Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Burkina Faso: One man's efforts to help girls' education in Burkina Faso

Gilberte Saint Cast visits a dressmaking workshop in Koudougou, Burkina Faso, where her association supports eight girls to learn a trade. (February 2010).

The job of spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General involves working long hours in a highly sensitive political environment, following the 24-hour news cycle and being frequently away from home.

It would only be natural to expect that retiring after almost a decade in this position, a person would want to enjoy some peace and quiet. And that was the case for Fred Eckhard, spokesperson for Kofi Annan, the Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1997 to 2006.

“I spent almost 10 years working for Kofi Annan, travelling to about 100 countries and for me it was the most interesting job in the world, after his,” Mr. Eckhard said. “But there can be such a thing as too much excitement. When we retired, my wife and I just wanted serenity, and so we moved to a small fishing village, to a house with a view of the sea.”

With an accumulated 50 years of UN work experience between them, Mr. Eckhard and his wife Kathryn Gordon, moved to Brittany on the north-west coast of France in September 2005 – and they were happy.

“I had to pinch myself each morning; I felt like we had died and gone to heaven,” Mr. Eckhard said. But after years of trying to help make the world a better place through his work, something was not quite right.

“Despite my happiness, I had a gnawing feeling that I was just too happy. Good food, wonderful wines, fantastic views of the sea from our house; I needed to be giving something back,” Mr. Eckhard said. “But the question was how?”

The answer was close to home, literally. And it stemmed from Gilberte Saint Cast, the person from whom Mr. Eckhard bought his new home.

Ten years ago, a Catholic priest by the name of Father Albert Kabore, from the town of Koudougou, in Burkina Faso, had been temporarily assigned to the French village’s church. Father Albert became friends with Ms. Saint Cast, and ended up inviting her and her husband to visit him in Koudougou, the third biggest town in the landlocked African country. What she saw there led her, in partnership with Father Albert, to set up a humanitarian association – Soldarité Goëlo-Burkina – to support girls’ education in Koudougou. (Goëlo is the name of the coastal area of France where Ms. Saint Cast and Mr. Eckhard live.)

“Through her fund-raising around the village, she took in about €7,000 a year, which she sent to Father Albert and two partners in Koudougou, who distributed the money as small cash grants,” Mr. Eckhard said. “€150 a year will put a girl through secondary school; €70 a year pays tuition at a dressmaking vocational school. This year, they’re supporting 45 girls, about eight of whom are studying dressmaking.”

“€7,000 may not sound like much, but Burkina Faso is not only one of the poorest countries in the world, it’s also among the most illiterate,” Mr. Eckhard added. “To help 45 girls a year stay in school was and is an important step forward.”

According to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), 18 per cent of the boys in Burkina Faso are enrolled in secondary school, compared to 13 per cent of the girls.

UNICEF says that Burkina’s gross school enrolment rate, especially at primary school level, has increased significantly in recent years, and this increase is particularly due to a massive girls’ education campaign and other incentives – such as the elimination of primary school fees for all girls and the free distribution of more than four million books and school supplies.

“These improvements are coming from the Government of Burkina Faso, with support from development partners including non-governmental organizations – but also from smaller, more personal initiatives like the one carried out by Fred Eckhard and the association he’s a member of,” said UNICEF’s Representative in Burkina Faso, Hervé Périès. “These sorts of efforts will also contribute towards bridging the gender gap in secondary education which still exists in the country.”

Mr. Eckhard was under no illusions as to the challenges involved. It was not the 68-year-old’s first exposure to Africa. He had spent two years at the University of the Congo (Kinshasa) in the 1960s, was UN spokesperson in Namibia in 1989-90 and through working for a Secretary-General who had a special focus on Africa, he had gotten much closer to the continent, including to Burkina Faso.

“This is an uphill battle. Despite strong government support for education, the drop-out rate is high,” he said. “This is due to a range of factors. For example, girls are pressured to stay at home to help their mothers with siblings and household chores; early pregnancy is common. Arranged marriages at a very young age happen less now but haven’t disappeared; girls who lack sanitary napkins are forced to miss school for several days each month during their menstrual cycle.”

With the first payment of his €25 annual membership, Mr. Eckhard joined Soldarité Goëlo-Burkina and, over time, got more and more involved. In 2009, he accompanied Ms. Saint Cast and her husband to Koudougou.

“I saw girls line up at Father Albert’s house to thank her (Ms. Saint Cast) for changing their lives,” Mr. Eckhard said. “I visited schools with her and was impressed what a little can-do country can accomplish with so few resources. I felt I had to be a part of this.”

He returned to Burkina with the Saint Casts in 2010, and then asked all his friends and former UN colleagues to pitch in. That year, he personally raised over €24,000. Solidarité traditionally ends support at graduation from secondary school, but with the help of some fundraising in the United States by his son, he personally sent two of Solidarité’s girls to university last fall, each majoring in accounting.

With this higher level of giving, Mr. Eckhard proposed to Ms. Saint Cast that her association start supporting girls to go on to university. But, while thoroughly supportive of the proposal, Ms. Saint Cast, now 78, replied, “Ours is an aging organization; I think you should do this on your own.”

Mr. Eckhard is now in the process of creating a non-profit organization called the Burkina Women’s Education Fund. He plans to cover all overhead costs out of his own pocket so that every dollar or euro given will go directly to the girls involved.

This past February, he traveled to Burkina Faso – once again at his own expense but without Ms. Saint Cast for the first time – and interviewed all of the association-sponsored girls who were in the last year or next-to-last year of secondary school to work out the best way to help them achieve their dreams.

“I spoke with them to find out what their home life was like, what they wanted to do with their lives, what their basic needs were. ‘Do you want to go to university,’ I asked them? ‘Where? To study what? How much will it cost?’ Many of them hadn't thought this through,” Mr. Eckhard said. “With the help of two young French colleagues who volunteered their support, we drew up profiles of these girls and are working with them to define their financial needs.”

For the school year 2011-2012, Mr. Eckhard will be trying to raise tuition money for nine girls. He said former colleagues, among others, may be hearing from him soon about his efforts in Burkina Faso.

“If so, dig deep," he said with a grin, adding, “Burkina Faso is turning into a full-time job, I even thought of a slogan for the NGO: 'Do Good; Have Fun' which is appropriate as it's both enjoyable and fulfilling. So much for 'retirement'!”