Two longtime New Paltz residents, Victor and Pascal Guirma, have never stopped thinking about how different their lives might have been had they remained in the village of their birth rather than coming to New Paltz, the village that they have considered home since they were young boys in the 1960s. It’s been their lifelong dream to bring to the residents of Guirgho, which is deep inside the West African nation of Burkina Faso, the same kinds of opportunities that they’ve experienced here in the Hudson Valley. A fundraiser organized by the “Friends of Guirgho” to support those efforts will be held on July 21 at Garvan’s, starting at 1 p.m.
The Guirma brothers were born in what was then known as Upper Volta, a region that was being transitioned from French colonization to independence. It is a place of high poverty and low education, punctuated by political upheaval, droughts and floods. The region was a popular target for slave raids as early as the 16th century, and by the 1700s Christian missionaries and European imperialists were looking to exploit the native people in various ways. Jesuit priests established schools, but villagers were afraid to send their children to these institutions. The Guirmas were members of the Mossi tribe, whose emperor — the Mogho Naaba — became friendly with the Europeans and decreed that all chiefs should send a son to one of these schools to receive western education. Their grandfather was tapped because he was the second son, and was considered “expendable,” and at eight years of age was tied up and sent off to the school. No one in Guirgho expected ever to see him again. Eight years later he returned, the only literate person in the community, and now a staunch supporter of Jesuit education. All his children and several of his siblings were similarly educated.
Frédéric Guirma, father of Victor and Pascal, used his education to become the country’s first ambassador to the United States and permanent representative to the United Nations when Upper Volta became an independent nation in 1960. In a largely French-speaking country, he stood out for being able to speak English. His children could not, and had a lot of learning to do when he brought his family to this country. Pascal vividly recalls his first-grade teachers looking for someone who could speak French to him. Victor’s teacher made his arrival into a learning opportunity: “I introduced myself to the class in English, and [his classmates] responded in French.” Within three months, they were mainstreamed into regular classes.
“We swam through some deep water,” said Pascal.
While other family members eventually returned to Burkina Faso, Pascal and Victor Guirma both chose to stay. Victor, the elder, graduated high school in New Rochelle where they first settled and stayed for a short time with an uncle in Hyde Park while he considered his options. “I was looking at SUNY Buffalo,” he recalled, but his uncle cautioned him against being so far from his brother. Instead, he opted to attend New Paltz.
Nevertheless, said Pascal, “Distance has not eroded the connection to home.”
Despite the benefits of education demonstrated in their family, the literacy rate in Burkina Faso remains very low, with only one-third of adults able to read and write. It’s a nation with a rising population that’s straining the old French school system, which includes a critical exam given to all fifth graders to determine if they will continue in school at all. In rural schools like the one in Guirgho, which receives little in the way of support, the pass rate for this test is extremely low. The test is administered in French, which is spoken and taught in the schools, but children speak their native More at home and seldom master French. Victor and Pascal learned English in part by watching American cartoons, but in Guirgho children have no television and never hear French spoken outside of the classroom. Moreover, the 105 fifth graders preparing for this important test in Guirgho had only a handful of textbooks and had to take turns reading aloud and simply listening.
The local school has other problems. There’s no running water, and no air conditioning. “Can you imagine sitting in a classroom that’s 100 degrees, trying to stay awake while listening to someone read?” asked Pascal. It’s not just high temperatures which impact concentration: carbon dioxide which accumulates when air doesn’t circulate brings on drowsiness. They solved one of those problems when they visited with a few New Paltz friends, including former school board president Bob Rich, by bringing enough texts for all the children.
Among the values of the Mossi people is honoring one’s ancestors. Pascal explained that, for example, it’s typical for one to pour the first drops of a drink onto the ground in remembrance of those who have gone before. While he and Victor are well established in the United States, they continue to seek ways to honor their ancestral village. “Our dream is to give back,” Pascal said, and they don’t want to stop with just a few textbooks. Their next step was to bring in some computers, but that led to the next challenge: the teachers, dedicated as they were, had never seen computers before, much less used them for teaching. They needed training in their use, and according to reports were quite enthusiastic. There’s no internet access, but the software is already transforming how they do their jobs. Now, instead of tracking grades entirely on paper, they can be tabulated on spreadsheets, allowing more time to actually teach. Gone are the days when villagers feared schools, but much more must be done to fully embrace them.
The brothers are aware that bringing in outside money and ideas to a place like Guirgho can be disruptive, even if it’s done by native-born people like themselves. “We don’t want to change the system,” Pascal explained, “we want to add technology to help.” Their next goal is building a resource room, a space to help teachers manage children at different points in their educational journeys. Fast learners could use the resource room for more independent study, while those needing a bit more support could get the needed attention there. New Paltz architect Rick Alfandre has designed a space for that purpose. In addition to technology, the structure will be designed to foster learning by improving air circulation and lowering the oven-like temperature. Air conditioning is not yet feasible given the lack of electricity, but they are looking at passive solar fans to move the air.
