African Experience Underlines Value of Languages, travel.(LIFE - SCHOOLS)(HOME-SCHOOLING TODAY)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 18, 2002 | Go to article overview

African Experience Underlines Value of Languages, travel.(LIFE - SCHOOLS)(HOME-SCHOOLING TODAY)


Byline: Kate Tsubata, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

I just returned from a trip to Togo, a small country in West Africa, where I was privileged to serve as one of about 50 observers for last month's parliamentary election. I was accompanied by my eldest daughter and by a group of Americans from many walks of life. Although I was there to witness the elections and ensure that they were free, fair and transparent, I could not help but notice the educational situation of that country and also reflect upon education in America.

As election observers, we traveled to four of the 81 prefectures. Many of the 4,000 polling places were schools, so we naturally were able to observe the conditions under which students in Togo learn. The schools were rudimentary cement-block buildings with permanently open windows and doorways. Desks were simple bench-and-table arrangements. In nearly every case, there was a single blackboard along the front wall and another along the back wall. There was one desk for the teacher.

Yet, on those blackboards was a treasure trove of information: meticulously drawn diagrams of the human femur, in cross section, with all the Latin terms for each section indicated; polynomial equations written out for assignments; a closely written list of dates and events in history; sentences diagrammed for a French grammar lesson.

I was in awe to think that a teacher had spent hours writing up the information and drawing out each of those illustrations so the children, who have no textbooks, could painstakingly copy them into notebooks astounded me.

I confess, I had thought African education would be several steps below the American standard. I am ashamed to report that this is just not true. In fact, I met four boys, ages 10 to 12, who were spending their Sunday afternoon studying and quizzing each other on the subjects written on the board. When I thought of American children spending free time poking the buttons on their video games, I was embarrassed.

That such dedication to education could exist amid severe poverty shook up my concepts. Among many of the adult members of the population, illiteracy is rampant. Many had to vote by finding the logo of the party they desired, pressing a finger into an inked stamp pad and putting a fingerprint on the square they wished.

For those people, access to information is limited to radio or television. The ability of one of their children to read and write gives the entire family access to new sources of knowledge: newspapers, books or even the Bible.

I also was struck by the importance of my own educational background in preparing me for this international experience. As a child, I always was interested in foreign languages and greedily learned all the little phrases my elementary school teachers or my parents were able to teach me. Later, I studied Latin, which gave me a good structure for learning nearly any language.

I studied French for five years, through high school and college, and I gave myself extra assignments to increase my learning speed. …

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