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Giving African girls a chance to learn

By Viola Vaughn, Special to CNN
  • Viola Vaughn left retirement to take on challenge of educating girls in Senegal
  • She says the vast majority of schooling is devoted to boys
  • Girls who are expelled from school for failing tests face very limited choices
  • Vaughn's education program now serves more than 3,000 girls

Editor's note: This is one in a series of articles by CNN Heroes. Viola Vaughn was named one of the top 10 CNN Heroes for 2008. The tribute to the top 10 heroes of 2010, hosted by Anderson Cooper, will be shown Thanksgiving night at 8 p.m. ET.

(CNN) -- In 2000, I moved to Senegal for the third and last time with my five grandchildren and husband, jazz musician Sam Sanders. Their mother had passed on five years before from a heart attack and their father was still distraught.

We decided to give our grandchildren an international multilingual and multicultural education. I had spent 30 years in and out of many African countries, designing health, education and nutrition programs, and had lived in many places and discovered many cultures.

We decided on Kaolack, a town in the western part of Senegal. The local religious leaders are very tolerant of all religions, creeds, and nationalities. After we arrived, our grandchildren started to become accustomed to the varied lifestyle. Then, my husband, who was my best friend, died. I retired from life. I spent my days in prayer, reflection and education of the grandchildren. My mourning period had began, and I assumed it would continue all my remaining life.

In late spring 2001, Mame Gueda Agne, a 9-year-old playmate of my granddaughter, came and asked to join the grandkids home-schooled classes. She stated simply that she had failed the third grade the year before, was failing this year, and afraid that she would be thrown out of school.

In Senegal, if a child fails two successive years in public school he or she is expelled. Only if parents can afford private school education will the child be able to continue.

I explained to her that she was in the Senegalese school system and the grandkids' classes were not the same. In fact, the last thing I wanted was for an outside child to interrupt my mourning rituals. But, Mame Gueda continued to come and ask.

Finally, I took Mame Gueda to speak with her mother to stop her asking. Her mother explained that the girl was not intelligent and would probably fail. She stated that she would let her finish this school year, then keep her home to teach her how to be a good wife and mother.

I could not accept that fate for a little girl who only wanted me to assist her. I asked her mother to allow me to work with her. Even though I had not mastered the Senegalese educational system, I thought that with my local contacts I could find someone to help Mame Gueda.

The next day Mame Gueda arrived for schooling. But she did not come alone. She came with three other girls. In two weeks, I had 20 little 9-year-old girls. My mourning period was over.

I researched the whys and wherefores of the little girls' educational failures. I found that of every 60,000 girls who enter first grade, only 4,500 finish primary school in the region of Kaolack. Of those 4,500 students entering middle school, only 1,500 will enter high school. Five hundred will graduate with a high school diploma, 150 will enter university, and 15 will receive their university degree.

I discovered that many girls do not have books and school supplies, or the time or a place to study after school. I began haunting all the public and private development agencies, local and national government institutions, asking for assistance to support our little girls. I was refused. We were not part of an established program or in the wrong area, or we were turned down for innumerable other reasons.

We started teaching ourselves. There is always someone who knows something that another does not. We made sure that everyone knew the basics: read, write, cipher. I drew upon competency based educational techniques I had learned at Columbia University Teacher's College. We had to rely on ourselves.

In the fall of 2001 the girls wanted me to continue the program. I informed them that I hadn't been able to find the money. They said they could raise their own money. They had seen American girls on television selling cookies and would imitate them. So I began "cookie classes." The girls sold cookies and fruit punch.

They raised enough to buy their school books and supplies. The little girls brought in older siblings and relatives who had already failed and been expelled from school. The older girls did the cooking and selling. They became our financial support and grew into our entrepreneurs.

The little girls returned to school. I knew that in order for them not to fail again, they had to keep learning. We involved our girls' parents to make sure they allowed them the time to study after school by reducing household chores. We involved the community by getting it to allocate public spaces and buildings to hold our afterschool classes and programs.

Eventually we got public and private financial and technical support to expand the number of girls that we teach each year. We now have 3,383 girls and want to increase our numbers to 5,000 this year.

We export five blended hibiscus teas, dolls and household products to pay for the schooling. We have decided to become green, with an aggressive environmental education and agricultural development entrepreneurial program.

We have 20 girls in university. We do not recruit. They find us. They come. All failing, all willing to teach and learn. And now: All succeeding.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Viola Vaughn.