Change by the Way
by Jan Phillips
Every transformation in my life so far has something to do with travel. Every journey has led to the uprooting of some ideas and the seeding of some others. It happens predictably, whether I’m staying within the confines of my own country or venturing out where visas and passports are required. It seems to be the rule of movement: If I leave behind the known for a jaunt into the unknown — and keep my eyes and ears opened — again and again I am changed by the act of moving through the mystery.
A few years ago, I headed off to Nigeria at the request of Sister Rita, a Dominican sister who wanted me to facilitate a weekend retreat in visionary leadership for 40 African sisters from her congregation. In return, I would get to visit some of the villages that Sr. Rita’s non-governmental organization (NGO) serves in the state of Kaduna.
I arranged to go for three weeks to give myself plenty of time for visits to the villages. One day, at one of those villages, something happened that changed the course of my life. We arrived by Jeep in the parking lot of a schoolyard where children of every age stood lined up in rows. It was early afternoon, and when we emerged from the vehicle dozens of children ran up to me, grabbed my hand, and pulled me toward their classroom. “Please be our teacher! Please be our teacher!” they pleaded all the way.
The children quickly filled the classroom. They set me at the front of the room and settled quietly on the dusty floor. I had never taught in a classroom full of kids. I had no idea what to do. I looked around. There were no chairs, no desks, no books, no blackboard, no paper, pens or pencils — only an irresistible eagerness to learn exuding from every pore of the faces of the children sitting in crooked rows before me.
“What’s two plus two?” I asked.
“Four! they shouted back.
“What’s eight plus seven?”
“Fifteen!” they proudly responded.
“Where is your teacher?” I asked.
The children shrugged their shoulders. They had no idea why their teachers had stopped coming, but I was determined to find out.
I asked the staff from the NGO why there were no teachers at the school. An ongoing problem, they responded. Corruption in the government. Transportation problems. Housing issues. Low salaries. Few resources. No accountability. Teachers were hired because of who they knew or were related to, and they were paid whether they showed up or not. Because it was such a long and difficult journey to the rural villages, along often impassable roads, with no local housing to ameliorate the burden of long daily travel, there simply was not incentive enough to get the teachers up to the village schools with any regularity.
When I went to bed that night, I cried. My heart broke for those children. How could it be that we have created a world where the education of our children is not yet a global priority? I felt like the problem was mine — as much mine as it was the children’s — and I vowed to make a difference. I met with Sr. Rita to explore options. She would have to meet with the chief of the village, but we came up with a proposal to bring to him.
We would work together to build a home for four teachers next to the buildings that housed four classrooms in that village. We would raise funds for iPads with educational programs and create partnerships with solar energy innovators to bring electrical power to the school. We would increase the chances of teachers being there every day by eliminating their need to commute, AND we would have a backup plan for the students to learn even if the teachers were not present.
After three weeks I came home and started a charitable foundation based on the notion of small contributions from grassroots contributors to build homes for teachers in 20 villages in the state of Kaduna. We would appeal to artists, activists, and cultural creators who are excited about the idea of every child getting an education, and we would raise money through our creative endeavors. The organization, called the Livingkindness Foundation, has raised more than half of the money we need to build the teachers’ housing unit in that first village. We have identified a solar power company that we want to work with and are making connections with educators who are using the iPads in their classrooms.
That one day, that one image of so many children waiting in line for teachers who would never show up, was enough to turn my life upside down. For the first time in my life, I did not think, “They have a problem. Too bad!” I thought, “WE have a problem,” and I set about creating a system where we could work together to solve that problem.
As a result of that trip, hundreds of people are looking into their own lives to see how they can be of use. They have visited the Web site (livingkindness.org), donated money, purchased photos, spread the word on Youtube, Facebook, Twitter. In a tiny village thousands of miles from my home, I looked at a scene that broke my heart open.
I can never unsee that image. I can never pretend it doesn’t matter. My life was altered irrevocably by that one trip, that one day, that one village.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “I travel not to get places, but to climb down off the featherbed of civilization.” I feel that’s what happened on my journey to Africa. I experienced the unfairness of a civilization in trouble, and it changed my life. Like the Nigerian chief said, “If you do not share your wealth with us, we will share our poverty with you.” The poverty of that village spilled over my life and covered me like a blanket. I fell off the featherbed of a privileged civilization onto the dirt floor of a dirt-poor community. And I thank my lucky stars for that day of awakening, for that stark and stirring reminder that we are all in this together. I may be choosing the road less traveled, but I know it is leading me home.