White House Offers Plan to Fight Illiteracy in Africa

In Africa, 42 million children do not have access to primary schooling — and 60 percent of those kids are girls. Farai Chideya speaks with Sarah Moten, Africa bureau education chief of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). She's one of three African-American women carrying out the Bush administration's Africa policies.

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It's reported 42 million children do not have access to primary schooling in Africa. 60 percent of those kids are female. Illiteracy is a tremendous problem on the continent.

The Bush Administration has vowed to do something about this crisis. In January, First Lady Laura Bush launched the African Education Initiative Textbooks Program. The plan gives almost $600 million in federal commitment called The African Education Initiative. Sarah Moten heads the program as African Bureau Education Chief of the US Agency for International Development. She's one of three African-American women carrying out the president's Africa policies.

Here's NPR's Farai Chideya.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

Sarah, good to have you with us.

SARAH MOTEN (African Bureau Education Chief, U.S. Agency for International Development): Thank you so much. I'm glad to be here.

CHIDEYA: So tell us about the significance of this new Africa Education Initiative.

Ms. MOTEN: This is one of the most important White House initiatives that we have. One, it's $600 million program over the life of the initiative. And it's particularly focusing on increasing access to quality basic education opportunities in Africa through scholarships, textbooks, and teacher training programs. And we are in 40 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

CHIDEYA: The First Lady Laura Bush traveled through Western Africa in January. In Accra, Ghana, she launched President Bush's Africa Education Initiative Textbooks Program. What specifically is the Textbooks Program, and have you been working closely with the First Lady on that part of the plan?

Ms. MOTEN: We are, again, very lucky that the First Lady, being an educator and former teacher, she has taken great interest in this, particularly the Textbook Program.

The Textbook Program is only one component of the Africa Education Initiative but is obviously one of the more important components. It is a partnership in collaboration between six higher education institutions here in the United States, and they are minority-serving institutions in partnership with Africa Education institutions.

Those institutions, in their collaboration, actually write, develop, design, and publish textbooks for African children.

We are currently working with six countries, those being Senegal, South Africa, Ethiopia, and two other countries.

We are very much looking forward to our collaboration with the minority serving institutions. Some of those institutions being: University of Texas in San Antonio, Elizabeth City State University, Alabama A and M, as well as Chicago State University, South Carolina State University. So these are collaborative efforts between our efforts here in the U.S. and education institutions in Africa.

CHIDEYA: Why did you choose to work with colleges that serve of a lot of students of color, and what connections do you think it's important to make with a continent that has so many people who are underserved and under- researched in America and students who may feel underserved and under- researched in how they approach education?

Ms. MOTEN: It was the mandate, and we believe in that mandate of working with our minority serving institutions. And we were very fortunate that as a part of President Bush's announcement to continue the Africa Education Initiative, he emphasized in his presentation that the book program would be with minority institutions.

And we also feel that if anyone is going to relate to our African brothers and sisters in writing these books, it would certainly be the minority serving institutions.

CHIDEYA: Illiteracy is a problem even in the United States. There are a lot of people in the States who don't have adequate literacy, but it could be considered an epidemic on the continent of Africa. How are you trying to deal with problems like illiteracy and also the impact of gender roles in which many more girls than boys don't go to school?

Ms. MOTEN: That's one of the questions I'm glad you asked because we are very, very committed toward providing access and the ability for girls to be accepted in school.

This program also includes what we call The Ambassador's Girls Scholarship Program and in the last few years, we've provided something like 70,000 scholarships for African girls to attend school. Because we recognize that 60 percent of the students that are not in school in Africa are girls. Through this program, we are providing sensitivity in the Textbook Program that addresses some of the issues around gender, around empowering women so that they can also become literate and contributing members of the society.

CHIDEYA: You know, I've been to Southern Africa many times and a lot of times there are kids who are smart and they have these very minimal school fees, but their parents just can't afford to pay for those school fees so they don't go to school.

How does something like this initiative deal with the individual issues facing children in Africa?

Ms. MOTEN: Well, I'll tell you. We would love to do so much more. But because of budgets, we are able to do what we can do. Now with getting girls or getting children in school--and by the way, we also try to encourage boys to also to go to school and stay in school.

