Monthly Archives: November 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

Learning to Read

How much do you think about your ability to read? Do you ever consciously notice how much you use this skill just to function in everyday life? What if it were difficult to understand what was going on around you because you lacked this ability? How would that affect your independence, your choices, and your overall quality of life?

As we discussed in my last post, the education system in Burkina Faso is making reforms and changing for the better. That, however, is the future; the literacy rates of Burkina reflect the facts of the past. According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), 71.3% of the Burkinabe people 15 years old and older are illiterate.

Church leaders who can already read come together for a seminar on how to teach others to read.

One can imagine the effects this has on the economy and Burkina’s ability to interact on an international level. Self-esteem can be low, and having goals for one’s life is not even in a person’s thoughts or worldview. Many times people will learn just enough to be able to function in the market place, but can only manage money on a small scale. It would be too easy for someone to take advantage of them when finances get so complex that they need to be written down. A lot of people still use their own special “X” or some other unique mark to sign things.

The class reading the literacy materials.

There are also major effects on the way our ministry here can be done. There are usually only 2-3 people or often only one person in a village who can read well enough to read and teach Bible stories. It has happened sometimes that the one reader has to move away in search of better job opportunities, leaving the church without a good way to access stories from the Bible.

The class toward the end of the week. They've worked hard and are tired and serious. (It's cultural to not smile for pictures, but that's changing.)

A student listening intently.

This also leads to somewhat younger people becoming the leaders instead of the elderly, normally accepted leader in this culture. Where the wisdom of age is lacking, there may be an opportunity for mistakes or abuses of power to occur. At the very least, it is difficult to have a deep Bible study if only one person has read the text. If that person missed something in the reading, there is no one to notice and get the group on the right track.

The government of Burkina has had an adult literacy program for a long time. There are also other organizations whose main goal is literacy work. Each of these has their books and their methods. So people are trying; however, there are some difficulties. One involves the weather patterns which I discussed in my first post. During planting and harvesting times, it is not possible to gather enough people to have a class. They are all out working in their fields, needing every available person to get the job done. So it is during the dry season when it’s too hot to grow anything on a large scale that these programs are in full force.

Another problem is in some of the materials themselves. Some of the books have typos and mistakes, so the teacher has to be aware and not teach the wrong thing. There is also the issue I touched on earlier in that people who have never been to school, or didn’t do well, have neither a high enough self-esteem nor high enough expectations for life itself to be motivated to go to the class all the time and do their best. People are absent a lot and therefore not consistent in their learning.

Aaron teaching in a rented house (for the week), using a borrowed chalkboard.

Although there are already programs available, there is still plenty of room for more. As a part of our team’s overall goals for helping churches grow stronger, we have begun a program of literacy classes with a goal of being able to study the Bible. Some may know how to read, but they may still not know how to teach, especially with a Christian attitude of serving and humility. This is a result of the school system here being very harsh, using a method of punishment and shame instead of encouragement. Also, as well as learning small things like how to make a class list and keep an attendance booklet, they learn an inductive method of studying the Bible together.

The first group of trained literacy teachers. (Photo by Aaron Burk.)

Aaron reading a story from the Dagara kids' Bible to literacy teachers.

In August we had the first seminar which trained a class of 24 readers to teach others in their village to read. These 24 men can now go out and start classes of 30 each in their villages. When those people can read, they can then learn how to teach by attending a seminar and then reach even more villages. When each teacher has started his class, he gets a gift of a kids’ Bible translated into Dagara, which he can use to help motivate the church to want to learn and practice.

By teaching a person to read, you can open up a whole new world of opportunities and knowledge to him or her. You give him the tools not only to understand more about God, others, and how to function in the world, but also the tools to help others.

What do you think? Have you seen firsthand the effects of illiteracy? Could you do your job if you couldn’t read? What is the illiteracy rate in your country, in your city?

(For even more on the literacy program here, go visit Aaron’s blog at  He has several posts about it.)


Kids Are The Future

Educating children is the key to a country’s future. Burkina Faso is making progress, yet still struggling in this respect. In talking with a few people about their experiences, it was very obvious that Burkina is on the cutting edge of change, but that many are impatient and unhappy with the speed of that change.

Beautiful kids in public school.

The System Structure

Burkina’s school system is based on the French system, since they are a former colony of France. Primary school has 6 different levels, grouped in pairs. When a student has finished all of them, he takes an exam to get into middle school where the levels are counted backwards, starting with the 6th level and counting down to the 3rd. After this, one can take another exam which allows a student to take other courses to become a teacher, nurse, government worker, etc, as long as they are old enough. After middle school, high school consists of the 2nd and 1st level and the last year called “terminale” where one studies for the BAC, a major test that determines whether or not you can be accepted into university. There is one university in the capital, Ouagadougou.  There really aren’t enough schools for everyone; class sizes can range from 50-80.

This is what the outside of a typical Burkinabe school looks like. Windows on both sides provide a breeze.

