People often ask why a conservation organization builds schools. For me, it’s an easy answer. Education is one of the primary ways to develop consciousness about how our actions impact the environment — both locally and globally. It is one of the most important means of empowering youth, engaging communities, fostering concern for wildlife and promoting the sustainable use of natural resources.
African Wildlife Foundation launched its Classroom Africa program in 2013 to provide rural communities access to a quality primary school education — and a strong incentive to engage in conservation. In return for a significant conservation commitment by a community, Classroom Africa rebuilds or upgrades a primary school, ensures ongoing teacher training, provides conservation education and, where feasible, offers students access to technology.
Education is not only a systematic approach to gaining knowledge, but it is also a source of empowerment. The unfortunate reality is a high percentage of individuals in rural Africa do not have access to a quality education and are being left behind. The highest rate of out-of-school children exists in sub-Saharan Africa — 9 million girls and 6 million boys between the ages of 6 and 11 will never attend school. Marginalization consistently impedes the education of female and rural students in Africa.
I first met Lisa two years ago, at the Lupani Community School in Zambia. A shy, intelligent fifth grader, she was working hard to keep up with her studies. Now, in grade 7, Lisa has just won first prize in a district-level social studies competition and is traveling to the provincial capital to represent her district at the regional level.
I always have a nervous sense of anticipation when I plan a trip to the interior of the Democratic Republic of Congo—more so than any other field trip for AWF. I love going to the Congo to visit our programs and field staff. The area is so remote, so rural and so unusual. DRC trips are always an adventure.
It goes without saying that emphasizing the link between education and conservation is not a fruitless endeavor. The desired outcome is a community which consciously chooses to look after its forest as a heritage for its children, its children’s children, and its children’s children’s children, who will all benefit from these efforts in turn.
You don’t know the meaning of the word excitement unless you’ve ridden on the back of a dirt bike for six hours through a rough forest path in a remote area of the Democratic Republic of the Congo—and you can’t know terror until you’ve done the last hour and a half in the dark. But the reward for this sliding, bouncing, spine-crushing experience was the opportunity to witness a community-wide outburst of pure joy. In this case, the reason for the exultation was the grand opening of the AWF sponsored school in the isolated village of Ilima.
After a three-hour ride on the back of a 125cc motorcycle from Djolu, a small town in AWF’s Congo landscape in northern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), we came across a boisterous group of boys rushing up a trail through the dense woods carrying machetes and full of banter. They were without adult supervision, bare-chested, barefoot and barely bigger than the sharp, threatening instruments they carry.
In many of our landscapes, it’s not unusual to come across an individual dressed in full traditional garb—with a cell phone clipped to his belt. On the one hand, this image is startlingly incongruous. On the other, it’s the embodiment of how this continent works: embracing its cultural history while also welcoming future innovations.