In Kolofata we are involved, and have been involved for decades, in many different things, all stemming from a wish to bring better health to the people there. It is impossible to work for very long in healthcare, especially in an impoverished environment, before realizing that better health and good healthcare cannot be realized in isolation. Their relationship with other things is so intimate that to imagine they can be separated is ridiculous. Clean water, education, access to markets, good nutrition, protection of the environment, human rights, rule of law, community support, economic and social security, sanitation, transportation, communication—all contribute to a person’s and a community’s health.
Over the years in Kolofata, as obstacles to good health became obvious, we tried to do our part in addressing them. We built the hospital and then outlying health centers. We built schools. We supported teachers, books, and equipment for schools. We dug wells and bore-hole pumps. We facilitated civil registration, most crucially of births. We offered scholarships to promising students. We planted thousands of trees. We promoted women’s groups and girls’ education.
Much of this we continue to do, and we add things as we go along when we see a need and a way of trying to meet that need—as, for example, the farm for prisoners that we helped start this year. My church here in Indianapolis has supported my work since I first started in Nigeria in 1983, seven years before I moved to Cameroon.
We had long played a role in the education of girls in Kolofata—not just by our general support of primary education in the district but also by our early efforts to get parents to send their daughters to school at all. This was against tradition and, they thought, against their economic interests. Because they would not send their girls to school, we started an informal “school” for girls, first at the hospital and then in a separate building we built in town for that purpose. The idea was not just to provide girls with an education of sorts but also to show parents that girls could learn and perform academically as well as boys.
The education of girls and women is of utmost importance to health—they are the ones who literally take care of the rest of the family as they clean, prepare food, find water, tend the sick, and teach their young; women must keep babies safe and healthy in utero for nine months, and how they feed them after that is crucial; mothers keep track of things like vaccinations and of making sure children get what they need to get and know what they need to know to prevent illness.
When Joe Talago became interested in providing some needy child an opportunity he or she would not otherwise have, he suggested sponsoring a student from Kolofata or someplace like it for university study in the U.S. I questioned the wisdom of this for several reasons. One of these was the overwhelming likelihood that such a student, once educated in the U.S., would wish and find a way to stay in the U.S., disappointing the sponsor and depriving their home community of the benefits of an extremely expensive education. I asked Joe if maybe sponsoring girls to pursue higher education in Cameroon might not be a better investment. The idea was to offer this opportunity to girls who had reached a certain level of scholastic achievement, whose parents consented to their continuing on, and who without considerable financial assistance would not be able to do so. That was the start.
Thanks to your group, we are now into our fourth year of sponsorship. There have been surprises. We have six students under our wing: two in their final year of university and four who are what we would call juniors in high school. One girl failed two years in a row and so was expelled. Four dropped out of high school for various social reasons—one in her first year due to poor mental health (PTSD), one after one year, and two after two years. I say these are surprises, but I should more correctly call them disappointments. We did not actually know what to expect going into this. The quality of primary education in Kolofata, a place where education in general has never been a priority for the population and where teachers seldom choose to go, has always been sub-standard. The adult literacy was 15% when I was there and might be lower now. The disruption and constant trauma caused by the Boko Haram (remember “Western education is sin”) insurgency since 2013, and then Covid last year, have introduced nearly insurmountable challenges to education. Getting even a select few girls out, exposing them to some bit of the wider world, giving them a chance to learn and develop their intellectual capacity—even if that learning and that development still get thwarted prematurely—seems to me to be like lighting candles in the darkest dark. Winds will come and blow some of the flames out, but what if some of them will not be extinguished? What if, in the end, they keep burning and provide that glow, that just-enough light that will allow others to see and follow on?
In my youth I started out a teacher. I taught in Niger for two years and then taught for two more years here in the States before going to medical school. I enjoy teaching, but I confess I enjoy doctoring better: compared with teaching, the results are often quickly dramatic and therefore quickly gratifying. A doctor is being continuously re-energized. Teaching requires much more patience. But I know that even to health, education is more vital than healthcare.
What one of your supporters said is absolutely right: “It’s a lot of money that is being focused on a very unstable and selective few ‘hopefuls’”. I could not have said it better myself. But hope is not a small thing, and right now it is what we have.
One final confession. Sometimes after I resuscitated a child and brought him back from the dead, or after I successfully delivered a newborn after a difficult labor, in the thrill of the shared jubilation and triumph that comes with that, I would wonder to myself: yes this is wonderful, but what if this child you just saved turns out to be a pedophile or a murderer or a suicide bomber?
The thought was always fleeting and meaningless and of course made no difference in what I did or in the joy I felt in such moments. If we believe that life is God-given and good, then saving a life is good, always. So obviously we give our all to save life no matter whose or where or under what circumstances, no matter what the future may be.
So too with education. We do not know what individual will do with the education they receive. But we tend to believe that education is good, that it is in a way the embodiment of hope, and we act accordingly.
Since Ellen wrote this in Fall, 2020 there have been more “surprises.” Ellen learned of a new Middle School opening in Mora, Cameroon, a difficult hour’s journey from Kolofata. Girls would have to have family members with whom they could stay in order to be considered for scholarships. Ellen’s Kolofata partners identified 5 girls who qualified and are now in 7th grade.