Each January, during MIT’s Independent Activities Period (IAP), the D-Lab Development class organizes trips to several countries to bring students and community partners together. In these trips, partners “borrow” MIT students for work on various projects and initiatives, and D-Lab students get a feel for what international development is like on the ground.
In this reflection, Prakriti Paul shares how working in a school in New Longoro, Ghana helped to rekindle a passion for improving education in developing countries.
There were about 10 to 15 children on our last day at the school in New Longoro. It was a hot day, with the sun beating down on all of us - especially at noon. When I finally found my own time and place under a tree with my biology textbook, ready to design experiments for Mr. Richard, the school teacher, I suddenly saw all these kids, in uniforms, running around the Screen room. They were looking for a soccer ball to play with. They had literally followed me back from the primary school, and were looking for fun at the Pastor’s house … during school hours. At that moment, I lost my tolerance for what I had been noticing for days now, and I got up to take the kids back to school. I thought, “If I really care about the educational condition of this village, then I am taking these kids back to school, right now.” I held a little girl named Jess’ hand, and held a boy named Clinton by his shoulder, and as I walked down the long road ahead, the kids followed behind me in an excited, confused flock.
I thought I could at least give a shot to teaching the kids why going to school every day is important. I held Clinton, and told him that he was so special and that he could be anything he wanted to be when he grew up. I asked him if he knew who Bill Clinton was, and to my surprise, he knew that Bill Clinton was an American president. I said, “Do you know how Bill Clinton became the American president? He studied so hard! After primary, JSS, and SS, he went to university, and then to another university for more studies! And he went to school every day!” I asked Clinton what he wanted to be when he grew up, and he said that he wanted to be an engineer. I said, “Clinton, that is an amazing dream, and you can do it - but do you know what you need to get there? You need to go to school everyday, just like Bill Clinton. You need to work really hard every day and never give up. I go to an engineering school, and study eight to10 hours every day, because I know that if I don’t work hard, then I can’t achieve my dreams. If you study hard, you can achieve your dreams. If you don’t study, you won’t be able to. Do you get it?”
Finally, I told him that I understood that it was hard - that sometimes his teachers wouldn’t come to school, or that his friends would be playing outside - but that he should be strong and go to school anyway. I don’t know if I sounded like a broken record (I hope I didn’t), but I really could have sworn that I saw Clinton paying attention - that he was listening. I saw him become more somber and reflective, and I hope that he believed me. I also tried talking to another one of the boys, and make the two boys feel important and responsible as elder kids, hoping they would in turn encourage the younger ones. Once we arrived at the school, I had all the kids promise me that they would come to school every day. I shook their hands and gave them hugs. As I walked away, I got to briefly speak to a primary school teacher, and thanked him for being a blessing to the school in his efforts to teach the children, and that he was blessed to have the role he did in the community as a teacher. It wasn’t just the kids who needed some encouragement!
When I look back, I think about the road from the Pastor’s house to the primary school and how it is a meaningful representation of the path to the successful education of these children. The road is long, and requires a great deal of effort to tread (especially on a hot day like we had) but it exists. There is indeed a road that can take us from point A to B, but it’s not as straightforward as it seems. The process of gettting from A to B encompasses a host of needs that are not immediately visible. For example: personal commitment and honesty in teachers, who must constantly encourage students to study hard and pursue their dreams. It requires behavioral change on all fronts – teachers, students, parents and policy-makers. But, if as a community we commit to addressing these needs, then we can, in time, move from A to B, and see the children of New Longoro thrive.
As I walked away from the primary school, various pieces of my experiences at New Longoro and in my life in general came rushing to my mind - times when I saw the kids running outside the primary school at any given point in the day, times when Nancy Alloway, one of our trip leaders, encouraged me to join the Peace Corps or teach children, remembering reading about Asha for Education in the 8th grade and vowing to improve educational opportunities for children in India, the teachers in my life and how they impacted my academic life and success, the little boy with a worn-out shirt and the hungriest expression I had ever seen in the middle-right corner of the P3 classroom, and the joy I felt when one of my Biology demonstrations worked - all of it patched together and spoke to me. God, through this beautiful mosaic, had asked me, “What now?” and challenged me to think about my life and its goals. Through my IAP experiences, conversations with my trip leaders, reflection, and some completely unexpected decisions, I have begun to see ways by which I can answer this question.