Learning About Education Through Travel: Botswana 2011--An Education About Education

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From the Fall 2011 Caller

Botswana 2011: An Education About Education

By Fiona Noonan '12

Africa. When presented with this word, a litany of adjectives may swirl through one’s mind. One may stand above the rest, though: uneducated. While it is true that many people in Africa—as in all parts of the world—lack access to schools, supplies, and teachers, “uneducated” by no means describes this entire continent of extremely diverse people. A brilliant counterexample to the label “uneducated” is Botswana, a southern African republic whose national focus on schooling deserves attention, and certainly changed my perspective on what getting an education truly means.
 
This summer, a group of 13 Upper School students accompanied by our chaperones, science teacher Aline Garcia-Rubio ’93 and Richard Kassissieh, director of technology and learning innovation, traveled to Botswana for a trip that primarily revolved around interacting with people infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. Since Botswana is the country with the second-highest HIV infection rate in the world, we aimed to educate ourselves about the virus and its ramifications—and to help those affected by it—to the extent possible. To achieve that end we tutored and played with HIV-positive children, painted a mural at a pediatric HIV clinic called the Botswana-Baylor Children’s Clinical Centre of Excellence, and engaged in dialogues with teens and adults about the effects of HIV and AIDS on Botswana’s culture and society. However, the unifying theme of all these activities extended beyond connections to HIV/AIDS. Each of our discussions, interactions, and services exposed us to something even greater: education.
 
Our trip took us all over Botswana, starting in the capital city of Gaborone, where we boarded at our sister school, Maru-a-Pula. MAP was our first encounter with any type of educational institution. Interestingly, as we discovered by living on campus, befriending the students, and attending classes, the term “sister school” extends beyond the mere relationship between CGS and MAP. In many ways, MAP perfectly mirrored Catlin Gabel in its large outdoor campus, commitment to service learning, and relatively small class sizes. Catering to wealthier families and very intelligent students, and widely considered one of the best high schools in Botswana, the parallels between the two schools were unmistakable.
 
While in Gaborone we also did various works of service through which we came across a completely different type of education. One of our main projects was a week-long project implementing a tutoring program for children at the Botswana Baylor Centre. Though an overwhelming 90% of children in Botswana go to school, one study has found that most are not doing well. In helping these children with basic math skills, we were able to provide essential practice in a one-onone format likely unavailable at their schools. Not every child expressed an interest in math, but to see even a few of them succeed was exciting. Despite any language barriers, I came to see math as a truly universal language, and I felt proud that our teaching had positively impacted the kids’ lives.
 
Our group departed from Gaborone and visited towns and villages farther north in the country. One of the villages we went to was Thabala, the tiny home town of alumna Mmaserame Gaefele ’11. We spent time with her family, who gave us a tour of everything, including the school. The fact that such a small town had a school surprised us, and as students rushed out of the schoolyard to follow us, we found out that it was not uncommon for such a school to exist. In fact, we discovered that almost every village in Botswana has some type of school, giving an incredible number of students the opportunity to learn and succeed in hopes of eventually going to a university.
 
This widespread access to teaching and learning is made possible by Botswana’s federal government, which allocates an overwhelming 21% of its total budget to education. As a result, every child can attend school, and can then, if accepted, attend the University of Botswana for free. The government will even pay for medical school anywhere in the world in hopes that students will return to Botswana and join the highly understaffed medical workforce. Based on these facts, the access to education in Botswana appears to be solid. However, as we travelled farther north to the village of Gumare, we experienced a slightly darker side of schooling in Botswana.
 
In Gumare we met pen pals with whom we had been corresponding. Our arrival marked the first day of their high school winter break. Though their real vacation had just begun, we learned that they had recently finished a five-week break of a very different kind. We came to Botswana in the wake of an eight-week long strike that had shut down schools all over the country as teachers refused to work. Our pen pals’ school suffered greatly as a result. With exams approaching, they were unable to learn necessary material for the test, and the older students had collectively resorted to teaching younger ones what they would need to know. On top of that, we were informed that many of the teachers in Gumare lack interest in their students as a result of involuntary placement in such a rural location.
 
Hearing all of this astonished me. To go teacherless for over a month after normally having indifferent teachers, and to still have the motivation to succeed and help others succeed, was admirable, and necessary.
 
My own pen pal, Pearl, told me all about high school, and about her desire to attend the University of Botswana upon graduation. Coming from a family of four girls and a single mother, Pearl told me it would be difficult, so she needed to pass and continue to pass her exams in order to make it. Unlike the students at Maru-a-Pula, most of whom are accepted to and can afford to attend universities all over the world, the students in Gumare have relatively limited opportunities to further their education and go to college. For Pearl and the rest of our pen pals, an education clearly meant more than homework and tests: it meant the chance at a better life.
 
Fortunately, I have never had to consider not being able to attend college. Seeing the passion for learning from such a broad range of scholars in Botswana forced me to consider the importance of my own education, to reflect on what an education means to me, and to subsequently feel ashamed of consistently taking it for granted. After viewing the exposure and access that Batswana have to education, though, I feel less guilty. The sheer number of kids enrolled in school is admirable, and though Botswana’s school system may be imperfect, it is on the right track.
 
Pearl will soon have to decide what to do after graduation, and if she wants to attend the University of Botswana, I believe she can.
 

Catlin Gabel now makes it possible, through financial aid funds, for every Middle and Upper School student to participate in at least one global education trip abroad during their years at Catlin Gabel.