More technology also means that the daunting challenge of updating textbooks could become a thing of the past. Traditionally, children have had to leave home to receive more advanced education, although today they probably aren’t going to be tied up for the journey. Pascal and Victor Guirma want to bring education to them through technology, allowing them to earn degrees at a distance and then decide if they wish to leave the village. That’s also good for university campuses, where there simply isn’t enough physical space should all children attend in this country were most citizens are under 18 years of age.
These plans could radically change lives in Guirgho, but they must be implemented in smaller steps, such as training teachers to use computers before introducing them to the children. A new building is a larger goal toward which they are working, but first they have been addressing broken desks, a dearth of books and a latrine which had collapsed leaving children to head for the bushes when nature calls. “It’s step by step,” said Rich.
Even feeding students is a significant challenge. Schools are sent an allotment of rice in January, but school starts in October. Lunchtime without food is a dreary time at the Guirgho school, when children listless from hunger express no joy or desire to play. “These are farmers,” noted Pascal. “Why do they need to wait for food?” To help in that area, he and Victor have turned to members of the Bruderhof community, who provide all their own food, for guidance and ideas. They want to implement a school garden with that help.
Helping the children of this tiny village is personal to the Guirma brothers, but they also see it as part of a solution to global problems. “People who are unschooled can become desperate,” explained Pascal, and that’s a factor that contributes to human migration. The mass crossings of the Mediterranean, the waves of unaccompanied minors arriving at the southern border of this country, and similar situations lead to political turmoil and widespread suffering. The brothers believe that better education can help provide people with tools they need to stay where they are, which most people in dire straits would prefer if they had that alternative. Even if migration is necessary, more education brings with it better skills, and better skills make those migrants more valuable wherever they end up. Right now, people who leave Guirgho seeking opportunity are more likely to end up working as gardeners in Japan or sweeping streets in Europe. If they had the skills to secure better-paying jobs, they would, in turn, be able to support their families back home better, ideally helping to break the cycle of poverty.
Those in New Paltz who help in this effort could get more than just a good feeling, as well. “Learning is two ways,” said Pascal. His wife Mary, a teacher at New Paltz’s middle school, was amazed by the classroom control exhibited by teachers in Guirgho. “The teachers left their rooms to greet us when we arrived, and there was not a peep from the children,” he said.
The culture there is one which, despite mind-boggling poverty, produces neither the shantytowns or the beggars which are prevalent in other parts of the world. Rich has seen these in Buenos Aires and Mexico City and expected the same in Burkina Faso. “I’ve done a lot of traveling,” observed Rich, “and this is one place where I never felt unsafe, even at night.”
The ancient concept of hospitality is not dead here, either: Pascal remembers their mother telling them of week-long walks she would take from the village, surviving by knocking on a stranger’s door and asking for food and shelter. “To be poor here is cruel,” he said, while “there you always have someone to feed you. We can learn from that.”
As in much of Africa, Burkina Faso is a place where “skipping copper” is preferred: rather than install power lines to bring in electricity, the brothers want to see solar become the norm. “It’s right by the equator,” said Victor, and getting enough sunlight isn’t going to be the problem. “We’d like for them to get solar from the start.”
Rich has known the brothers for many years, and their dream of bringing education resonated with him deeply. “Education was my key to a better life,” he said. Growing up in poor conditions, Rich benefited from many government programs. “We ate government cheese, I got a public education” and used government aid to become the first in his family to attend college. “I’m interested in giving back by paying it forward.”
Paying it forward right now involves recruiting local craftspeople to make the journey, to help repair buildings and broken desks and to teach natives how to do the same. Eventually, it might mean bringing in rototillers to do work which is now done entirely by hand, improving agricultural outcomes. On this Pascal expresses a difference in philosophy from those who run Heifer International, a charity best known for giving people in such places livestock. “They want to provide correct technology for the area, and would rather give an animal for plowing than a machine because no one knows how to repair it. There are mopeds everywhere over there, and they get repaired.”
The Guirma brothers are deliberately looking to go small. They are not trying to stop the Chinese from building coal-fired power plants in Kenya (which Pascal calls “backward”), or address issues of pandemics and terrorism. Instead, they believe their approach is one which can be replicated village by village, thereby eroding the causes of those bigger problems. Where representatives of other organizations seek to extract something in return for aid—natural resources, perhaps, or commitment to a particular religion—they offer their help without any strings.
Help is offered also with much optimism. Given the difficult conditions, that 30% of students pass the national exams is “amazing,” according to Pascal, who wonders how much they could contribute to the greater world if given a chance. He is confident that someone in this or a similar school might, someday, find the cure for cancer.
The fundraiser to help those in Guirgho will be held this Sunday, July 21, 1 to 4 p.m., at Garvan’s, located at 215 Huguenot Street. More information about the project can be found at friendsofguirgho.org.