Conference offers solutions to impact of AIDS on education

At the end of a week-long conference in Swaziland, African educators and US representatives called for further cooperation between the private and public sectors in the fight against HIV/AIDS in schools.

"We are analysing what works, and stressing innovation and proven successes over formulae," Behuel Ndlovu, director of secondary schools for the Swaziland Ministry of Education, told IRIN.

"For AIDS mitigation to be achieved through improved education in Africa, partnerships have to be forged between Western and African nations, between the public and private sectors, and between civil society and governments," said Colette Cowey, an expert on global development issues.

Bringing corporate sponsors and NGOs into schools to improve infrastructure, bursaries, curriculum and "life skills" teaching (which includes sex education and AIDS awareness) was unheard of a decade ago, when all aspects of African education were managed by national education ministries or missionary schools.

"Non-traditional partners like corporations now contribute funding, skills, services and expertise, technology and intellectual property. A synergy results from these joint efforts," said Cowey.

As an example, Isreal Simelane, chief inspector of primary schools in Swaziland, mentioned the United Nation's Children's Fund (UNICEF), whose pilot feeding scheme in the drought-stricken eastern part of Swaziland was the only sustained nutrition that school children in the area had been receiving.

"Empty classrooms are filling up again. Kids who were too weak to come to school or stay awake during class are alert and studying again," Simelane said. Not all problems have ready solutions, and this week's conference was devoted to brainstorming to find ways of surmounting seemingly intractable challenges.

Swaziland's Under-Secretary of Education, Doctor Simelane, gave an example: "We have a problem of children being short-changed by the absence of teachers with AIDS. We urge these teachers to apply for sick leave, but they refuse. They fear we'll fire them [but] they cannot be dismissed unless they are absent some weeks. So, they show up from time to time to put in an appearance, and then leave the class without a teacher. The headmaster begs us for a replacement, but replacements can only come when there is an official vacancy."

One solution offered by delegates was to train volunteers from the community who could share teaching assignments.

"One person may have English skills, another might know science. In an emergency like AIDS, which is devastating the ranks of teachers, creative solutions with community involvement is essential," said Dominic Machel, a delegate from Mozambique's Inhambane province.

"Community involvement to improve local education is essential," said Doctor Simelane. "Our experience is that when you create a culture of dependence - when people sit back and do nothing, while government or donors handle everything - education suffers. There is a correlation between the degree of community involvement and quality of schools."

Seth Ong'oti, a Kenyan project manager with the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF), specialises in improving the standard of education in Muslim Schools in East Africa through community development.

"We start with a request from a community for support. We have to develop a quality, sustainable programme that targets disadvantaged children, that is acceptable to the community. We come up with what we call the African Cooking Pot: teacher training, the physical building structure to make a good learning environment, and community mobilisation," Ong'oti said.

Grassroots support was achieved by seeking the endorsement of Muslim elders and religious leaders, who approved the project and then passed the information on to their followers.

The conference was sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which is making thousands of scholarships available to young African scholars, mainly girls.

The former vice-chancellor of the University of Swaziland, Dr. Lydia Makhubu, challenged some assumptions: "In Swaziland, girls are going to school at a rate of fifty-fifty with boys, and sometimes at a higher percentage. It's not a matter of getting them into the classroom - it's what they do, or rather, what they don't do, while there," she said.

Makhubu stressed the need for introducing girls to the sciences, maths and technology, and making them computer literate - disciplines vital to the modern world, but which tend to be shunned by girls, she said.

Mary Khanya, Swaziland's Ambassador to the United States, told IRIN: "We are interested less in theory than how the intent of programmes is achieving results on the ground. At Emncozini (in north central Swaziland), we opened the first of what will be several Strategy Education Centres, which caters to girls who have dropped out of other schools due to pregnancy or other reasons. There are computer classes offered that have created so much interest that ... girls from other schools [in the area] come to learn."

Two Swazi girls' high schools have established Internet links with sister schools in the United States. Students converse via chat rooms and e-mail.

"Girls are really free to talk about their sexual development with their American counterparts. They feel less constrained than talking to a Swazi, because we are more circumspect about our bodies. This leads to awareness about their bodies, and is important in the understanding of HIV/AIDS," Khanya said.

"We acknowledge that it is to the economic and health advantage of the world to move Africa forward. What happens in Africa will impact everyone," said Gloria Blackwell, Director of African Education Programmes for the Institute of International Education in Washington, DC.

Getting potential corporate partners interested in the lives of African children requires ever more sophisticated marketing, conference delegates noted. In Zambia, USAID produced a 13-minute video of the stories of Zambian street children, and their transformation through education, told from the child's point of view.

"The empathy this created - going into the slums and seeing how these children endure, when really it takes so little financial investment to change their lives - had an energising effect on the partners," said conference convener Dr. Sarah Moten of the Africa Bureau of USAID.

Innovations based on "real life" experiences, rather than theory, are increasingly shaping education policy, delegates said.