Collecting textbooks and grade one smiles


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'What did you find most rewarding about your textbook consulting missions in Africa?' I've often been asked that question. 

Well, for starters, I always looked forward to meeting African book publishers. I have a deep respect for publishers anywhere in the world and feel fortunate to count several among my friends. Invariably, an interview in a hot, book-filled office in Cotonou, or Dakar, or Yaoundé, or another African city would leave me feeling disheartened. 

It's hard enough being a publisher in the western world. But in Africa (especially in its francophone part, my primary geographic area of expertise) the challenges are immense. Low purchasing power, dismal literacy rates, single approved textbooks per subject and grade, government monopolies, and competition from from foreign publishers result in limited access to the main market (textbooks for primary school children). Add poor distribution networks, the high cost of imported printing materials and equipment, along with difficult access to financing, and it's surprising that an association like 'L'association des éditeurs francophones au sud du Sahara' lists thirty-three publishers, representing thirteen countries, on their website (at http://www.afrilivres.net/editeurs.php).

Briefing an incoming Minister of Education was an exciting task. That is, once I had a few under my belt, and with the exception of a single hostile one. Typically,  fifteen minutes was all I had to summarize findings from weeks of meetings, detailed analysis of stacks of documents, and long field trips. My goal? Find at least a few things to praise, objectively present challenges, and offer solutions. The latter usually combined short-term measures to meet immediate needs with long-term strategies to promote the growth of a sustainable local publishing industry.

Budgets took up a lot of my time. I can't pretend I ever enjoyed compiling my receipts, converting cfa or Guinean francs into dollars and euros for my expense reports. But preparing ten-year scenarios to help a Ministry of Education plan its textbook expenditures, or working out a budget for the most efficient use of a multi-million dollar loan from an International Financial Institution (IFI) to improve school-level access to textbooks was thrilling. 

Poring over maps to estimate distribution costs to remote schools was a daunting exercise, to put it mildly. With expert help from engineers busy calculating the cost of road improvements, I knew the results were reliable. Standing in the shadows while my hard-working counterpart gave a presentation was a great source of joy. It was gratifying to learn later that his presentation was partly responsible for a subsequent promotion. Visiting printing plants and inhaling the scent of fresh ink, while taking in a medley of mechanical noises was always exhilarating. 

What fun too, to meet other consultants (usually with different areas of specialization, such as primary health care, vocational education, or good governance), especially on the rare occasion when I bumped into another woman who'd chosen a simliar career path!

Indeed, it was meeting fellow human beings, from all walks of life, that was the most meaningful. I'm a chatty person; you might have gathered that from the tone of this website. I learned a lot listening to a hard-working shopkeeper (my preference was always to rent a hotel apartment with a kitchenette and do my own shopping and cooking), a politically informed taxi driver, a security guard who'd fled turmoil in a neighbouring country, a newspaper vendor who couldn't find a job after finishing his university studies, or a hotel cleaner missing her children left in the care of their grandmother in a remote village. 

Going into bookstores and finding children's books illustrated by talented local artists or novels by award-winning (but not yet translated from the French-language original) was a special treat, even if it made packing my bags even harder.  It was always a challenge to try and fit all the documents I acquired (virtually nothing was available in digital form) into my carry-on or suitcase. 

But nothing gave me as much joy as entering a grade one classroom. Children would greet me warmly, breaking into song. 'Bonjour, Monsieur. Monsieur, bonjour,' they frequently chanted before breaking off into contagious giggles, hiding their faces behind their hands. 'I'm sorry, they're not used to having women visitors', the (always) male teacher would explain. 

Children and teachers managed with so few resources, compared to what the 'average' western child and teacher take for granted. I regularly saw up to sixty and sometimes eighty bright-eyed children crowded into a single classroom. No electricity, no telephone, only a few outdated textbooks, dusty blackboards, bare feet, and ragged uniforms. Struggling, but dedicated, teachers begged for more textbooks and teacher's guides. And the overwhelmed school director? He dreamed of separate toilets for girls, electricity to hold evening classes for parents so they could learn some rudimentary French and help their children with their homework, and a budget to pay for a donkey cart to collect next year's textbooks from the warehouse miles away (before they rotted away under leaking roofs or were eaten up by termitesa sight to make anyone weep). 

I wish I had taken photos in those never forgotten classrooms. It felt intrusive at the time and my mind was on gathering information. At least, I have a collection of textbooks and supplementary reading materials. The picture at the start of this post shows a small sample (from Benin, Cameroon, Guinea, Mauritania, and Zimbabwe). The fabric? It was purchased in Yaounde, Cameroun; I love African fabrics and I tried to buy some at roadside stalls during a bit of free time. 

Each of the required texts and recommended readers now sitting in my office brings back memories of infectious smiles. I hope every single one of the children I met managed to finish primary schooling, that many went on further, and that when they become parents, they will enroll each of their children in school. 

This is getting really long, so I'll end here. Thanks for stopping by to read my blog. Hope all is well with you. 

Take good care, 

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