We are providing through our contracts a minimum of about 80,000 scholarships a year. And we have three contractors. And through that contract for getting girls in school, we extend beyond--because we know it's more than just the school fees. Sometimes we have to also provide food for the family. We have to provide transportation. We must provide--if a girl gets sick, we may even have to provide medication.

But through the scholarship, it's more than just a bursary. In addition, one of the things that we've done to expand that so that we can get more girls and also to reach out for boys, we're collaborating with also our friends with the Pet Far(ph), which is the HIV/AIDS program.

So we are doing what we can and probably one of the largest scholarship programs on the continent.

CHIDEYA: You mentioned AIDS and certainly AIDS has created a generation of orphans. Are you going to be able to reach kids who are extremely vulnerable, who may not even have parents, let alone the ability to go to school?

Ms. MOTEN: We have a program I'll give you an example of in Ghana, which is called Window of Hope. And here we are working with colleagues in the educational arena in Ghana by providing life skills and we're providing those skills, giving teachers an opportunity to understand HIV/AIDS as they're learning to become teachers. And in the past year, we've trained about 17,000 teachers in information awareness around HIV/AIDS.

CHIDEYA: USA Today columnist, Dwayne Whitman, describes you as "a rare find in the Bush Administration: a black appointee who gets more praise than criticism from black leaders on the other side of the political spectrum."

What do you say to critics who suggest that although the president has increased U.S. aid to Africa, not enough is being done?

Ms. MOTEN: Well, I think that the president has done an extremely large amount for Africa. You know, I've been doing this since 1982 and to see it over the 20 years, I would say that there are many more resources going into Africa today than I've seen in my 20+ years.

I know that we are doing more for the children of Africa through educating boys and girls and, as you mentioned earlier about Mrs. Bush's trip and the launch of the Initiative, you know, one of the things that Mrs. Bush said that I truly believe in is that children are a precious gift and we have the responsibility to help them realize a hopeful and promising future.

When she said this, I thought I about it. I said, You know, you're exactly right. Children are special. And we have done little for Africa, but to the people of Africa. And I get this from my African colleagues, as well. It's not just Sarah Moten sitting here saying this, but many, many times, I get this from African ambassadors, from other colleagues, of how much this administration has done for Africa.

I'm a witness. We went from $200 million, with the African Education Initiative, to now we are looking at $600 million.

CHIDEYA: What do you want to see the relationship between the United States and African countries become in the coming decade?

Ms. MOTEN: One is we can't be everything for everybody, and certainly to link up with the African countries, we first--to do as we do now and as the Peace Corps has always done, let's be good listeners. And that is what we've done is to listen to what the African countries see of their needs, and also work in partnership. We should be working in partnership with the African countries.

And that is happening. At least I can speak for the AEI, the African Education Initiative, is that in order to continue at the pace that we are doing, is that we must be true partners and be representative of a partnership and collaborative activities.

CHIDEYA: Finally, maybe you could leave us with a personal story of what you've seen on one of your recent trips to the continent, something that inspired you.

Ms. MOTEN: We collaborate also with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and we had sent some of our friends out to talk with the people in Rwanda. This was just this month, and when they went on the Rwanda site visit to do an assessment, they visited a school garden project, the Sisters of Notre Dame.

The school has about, I guess, 500 girls, and many of the girls are genocide orphans. The nuns were giving, anyway, my two colleagues a tour of the school, and they walked into the biology teacher, and the biology teacher had a book. And the colleague from here said, may I see your book?

And the biology teacher just started clutching onto that book and wouldn't let it go and just held it tight and whatnot. And so my colleague said, well, you know, I just want to see it. You know, I'm not going to keep it. I'm a biology teacher, as well.

So with great reluctance, the biology teacher started passing the book and said, you know, I really want this book back because this is Mrs. Bush's book. This is the book that Ms. Bush gave me, and I don't want to let it go. Are you sure you're going to give it back to me?

Books are so important, is my point. If they're calling Mrs. Bush's book, and then I want to take you to the library to see all of Mrs. Bush's books, books are critical in Africa. Yes, there's a lot that still needs to be done in Africa. And we need more and more coverage, by the way, of the good things that are happening in Africa, rather than the doomy-gloom(ph) and the negative things.

CHIDEYA: Sarah Moten is education chief of the Africa Bureau of the U.S. Agency for International Development. She joined us from our NPR Bureau in Washington. Sarah, thanks again for coming on the show.

Ms. MOTEN: Thank you.

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