Born and raised in New Paltz, Sharon Roth became a professional educator after earning a master’s degree in French and a teaching degree from the State University of New York at New Paltz. Now retired, she volunteers at the Woodbourne and Fishkill correctional facilities, teaching writing to inmates in a program where they earn college credits. Her teaching skills were also utilized earlier this year when she traveled to West Africa, where she taught a three-week English enrichment program to impoverished students in one of the poorest countries in the world.
Roth traveled at her own expense to Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso. The former French colony, previously known as Upper Volta, is a landlocked country of some 17 million people, 60 percent Muslim, bordered by six countries: Mali, Niger, Benin, Togo, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. Impoverished even by West African standards, Burkina Faso is also unsettled politically. Recurring droughts, military coups and accusations of human rights violations have all taken a toll on the economy. Tourism infrastructure is limited, but then, Roth didn’t go there to sightsee.
She went at the request of Dr. Eric Somé, a man whom Roth says she’s come to consider her brother. They met at a Toastmaster’s event in Connecticut in 2011. At the time, Somé was working on a cure for malaria, research sponsored by Bill Gates for Pfizer. The doctor told Roth he had built a private high school for youth in his country, Burkina Faso, and invited her to teach a month-long enrichment English program there.
“He sent me pictures of the school as it was being built in 2008, and then he sent me pictures of the students,” says Roth. “He told me he would love for me to come over and teach them a bit of English. It would enrich their lives, he said. And that sounded very appealing to me.”
French is the official language of government and business in Burkina Faso, but there are 66 native languages spoken in the developing nation. Somé believes that students who can learn English will be more successful, says Roth. And as a teacher fluent in both French and English, she was uniquely qualified to take on the challenge of working with the students at L’Ecôle St. Lazare (St. Lazarus School).
Located in Dano, 140 miles west of the capital city of Ouagadougou, the private school currently serves 217 male and female students ranging in age from 15 to 23. The students were very happy to meet someone from America, says Roth, and in fact, their happiness in general was noteworthy. The biggest impression she had upon meeting them, she says, is that despite being “very, very poor, they were very happy students,” with a genuine thirst for knowledge.
The students realize, says Roth, that education is their ticket out. “The reason Dr. Somé built the school was because in Burkina Faso, at the end of sixth grade, all the students must take a state test, and if they fail the test, they can have no more education. And two-thirds of them fail.”
Those children become “basically slaves; the girls go help wealthier families take care of their children, and the boys do odd jobs on farms and construction work, but they’re basically slaves.”
Half of the students at L’Ecôle St. Lazare can’t afford the eleven-cent lunch of rice and beans prepared daily at the school, Roth adds, noting that half of the student population goes without a midday meal.
Tuition costs $130 a year, in a country where the average annual income is $400, according to Roth. She helped Dr. Somé establish the 501 (c) (3) nonprofit “Light for All, Inc.” in 2013, to generate scholarships for students who cannot afford the tuition.
The largest class Roth worked with in Burkina Faso included 70 students. “I taught them about Barack Obama and Donald Trump. It was very interesting; some of the students knew about Trump before I even mentioned his name. I asked each student a question that they had to reply to in English: ‘If you were able to come to America, would you rather visit New York City or Washington, D.C.?’ A couple of the students, who were very smart, said, “I would love to visit Washington, D.C., because I would like to meet Mr. Donald Trump.” And this was before I’d mentioned his name! They knew about him.”
Out of all her students there, Roth says, only three had a television at home and just five had a radio. “And I never saw a newspaper there.” But while the students don’t have Internet in their homes, she adds, “Dr. Some was very excited that there is now an Internet Café in the town where the school is located, and they have 15 computers.”
During the week, Roth stayed in the teacher’s residence at the school. There are five teachers at L’Ecôle St. Lazare, but Roth says she didn’t have the opportunity to interact with them because none currently live at the residence. During her stay, the house was divided into accommodations for herself and the school principal.
In addition to working with the students on their English skills, Roth taught them songs. One day, after learning “We Shall Overcome,” a young man named Somda asked her if he could sing a song for her. The words he’d written for the music he composed impressed Roth when she saw them written on the board in French. “Now that we have democracy, slavery is finished,” Somda had written.
Of all the students she met in Burkina Faso, Somda is the one who really stood out to Roth. “He was the first student I met that first day at the school,” she says. “I reached out to shake hands with him and said, ‘Good morning, I am Miss Roth.’ He responded, ‘Good morning, I am Somda.’ And he was the last person I saw when we pulled away from the school. He waved, and I waved. I’m hoping that maybe someday he’ll come here, and I don’t think he ever thought that was a possibility before I went there.”
Roth told the students in Africa about her work teaching inmates at the Woodbourne and Fishkill correctional facilities, where she began volunteering last year. When asked whether she saw any similarities between the incarcerated students here and the students in Burkina Faso — who both, in their own ways, are constrained by their living circumstances and unable to pick up and move at will — Roth says it’s the appetite for education that both groups of students share, and a conviction that knowledge will be the path to a better life.
Roth will teach College Writing I twice a week this summer at Woodbourne, and College Writing II this fall, one night per week each at Woodbourne and Fishkill. “I love it,” she says. “I started volunteering in a prison in Massachusetts in 2011, then a year later in Connecticut, where I’d lived for 12 years. After retiring and coming back to New Paltz, I said, ‘I want to go to prison!’”
It’s meant as a joke, of course, but Roth is serious about her work with the inmates, noting that many of the men who attend classes through the program called “Rising Hope” have earned enough college-level credits in that way to go on to finish a degree at accredited universities that accept credits earned while incarcerated. One man she knows of became a minister, she says, with another going on to a productive career working as a substance abuse counselor.
Before she traveled to Africa this past January, Roth asked her students in the correctional facilities to write messages to the Burkina Faso students inside “peace cards,” non-denominational greeting cards bearing an image of a dove and the word “peace.” The inmates wrote positive messages for Roth to share. “I asked them to write a line or two and sign their first names, and they wrote wonderful things like, ‘You are my brothers and sisters,’ and ‘I pray for you.’ One wrote, ‘I hope you have a successful education, and pay attention to Miss Roth: she’s a great teacher!’”
Roth laughs. “Which was really sweet. And the next day, when I went back to the school, all 217 students in Burkina Faso had made a card for my students here. Their messages were the same, ‘You are my brothers,’ ‘I am praying for you,’ ‘I hope you get a good education and you have a successful life.’ It was wonderful; a high point of the trip, for sure.”