By Will Okun
Two For the Road:
In Africa With Nick Kristof
The New York Times
June 22, 2007
Alice Walker observed, “Black women are the mules of the world.” Traveling across the poor African country of Burundi, we see women doing the majority of the hard fieldwork and, of course, all of the labor in the home.
We also drive by women of all ages transporting insane loads of goods and foods on their backs from village to village or to the market. These women are struggling up endless hills, stooped almost parallel to the ground, traveling miles upon miles.
(Nick Kristof attempted to carry a 50-year-old woman’s bag and nearly toppled under the weight.)
Here in Burundi, the muling process begins early as few girls complete more than a few years of formal education. Why should a family continue to pay school bills (uniforms, supplies, etc.) for a girl when that child could be helping her mother work in the house? The girl’s future is already predetermined: marriage and servitude.
Today we visited a primary school in the province of Kirundo, where the World Food Programme has implemented a new initiative that seeks to address the existing gender disparity in Burundi schools. All female students between the grades of four and six receive a take-home ration of food.
It is now more lucrative for a Burundi family to send their child to school than to keep her at home. The incentive program at this primary school has quickly proved a success as total enrollment has grown sharply.
Perhaps Chicago Public Schools should consider a similar program to address the alarming drop-out rate of black male students (predominately low-income). Currently we expect these students to finish school because it is in their future best interests, and yet less than 50% (numbers vary according to source) graduate citywide, including where I teach at Westside Alternative High School.
Male students drop-out for myriad of reasons, however I believe most leave school because they do not or can not see how their high school classes or the resulting diploma is relevant to their future success. There are few older male role models in these low-income neighborhoods who can demonstrate that an education is essential to personal, career, and financial success.
Plus, school is boring as hell, no one seems to care, there is constant hostility and fights, and there is money to be made now, legally and illegally. So why should they stay in school?
A financial incentive for attendance, grades and behavior would address their current economic situations while simultaneously providing them with a diploma and the framework to enter the workforce or college. More importantly, education will enable young, low-income urban black males, like the girls in Kirundo, to climb off society’s bottom rung in the climb to equality and respect.
I know, I know, it is ridiculous to pay students to attend school, but what is your plan to curb the urban male drop-out rate?
Will Okun has taught English and photography for eight years at Westside Alternative High School in the Austin community of Chicago. He is also the sponsor of the weightlifting club and, at 5' 5" (in boots), claims to still be the best basketball player in the school (unconfirmed). Will spends the rest of his waking hours operating wjzo.com, a Web site that features his portraits of high school students and documentary photographs of the West Side communities of Chicago. The site offers a unique perspective on inner-city youth culture and averages 30,000 views a week from all over the world. Will proudly hails from Carrboro, North Carolina.