Why Many Aren’t in School

As of 2010, over a million primary aged children were not in school at all. There are many reasons for this. Sometimes the parents refuse to let their children go to school because they need them in the fields or they want to teach them their job instead. They are stuck, lacking understanding of what an education can do for one’s life. Because people put more emphasis on community than individualism, the stereotypes and expectations for children to be like their parents are very strong. Other times the child is afraid to go to school because they aren’t used to so many people all at once or because they have heard that the teacher at their school hits the students for wrong answers or badly done work. Our night guard has a couple of stories about being hit in school, so badly once that he lost hearing in his ear for a little while.

Younger kids in a private school.

There is also a custom here of finding a young girl around 10 years old from the village to come and watch the baby of a person who has a pretty good job, such as a government worker. It’s very common to see a girl of 10 with a baby wrapped on her back in the traditional style of carrying babies here. It’s also possible for a family to send their son to work for another family. Sometimes the parents get some kind of payment; sometimes it’s just free labor for their own extended family. Many times, as well, girls will not be treated equally in that they are not kept in school past about 10 or 12 yrs old. Their mothers will bring them home to help around the house and then they will get married in a few years. Often there are more boys in school than girls, especially in the upper levels.

The kids all have to learn French in order to continue with school. These are verb conjugations.

This little boy understood me when I asked them to act like they were studying. Most seemed to still be more comfortable with Dagara.

The most obvious cause for not attending school is that they can’t afford it. The costs, which would be negligible for many of us, are often insurmountable for a village family especially, but for many others as well once you count in the cost of books and materials or possibly a uniform. If they have more than one child, it can really add up. Many begin primary school but are unable to continue as prices go up for higher levels of education. For whatever reason, many kids don’t start school at the normal age of 6 or 7. When this is the case, the public schools no longer accept them so they must go to a private one. Prices are even higher in this case. Most likely, if a child’s parent dies, they will not be able to afford to go anymore either.

More cute kids in a public school. This class had 58 students!

Adeline has gone back to school as a young adult.

Night School

In this reality of the system, many people have to stop going to school at many different levels of education. Now, however, there is definitely a resurgence of young adults going back to school to get their basic diploma which enables them to try for a variety of good jobs. They are not allowed to go to public school because they are too old, so there are night schools and tutors. Adeline is a young lady who lost her father when she was about 14 and had to drop out of school. She has recently gone back to night school and has been able to begin again to work toward her future. She has not yet been able to afford the books, but shares with other classmates. She says that it’s been a little difficult to get back into and understand, but there is no money for a tutor. She is not alone in this situation.

The Hopeful Future

Fortunately, things are changing. The government has made the first couple of years of school free now, is making efforts to get all the children in school, including the girls, and is really concentrating on the illiteracy rate among girls. Even among the people who shared their experiences with me, there was a different point of view depending on their ages. It was inspiring to visit the children in schools right now. They are like children should be everywhere, getting their chance to learn and grow.

I had to include this one. Kids are the same everywhere, precious and unique personalities.

These are the "cafeteria ladies." Every school has women who wait around for lunchtime to sell food to the kids. They aren't smiling for the picture, but they were a lot of fun!

What do you think? “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Two out of three adults I asked said they thought about it when they were young, and when I asked a group of boys who were here to play, they all had something they wanted to be…policemen, doctor, soldier, and a boat captain (my favorite because Burkina is landlocked).

How many of you thought about what you wanted to be when you were a kid? Did you feel limited by your circumstances? Did you feel if you just worked hard enough you could do it?

A Need for Healing

A hand-pumped well in the shadow of a cell tower.

Although Burkina Faso is an underdeveloped country, the people are striving to advance in many areas. It is full of contrasts: patches of modernization right next to rural traditions. It’s a place where one can find cell phones out in the farthest villages which have no electricity. People charge them on car batteries and stand on the one hill or next to the one tree where there is a signal. It’s a place where a satellite dish can be found in a yard enclosed by a grass mat wall. It’s also a place where the medical system is struggling to provide, where one can get laparoscopic surgery in the capital for $1400, and yet people are dying in the villages for lack of $2.

A satellite dish peeking out from a temporary grass mat fence.

Many people are trying to change things, but it’s a huge task. As is true everywhere, some people are doing their best, working hard, while others just coast. However, even the people working hard are up against so many obstacles. There is a physical side to the difficulties in that there just aren’t enough resources for better facilities, equipment, or materials. There are also obstacles to overcome in the attitudes of the people, both the doctors and the patients.

Materially, it is plain to see that Burkina just doesn’t have the resources necessary to keep equipment and facilities up to date. In the capital city of Ouagadougou (Wagadoogoo), one can find almost all the usual equipment. There is a machine for MRIs and one for CAT scans, but if one of them breaks down, the patient just has to wait until it’s repaired. There is a place that specializes in heart problems as well as several sonogram machines in the city. Facilities vary in age and cleanliness. The most knowledgeable doctors are there; however, there are just some things they can’t do or have to send away to get tested. They are limited by the equipment and supplies.

