In her new book, Teach a Woman to Fish, Ritu Sharma writes about her experience speaking to young women at the Kaya Girls Center in Burkina Faso.
The Center was created after the U.S. stopped funding the Burkinabe Response to Improve Girls' Chances to Succeed (BRIGHT) program in West Africa. The need for secondary schools for the young Burkanese women who benefited from BRIGHT led to the creation of the Kaya Girls Center, which you can read about in the excerpt from Ritu's book below:
Ritu and her translator Paul, speaking to schoolchildren in Burkina Faso.
The classroom was filled with 50 girls between thirteen and fifteen in matching uniforms of white shirts, blue pleated skirts, white socks, and black shoes. I introduced myself and explained the reason for my visit - I had come a long way to see and learn more about the BRIGHT schools. Paul asked how many of them attended BRIGHT schools, and more than half of them raised their hands.
We broke the ice talking about their most and least favorite subjects. Some interesting patterns emerged.
Ellen stood up first and said math was her favorite subject and her least favorite was, no question, physical education. That elicited a burst of laughter from all the girls; clearly Ellen wasn’t the only one who disliked exercising in 100-plus degree weather.
I told them, through Paul, that I didn’t blame them and I’d be right there with them sitting in the shade under a tree rather than doing jumping jacks and running laps under the sun.
Martha loved biology and hated English. I couldn’t blame her for that either. English is a really hard language with all its irregular verbs, exceptions to rules, and idioms. Kadi got up next and said she actually liked English, but also hated PE. Esther, Aminata, and Nadege all liked math too. Maybe their math teacher was particularly good, but whatever the reason, I was thrilled to see so many girls excited about math.
I like to give kids a chance to ask me questions whenever I visit a school. It uncovers the things that are on the tops of their minds, which is usually pretty hilarious, very powerful, or both.
Aminata stood up and asked, “How old are children in the United States when they start school?” I responded that children are usually five years old when they must start school by law, but they often attend preschool as early as one and a half. The girls were surprised to hear that we have a law that says all children must go to school. I told them it was the truth and that if I didn’t send my kids to school “the police would come and take me away.” Their eyes got really big when Paul translated that.
I could imagine how strange it sounded to them in their context, where it’s a privilege to go to school - a gift that half the children in their country don’t have. Another girl asked, “What kinds of animals do you raise in the United States?"
I said that unlike in Africa, where every family has chickens, pigs, and maybe even goats around their homes, Americans only have dogs, cats, fish, and sometimes snakes and lizards as pets. We don’t raise the animals we eat. The snakes and lizards part made them laugh, because to them it would be absurd to have pests like that around their house. I reassured them that it, too, was true, and that my little son has wanted a lizard since he was seven (he still doesn’t have one).
The last question was a really good one that gave me an opportunity to encourage the girls to let themselves dream, even if just a little.
A very sweet, and astute, girl stood up and asked, “What do people in the United States do for their professions and who makes the most money?” That’s just the right question for an ambitious young woman to ask.
I replied that the richest people in the United States are those who lend money to other people and then get paid back that money with interest - We call them investors - as well as business people, lawyers, doctors, and celebrities. But I wanted to convey there is something very unique about the United States, which is that people can choose to do all kinds of different work that suits them and make money at it.
“Many people in America can decide what they are passionate about and what they love doing and then find (or make) a job doing that.” I said. “I love to work on women’s and girls’ rights, so I made that my job.
Our photographer, Julie, loves to take pictures, so she decided to make that her work. So let yourself dream a little bit; maybe you don’t have to be a doctor, lawyer, or businesswoman if you don’t want to. Whatever you love to do, the world probably needs it.”
I asked them if they liked to dance and they erupted with “Oui! ” in unison. So there was only one thing left to do: get up and dance.
A few girls had prepared a special dance of gratitude for our visit that had lots of quick footwork and upbeat, syncopated rhythms. There was no way I was going to join in with them.
The second dance had everyone up out of their seats with deep African beats and a call and response melody that even I could manage. We didn’t want to overstay our welcome since their fathers were patiently waiting for the girls under that unforgiving sun. They joyfully ran out when the headmaster released them for the summer.
Meeting the Kaya girls made me feel optimistic about Burkina’s future. If these 50 could finish and even half of them could go to college, that would be 25 more women leaders for the country. I have no doubt they would have an impact. If only we could multiply that by a thousand, Burkina could fly.
- Purchase Ritu's book, visit Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble or an independent bookstore near you.
- Learn more about the BRIGHT programs I and II and their success.