By the time he was able to scrape up the money, he hired a taxi to take his daughter to the hospital. But the child was too far gone, and she died within 10 hours. Still, her medical treatment was more than the initial fee, so the hospital would not allow Christopher to leave. Instead, he had to put his dead little girl on the back seat of a taxi—without a box or special wrapping—and send her home. He spent one devastating night alone in the hospital until friends came up with enough money to pay the balance.
Once home, Christopher quickly buried his daughter. It was his fourth child lost. He has two more alive. The little girl's friends came running into his house later that day calling her name to play. They had no idea that their playmate, Naomi, was resting in her grave.
This is a true story. The family can't sue the hospital for negligence or the doctor for malpractice. Obamacare or Medicaid wouldn't have helped, either. Little Naomi lived in the rural regions of Northwest Cameroon, Africa. Her story of disease and lack of health care is a sad fact of life.
I made the mistake of opening Mick's email in between classes at school. I wept at my desk. I looked around at the abundance of my school. Great teachers. Great principal. Stacks upon stacks of books, copy paper, markers, staplers, chairs, desks—the list is endless.
Having spent two weeks in Cameroon earlier this year, I got a close up look at how education systems in Africa work, and it's not much different from health care. Can't pay school fees? No school for you! And once in school—no electricity, no toilets, little notebook paper, few books, 70, 80, 90 students to a teacher.
I am still left to wonder, How can I help?
Through blogging about Cameroon, I became aware of Link Community Development, a nonprofit organization whose sole purpose is to improve access to quality education in Sub-Saharan Africa. Link's U.S. office is based in Chicago (it also has offices in England, Ireland and Scotland), and I met with a couple of the organization's leaders several times to find out how Link makes a difference.
Unlike what I did in Cameroon, which was to go from school to school giving advice, Link forms relationships with the governments of the African nations where it works to make an impact on all the schools in the country, not just a select few. This is vital to making sustainable, systematic change on the continent.
Link runs programs in Ghana, Ethiopia, Malawi, Uganda and South Africa. It runs the Healthy Schools Program which provides basic health services, HIV/AIDs support, and special orphan care to schools in rural regions. These services are essential because poor health care keeps kids sick and missing numerous days of school.
Link also turns schools into solar power stations so teachers can have access to online educational resources and the ability to email administrators in the district office. Imagine having to develop creative and engaging lessons everyday without the ability to do research on the Internet. These solar stations serve a dual purpose of being a place where local residents can charge their cell phones and other battery-operated devices.
Most importantly, Link works with the various departments of education to find data-driven solutions to the countries' education problems. They assess the current state of affairs in the school system and help administrators create a workable plan to improve the education of all children.
The offices in Ireland and Scotland run the Global Teachers Program, which sends a team of teachers to one of the African countries for five weeks to provide professional development to a host school. That school then relates the knowledge it has gained to their Department of Education. With more financial support, Link USA also hopes to send American teachers to help in Africa.
When I consider the inadequacies of my school, school district, or American education in general, I must only remember what I witnessed in Africa and I am made grateful again for what I have. It's sobering. I am all the more compelled to support organizations like Link. That way, I will not throw my hands up in helplessness.
That's how I felt—helpless—when visiting Naomi's rural village of Ndop. I spent several hours visiting the elementary school in her village. It was in very poor condition. The principal was so happy to meet me, calling me the answer to his prayers, for he had been praying for help. I did a teacher workshop, took pictures, and wrote blogs about his school.
Unfortunately, Cameroon is not yet within Link's jurisdiction, but with ongoing financial support from educators like you and me, I am hopeful that will one day change. After all, little Naomi, though dead, still has a young brother and sister who need help.
**Photos of Naomi and an empty classroom in rural Northwest Cameroon provided by Michael Toolan of Water for Cameroon.
***Marilyn Anderson Rhames is a writing teacher at a charter school in Chicago and holds masters degrees in education and journalism. A former reporter for People and Time, she also won various awards while at Newsday and The Journal News in New York. An educator for eight years, Marilyn is a former Teach Plus fellow and the founder of a start-up nonprofit called Teachers Who Pray. This blog offers her perspectives on health and wellness in the classroom, charter schools, and the need for education reform.