Many of us in the development community take the value of education as a given, yet those living in rural or low-income contexts sometimes have a different view. Recognizing and addressing these different priorities is an increasingly critical aspect of successful interventions. The Lchokuti Foundation is taking on this challenge directly, using a host of innovative strategies to engage their community and shift perceptions about education. We asked them about cultivating productive relationships, and their plans for the future.
CEI: Your organization is especially focused on shifting cultural attitudes about education in your community. Why was it so important for Lchokuti to make community engagement a priority?
Lchokuti: When we first tried to assess the problems and needs in the area, we noticed that a large proportion of children were not going to school. Instead they were being sent to graze animals in the bush, or merely staying at home engaging in fetching water and other chores. Some even just linger around the manyattas with no activity at all. In moreseverecases, children are being denied school because they are entering into early marriage at only 8 years. Some are even already “booked” as newborns before the mother leaves the hospital. These children are very clever and are extremely interested in learning. Over time we noticed them many times sneaking into classrooms looking at books, hungry for the chance to go to school. Some parents even have enough money to afford the relatively low fees for primary education, but they see little value in sending their children to school. Often, the parents are also illiterate and never went to school; they never got to know and learn the benefits of education and where it can lead somebody in life. To make a true difference for these children, these misconceptions about education must be addressed.
CEI: How do you approach a parent who wants their child to work or get married rather than attend school?
Lchokuti: There is no standard method for approaching all parents. Simply walking into somebody’s manyatta and telling them straightforwardly thatthe child should go to school does not produce the results we want. Most parents never got to experience an education themselves, so the change in their attitude needs to be tackled gradually.
First, we socialize with them to be accepted in the community. Through informal exchanges we work to slowly change their way of thinking and attitude towards education. Directly challenging someone’s long-held beliefs, which are often tied closely into their own identity, rarely produces the intended response. In fact, disengagement or even outward aggression can often result. Only a long-term solution, based on relationships and not debates, can make a lasting change to get children from the bush or early marriage back to school.
CEI: Can you share an example of someone in your community who has shifted their views after engaging with your program?
Lchokuti: As mentioned before, a true and long-lasting change of views can only be achieved over time. However, we have had some smaller partial success with parents agreeing to enroll their younger children. At one of our recent community/parents events, the community donated goats for the meal and our presence and work were generally taken positively. This at least shows that they are starting to open up their minds to new things, although it was clear that before this point, they were not yet ready to change their practices. We are optimistic, however, that over time, they will start to change their beliefs and accept a more up-to-date view of education.
CEI: What advice would you give to another program seeking to improve the perception of education in their community? What about for an implementer that is working in a community that is not their own?
Lchokuti: First of all, they should try and socialize with the community. Don’t try and openly advocate for your goals; you might even be chased out of the place! These people have very firm beliefs and views that cannot be addressed by shouting it out to them or even forcing it upon them. Try to make them realize you are on their side, that you want to help them and then they will welcome you and approach you with a more open mind.
CEI: Some of your organization’s other work involves providing literacy classes, learning materials, and teacher-training to existing public schools in Merille. How did you form these relationships with the schools so that you can support their work?
Lchokuti: In fact, contact with these school was made before the organization was even established. Through our communications with the school, we started realizing that something needed to be done in the community and went ahead to start up our Lchokuti Foundaton. From the beginning, the head teacher saw us as a sign from God and encouraged us actively to get involved. We were very much happy to accept his plea as we saw ourselves that the state of the school was extremely poor with a huge lack of teachers, classrooms, and insufficient resources.
The literacy classes target those who never went to school - be it children, warriors, adults or even elders, in order to shift their attitude as well as assist them in their daily lives.
CEI: 2016 has been a big year for Lchokuti! What do you have planned next?
Lchokuti: We have big plans for the future. First of all, we want extend our “Informal education/Advisory Programme” to more people - if funds allow that is. So many community members seem interested, but unfortunately so far we have had to limit ourselves to teaching only a small group. We also plan to incorporate more social events in the future, such as entertainment and sporting competitions. This will provide some social activity that will make them spend their time in a more useful way rather than potentially engaging in illegal activities. Furthermore, we plan to establish a small library through book donations to provide an open space to everyone in the community to access reading materials and broaden their horizons.
Regarding the primary school, we plan to continue our current work of trying to uplift standards of education, increasing attendance, and parents’ engagement, amongst other things. Next, we want to establish partnership with schools from abroad.
Besides that, we also plan to offer sponsorships to those children of families who successfully shifted their views and enrolled all their children to school. We also aim to connect with international volunteers to provide a platform for cultural exchange regarding both programmes. There is so much more that we have in mind but these are our goals for the nearer future.