This year the iNERDE Colonie de Vacances STEM in Mali has students from four schools in Bamako, three private and one public. Last year we only had students from one private school.
The other day we were interviewed by a local television station. The reporter was asking some tough questions; actually, I quite admired the penetration of her questions and the diligence with which she dug into her story. She asked where our kids came from, we responded that they were selected by our partners school and proceeded to name them. After hearing the first three, private schools, she cut in, “Rich kids. Why don’t you take kids from public schools?” We explained that, first of all, we had one public school, that the program was just in its second year and that we planned to increase our public school participation as time goes on. That we had started with the one school we had a personal connection to (Pusso’s alma mater, L’Ecole du Progès), and added the schools that had asked to participate this year, including one public school.
It was a reasonable answer but I think the whole issue is more complex. iNERDE has a strong commitment to opportunity for Malians from all walks of life. Having myself come from a working class background I’m particularly passionate about reaching those kids that haven’t had opportunity handed to them. However, our primary mission is not to directly address economic inequality in the countries we operate in, it is to contribute an educational approach and curriculum that will enable Africans to fully participate in the world economy and to solve problems requiring innovative thinking and technology in their countries. I have observed in Senegal and in Mali that kids here are not at the same level as kids in the high-tech countries. While we want to enable individual opportunity and empowerment for as many kids as possible, we also want to help get some number of kids to the level where they can compete at the highest international standard – with, one day, South Korea, Germany, the United States, or China. We may be crazy – but we aren’t – we don’t accept a world divided into rich countries, countries of opportunity, and poor countries, countries devoid of opportunity. We don’t see any immutable reason for a world like that. We certainly don’t see a shortage of talent, energy, intelligence and creativity in Africa.
One not familiar with Senegal and Mali might make mistaken assumptions what “rich” means in Mali. Income levels are somewhere around 50 times lower than the United States. OK, but isn’t the cost of living correspondingly lower? Yes and no. Imported products cost, in absolute terms, the same or more in Mali than in most other parts of the world due to transportation, size of the market, and costs associated with poor infrastructure. Cars, refrigerators, plumbing fixtures, computers, tools. Cars are a necessity for some Malians; a cheap car may cost the equivalent of 10 years salary for the average worker. Our rich “kids” have less material resources than I had growing up working class in Newark, New Jersey. Despite enjoying relative prosperity in their own country, by the standards of the high-tech countries, they will be trying to compete at an international level despite a tremendous deficiency of resources.
It may be, in the beginning, that iNERDE will have the most society-wide impact working with kids that have access to resources that will allow them to build on what they learn in the Colonie de Vacances. We aren’t making any assumptions about what adequate resources are; we already have kids from families with very little that have demonstrated very strong perseverance. We need very strong commitment from the partner schools and from the parents, even if material resources are lacking, for the kids to be able to apply that perseverance. Badalabougou, our public school in Mali, demonstrated that commitment, as did all the Badalabougou parents that sent their kids to the Colonie de Vacances. We are working hard to bring other public schools, with the same commitment, on board next year.