The nurses' station in Dano. It used to be the only hospital in town.

As one travels out further to smaller towns, standards are lower because resources are fewer. Most of the pictures here are from the older hospital in Dano, which is really more of a nurses’ station. The new hospital has more capabilities, but still can’t do everything they can do in Ouaga.

The doctor's office where patients go when they first come in.

One of the rooms in the small surgery operating room.

Small operations are performed here.

Doctors have worked extremely hard to achieve their knowledgeable position and should be applauded for that; however, many times pride has taken over and there seems to be a superior attitude. This is definitely changing, but is still rooted in a hierarchical, respect-based society. Their pride as well as their being assigned to a region where they don’t speak the language can keep them from taking the time to explain an illness to a patient. In the U.S., there are magazine articles and television shows everywhere teaching about medical issues and illnesses: how to prevent them, the signs and symptoms, and even how to treat some things. In Burkina, most people from the villages can’t even read, and often return from the doctor without a firm idea about what is wrong with them, much less a good understanding of how to live with the illness or prevent it. Many times they are too intimidated to ask questions about their own health.

The tiled, run-down operating table.

In more developed countries, if we get sick, we tend to go see a doctor right away. We see it as a right and the natural course of things that we get medical advice and the needed medicines. When someone dies, it’s extremely rare that we don’t know the reason. In the villages of Burkina, people are much more accepting of illness and death as the norm. Some of this is due to lack of money for medicines and transportation to the doctor, but some is due to lack of knowledge, an attitude of fatalism, or an inferiority complex coming from the generational poverty. In their view, important people and those with money can go to the hospital and buy medicines, but it seems almost impossible for them to have that same privilege. They just don’t see coming into town to see the doctor as an option sometimes; therefore, they wait so long to seek help that it is often too late. The person ends up dying in the hospital, fostering the idea that one goes to the hospital to die, and therefore discouraging people from wanting to seek out the hospital. It’s a cycle that needs to be broken.

We recently had two cases of this. One woman had been sick for several days, having already been told by her local nurses’ station that she needed to go have her appendix taken out. She put it off until it had burst, but fortunately she got to the hospital in Dano in time and lived. However, another woman had been sick off and on and this time they waited too long to bring her in. The hospital didn’t even want to admit her at first, perhaps to save the family’s meager money or maybe trying to stop the misconception that the hospital is only a place to come to die. In the end, she was at least able to die comfortably and with dignity in a hospital bed.

The maternity ward at the hospital.

It is very easy to get frustrated and to question why they don’t seem to care or want to change their situation, but we have to understand that many of these attitudes are deep-seated, prevalent in many cultures across Africa, and have far-reaching implications in society as a whole. It’s also important to remember that we should not stereotype and assume everyone is the same in another culture. Despite patterns, each person and situation is unique.

There is a good article that succinctly explains the general mindset of traditional African culture, written by an atheist who believes that Africa needs God, not just aid work. He states, “Every man has his place and, call it fear or respect, a great weight grinds down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity. People won’t take initiative, won’t take things into their own hands or on their own shoulders.” He goes on to say that a personal relationship with God liberates people from these attitudes.

Kids at a medical clinic enjoying a presentation on good hygiene.

Doctors and translators work together to see over a hundred kids. There are four different areas in this school room for examining the kids.

Waiting to see a doctor.

A kid's eye view of a vision test.

Although the medical system needs a lot of changes and is a work in progress, there are things that can be done now. One thing being done is that our team has partnered with local and foreign doctors and nurses to offer clinics for school children. They are given a basic physical in which they are tested for malaria, among other things. Usually, almost all the children have malaria, many have ears so stopped up that they would have eventually gone deaf if they hadn’t been cleaned out, and some major health problems are found.

At these clinics, the kids are also able to see funny skits which teach them about the value of hygiene and mosquito nets. Although they can be a little scared of the costumes at first because they’ve never seen anything like that, the kids have a lot of fun laughing, participating in the singing, and answering questions about what they just learned.

Entertaining the kids with a song about hygiene. "Say yes, yes, yes to hygiene!" The kids are afraid of the "lion" at first, but soon join in on the fun.

Two "kids" who teach about hygiene. The one with the white patch (representing a fungus some kids can get) doesn't take care of himself and has all kinds of troubles.

Many adults are there as well, hoping to get to see a doctor for free, but this program is just for the kids. The need overflows the ability of a few to provide medical care. Again, so many people wanting medical care for free just emphasizes the poverty of this area in that antibiotics are available for a dollar and yet people feel they can’t afford it. It also highlights attitudes that need to be changed about valuing the health of all people and believing that they are worthy of loving care as much as the “important” people of this world.

What do you think?   Have you had an experience helping at medical clinics? Have you ever encountered a cultural viewpoint difference that was challenging? What do you think about the article I mentioned above, especially the illustration about whether or not to climb a mountain?