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World Mission’s Africa Area Coordinator discusses the value of education, especially for girls

The Rev. Cheryl Barnes addresses the Congo Mission Network

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Cheryl Barnes

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Cheryl Barnes, Africa Area Coordinator for Presbyterian World Mission, delivered an engaging address on education Friday during the in-person and online gathering of the Congo Mission Network.

Barnes, who’s been on the job for less than a year, called her talk “The Value of Education, Especially for Girls.” Barnes touched on the years she spent as education facilitator for the Church of Central Africa Presbyterian, working with educators, children, their families and other stakeholders in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

“The scope of my call was expansive. I had no one to follow; I had to figure it out,” Barnes said, adding that her work “was not different than the Black missionaries who came before me,” including Maria Fearing. After her appointment by the American Presbyterian Congo Mission in the early part of the 20th century, Fearing provided room and board to orphaned girls. “Notice she went to Congo at age 56,” Barnes said, displaying a slide. “You’re never too old, amen?”

The Malawian schools Barnes and others worked with were “chronically understaffed and overcrowded,” she said. Some had a student-teacher ratio of 100:1. Books were in short supply, and desks for primary school students were almost unheard of. The primary-age dropout rate was 40%, she said.

The plan was to partner with the CCAP, educators, students, parents and community leaders to identify the most pressing issues in Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe and then work at whatever was limiting student success.

“Then the pandemic hit,” Barnes said. “It hit us like a runaway train going at full speed.”

As in other nations around the world, the closure of schools in Malawi “was the immediate and appropriate response to control the spread of the coronavirus,” Barnes said.

In places including the United States, older people were particularly hard hit by Covid, but in Malawi, “it was mostly children who endured the greatest hardships,” Barnes noted. Options for virtual learning were generally not available. “It seemed like a futile proposition to be given an assignment to improve education in a country like Malawi when the global pandemic was preventing any classroom learning from occurring,” said Barnes, who used much of the pandemic to build relationships and identify priorities among education partners.

“That was the origin of the Educate Our Girls project,” Barnes said. “We cannot deny the fact that technology matters. Educators across the globe began to use Zoom to connect with one another.”

Barnes heard from education secretaries in four of the five Malawi synods in the CCAP that an increasing number of schoolgirls were getting pregnant once the pandemic began shuttering schools. Other concerns included the fact that 42% of Malawian girls are married before their 18th birthday and, according to UNICEF, nearly 1 in 10 wed before they’re 15.

After the eighth grade, education is no longer free for Malawian children. “The biggest hurdle for young mothers to return to school is finding the fees to attend class,” Barnes said. “We put our energy and focus on addressing this one issue.”

Girls who’d stopped attending schools because of their pregnancy and subsequent childcare needs were identified. When it came time to raise money to support Educate Our Girls, the Malawi Mission Network and Northeast Georgia Presbytery were instrumental, Barnes said. Extra Commitment Opportunities helped raise more than $12,700 over three years, enough to place 52 girls on scholarships.

“The negative consequences for girls who don’t complete their education are many. They may never be able to earn a living wage,” Barnes said. “When you educate a girl, more often than not they go back to their homes and teach their siblings, and they become role models for their communities.”

“We must improve and expand programs that address the retention of girls, financially support re-admission to school and encourage families to educate our girls,” she said. “I want our partners to know I understand the value of partnership. I support this amazing team of mission co-workers God has called to work in the Congo. I will walk alongside you to eradicate systemic poverty [through] education, especially for the girls.”

“There are endless possibilities for education. When you listen to your partners, they will tell you exactly what they need,” Barnes said. “This is the mentality that World Mission believes is the standard for our partners in the Congo and on the continent of Africa.”

She concluded with this quote from Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the former president of Liberia and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize: “The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.”

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