Facilitated by David Werner in February, 2014

In February 2014 I, David Werner, visited Burkina Faso, West Africa, at the invitation of the Dutch NGO, Light for the World–the Netherlands. I was asked to exchange experiences in Community Based Rehabilitation (CBR) and to facilitate workshops, using the Child-to-Child approach, to promote “educational inclusion.” The objective was to explore ways to make schooling more accessible, friendlier, and more helpful to children with disabilities—while at the same time making public education more relevant and empowering for all children.

Light for the World (LFTW) is a large, service-oriented non-government organization, in some ways similar to the German NGO, Cristoffel-Blinden Mission (CBM), with which it used to be affiliated. Like CBM, its original mission was to prevent blindness and restore sight–or light–to blind people in poor countries. Also like CBM, in recent years LFTW’s mission has expanded. It now embraces the philosophy and goals of “Community Based Rehabilitation,“with a broad focus on both the physical and the social needs of disabled children.

Light for the World currently has programs in many countries in Africa and Asia, and one in South America (Bolivia). In Burkina Faso it helps support seven Community Based Rehabilitation (CBR) projects in different parts of the country. It cooperates closely with other programs, both non-government and government, in promoting the rights and habilitation of persons with disabilities. It places strong emphasis on the “educational inclusion” of disabled children, especially those children who are deaf or blind, because very few of these children are admitted to public schools, and those few who are have an extremely difficult time.

Plans for my visit to Burkina Faso had been percolating for several years—ever since I first met Lenie Hoegen at a workshop I led in India in 2005. At that time Lenie worked for the Liliane Foundation, under whose auspices the Indian workshop was organized. Lenie is now the Director of LFTW in Burkina Faso. Since early in 2013 Lenie and I had been planning the Burkina Workshop and hoped to work closely on its realization. But sadly, Lenie had a heart attack a week before it took place, and missed out. Thankfully she is recovering well, but we both regret her absence at the event.

In planning my visit to Burkina Faso, Lenie had been intrigued by a newsletter I wrote about a Child-to-Child workshop I led for the Education Ministry in Morelia, Michoacan, Mexico, in 2007. Lenie wanted me to do something similar in Burkina Faso.

The Morelia Workshop was designed to address not only the needs for inclusion of disabled children, but also the health-related needs of all children–and to do so in an empowering, collaborative way. At that time the state of Michoacan had a progressive government committed to “educational reform.” It wanted to make schooling more relevant and inclusive, especially for children who have been traditionally marginalized, whether by poverty, ethnicity, or disability. Hence one of the goals of that Workshop was to help transform public education from an authoritarian system of social control, to a liberating environment of “education for change.” To this end, in the workshop we used the “liberating,” action-oriented methodology of the famed Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

With these change-making concepts in mind for our Child-to-Child Workshop in Burkina Faso, I was encouraged to introduce methods of “Discovery Based Learning” that would help children think for themselves, analyze their needs, and work together for the health, rights and inclusion of all.

In Burkina Faso this is a tall order–as I was soon to discover.In this impoverished African country with devastating inequities, to achieve a healthier, more inclusive social order, far-reaching structural change would be needed. Much of the population is increasingly ready for such change. But the power structure is militantly top-down, with social stratification deeply entrenched. Reinforcing this pecking order, schooling (modeled after the French colonial system) is also very top-down. Like schooling wherever the gap between the powerful and the powerless is great, it teaches students not to question but to obediently follow the rules.

The Situation in Burkina Faso Today

Burkina Faso-formerly Upper Volta-is a landlocked west-African country with 17 million people. It gained its independence from France in 1960. The UN says Burkina Faso is the world’s forth poorest country. It’s BNP per capita is US$600. With much of that income pocketed by a very wealthy minority, the poor majority struggle to survive on a pittance.

Telling facts about Burkina Faso:

  • The majority of the population (81%) live in the rural area, through subsistence farming.

  • There is a short rainy season and long period of drought.

  • Over half the people (80% of the disabled) live below the poverty line.

  • Over half of young children are undernourished.

  • Under-5 mortality rate is 147⁄1000 live births

  • Diarrhea, pneumonia, and malaria are major killers, especially of undernourished children.

  • Life expectancy is 55.4 years.

  • Blindness rate is 1.4%, due mainly to cataract, trachoma, and until recently, onchocerciasis.

  • Illiteracy is 71%. UNDP says BF has the world’s lowest literacy, with girls much lower than boys.

Although Health is officially a top priority, public clinics and hospitals still charge too much for poor people to afford. Most people turn first to traditional healers, then go to the mission hospitals (mostly Catholic) or clinics sponsored by foreign NGOs. There are many such clinics, though not nearly enough, especially in remote areas.

In Burkina Faso the power structure has operated under a thin veil of election-based democracy, but in fact has been oppressive . The current President, Blaise Compaore, a military captain, took power through a coup in 1987, by overthrowing (with the help of France) the charismatic socialist leader, Thomas Sankara.

