school on time, not to mention the essentials required for school like textbooks, some of which are prohibitively expensive. What I took away from the Girls Empowerment Summit was that in spite of these adversities and because of support from organisations like FAWE and Visao, the future of these children was starting to look very bright. I worked with about 40 teenagers during the Girls Empowerment Summit and Visao's holiday camp and was blown away at every point of my interaction with them. When quizzed about their aspirations for the future, every one of them without exception had lofty ambitions. When asked what makes a good role model, they came up with qualities like humility, kindheartedness, generosity, education and spirituality. When one of them suggested she admired a particular celebrity, the others retorted, saying that famous people were not good role models simply because they were in the spotlight. They spoke in unison when rejecting superficial qualities and spoke admiringly about people who had worked hard to achieve their goals and had given back to their societies. These may seem like obvious choices to those of us who have life experiences and can attest to the fact that all that glitters most definitely is not gold but I can't help but wonder if I would elicit the same responses from children from an inner city school in London or a poor neighbourhood in Brooklyn. It goes without saying that these are the types of responses we would expect from children who come middle class families simply because their upbringing is aspirational; they are taught by their parents who for the most part are educated that they should value education over money, hard work over fame. Some of the parents of these children at Camp Visao however are barely literate; during one of the sessions one of the fathers came to see his daughter and brought crackers for her. As I watched him fish around in the black plastic bag he was carrying for two solitary unwrapped cream crackers, it dawned on me that the living conditions of these children were a far cry from the classroom they sat in now. As this thin unkempt man handed the embarrassed 15 year old his gift, he told me in krio "I was eating these and thought I can't eat something and not keep some for my child". The girl was well groomed and her appearance, in no way reflected a life of hunger or poverty; by contrast, it was clear looking at her unkempt, scrawny-looking father, that he was struggling to make ends meet. The importance of what Visao and FAWE and the countless other not-for-profit organisations that were investing in the education of such children, was crystal clear at that precise moment. The beauty of investing in children's education is that we can affect real change in our countries, not just the cosmetic type - the new road that later becomes pot-hole ridden and dilapidated; the well donated by a well meaning international NGO, that a year later falls into disrepair. The change we affect when we invest in education is guaranteed because there are countless examples of children who because of the opportunities they were offered went on to do great things. The video below is an advert for the boys and girls club in America; the slogan "Great Futures start here" could be said for countless clubs/organisations throughout the world that invest in education, giving less fortunate children the opportunities they need and deserve so that they in turn become leaders who go on to influence and affect the lives of others.
We already have a glimpse into the future of children like Bintu, whose determination saw her through the day and Alieu, another Camp Visao student who scored the highest marks in his school on the Basic Education Certification Examination (BECE). And there are others....like 16 year old Abibatu, whose talent in football, if nurtured could see her doing great things or Alima, a painfully shy yet stunning young girl of 17 who could give any supermodel a run for her money, that is after completing her university degree. There are countless other examples of children whose present reassure us that their future is bright - like Kelvin Doe, a young Sierra Leonean who through his curiosity and ingenuity learned how to build batteries, generators and transmitters and has now become the youngest person to be invited to MIT's Visiting Practitioner's Program. What all these young people have in common is that they are beating the odds, setting their own paths and ensuring that their future will be so bright, it will dazzle us.