At first President Compaore made some progressive changes and won a degree of popular support. But as time passed he became more tyrannical and corrupt. He, and his family members, and cronies have amassed enormous wealth and live in palatial estates. (We drove by the President’s huge rural estate, with his own private zoo and personal army.) Although his popularity has waned, he still holds onto his power. Twice he changed the National Constitution to allow his reelection. And to assure it, has eliminated his competition by disappearances and arrests. He has now been in power for 26 years.

The next national election will be held next year (2015). The situation, though so far subdued, is tense. To be reelected once more, the President must once again change the Constitution. But this time, with the vast majority disillusioned and eager for change, people I talked with say that he probably won’t dare. By the same token, the President has cut back on the disappearances and arrests of his opponents.

In sum, Burkina Faso at present is percolating for change. But what sort of change will take place is uncertain. Will it be peaceful or violent? Will a popular government be elected that responds with fairness to the enormous needs of the destitute majority? Or will a new strong-man emerge who re- entrenches an exploitative elite? Will the people unite and stand up for their rights? Or will they submit to the same old domination and oppression they have been schooled to submissively accept?

Education as a Double-Edged Sword

The kind of schooling children receive has a lot to do with how they later respond to critical situations and the possibilities for change. Children who have been schooled to submissively obey authority and follow rules, however unkind or unfair, and to compete with their peers rather than to strive together for the common good, are unlikely to mobilize for positive change. But if children are educated in a way that encourages them to think for themselves, to make their own observation and draw their own conclusions, and then work together for the benefit of all, these children when they grow up are much more likely to become agents of positive change. They are more likely to see through the bribes and false promises of the potentates who beguile the naive to vote for them, only to further exploit them when they gain power.

Hence in societies with stark stratification between rich and poor, between the elite and the subjugated, school systems are designed to instill obedience to authority rather than commitment to equality and fundamental human rights. Suchschools are by design exclusive rather than inclusive. They separate the winners from the losers, the strong from the weak, the able from the disabled.

If standard schools are to become truly inclusive for all, far more will be required than simply making sure some teachers learn sign language and others Braille. Rather, it comes down to a question of redefining and redesigning the purpose and the methods of schooling. It is a question not so much of what we teach, but how we teach. It is a question of not of pushing ideas into the heads of children, but rather of pulling them out. A question of putting less emphasis on competition and more on cooperation, of everyone helping one another, of those who are quicker assisting those who are slower, of everybody finding a way forward together.

This kind of education for change is the rationale behind the so-call Inclusive Child-to-Child Workshop in Burkina Faso, as I envisioned it. These ideas are not just my own. Variations on the theme have been widely shared by iconoclastic educators the world round, from Rabindranath Tagore to J. Krishnamurti to Paulo Freire.

As will be seen in the presentation of the Workshop to follow, different people at the Workshop responded differently to some of the more iconoclastic learning methods I introduced to promote “inclusive education.” Some even questioned whether I was trying to kindle a socialist revolution.

Be that as it may, I think a lot of people–including many of the children involved–began to think about education and inclusion from a new and challenging perspective.

Burkina Faso, from the little I have learned about it and observed, is a country with a lot of needs and difficultiess, but in some ways a lot of strengths and potential. Its main strength appears to be in its people: the ordinary farming and working people. They struck me as having an intrinsic warmth, integrity, and sense of community. There was a basic friendliness and welcoming, especially outside the capital city, that made me feel comfortable and safe.

True, poverty in Burkina Faso is a big problem, and sometimes disabling or lethal. But with the poverty, like disability, the downside often has sometimes been its upside. In much of the rest of the world, the primary underlying cause of preventable chronic illness and death is over-consumption of sugar-loaded foods and drinks, linked with obesity But in Burkina Faso, most people can’t afford the sugary drinks and junk foods that are undermining the health even of (and especially of) the poor. In Burkina Faso, for the most part, only those above poverty level have a tendency to be overweight, and such persons are a relatively small minority. The very poor majority can’t afford such indulgence, and many of those I observed (admittedly not in the most remote areas of the country) looked surprisingly healthy.

Nevertheless, diseases like malaria and trachoma, as well as childhood diarrhea and pneumonia, still take a high toll. And for many, when people are sick, health services are either out of reach or ruinously expensive. Low wages, inadequate public services, and the stark concentration of wealth and power, unquestionably cause a lot of preventable suffering and death. Many people are ready for change. If schooling can be made more inclusive for those who are marginalized, and more empowering and egalitarian for all, perhaps the people will begin to collectively analyze their needs and join together to bring about the changes that can lead to greater health and inclusion for all.

For further explanation and examples of the Child-to-Child approach and its use with disabled children, see the following books by David Werner, all accessible online in English and Spanish: