I is for Imagine

A humble imitation of Margaret Atwood's reveries on a piece of bread.

Imagine a classroom. You don’t have to imagine it, you’re in it right now. The colorful poster on the wall with the sparkly stars that says “Shoot for the moon, even if you miss you’ll land among the stars” stares back at you as you sit in your bright, clean desk. You pull your notebook and pen out of your backpack as the teacher begins the lesson which she projects onto the SMART board. You listen as you sip on the vanilla latte you bought on the way to school. You grab a computer tablet from the cart in the corner of the room to begin the activity that’s been assigned. You could also use your own laptop, but you didn’t charge it last night so it’s just easier to use the classroom tablet, it’s not near as good as yours, but it’ll do. You put your ear buds in to listen to music while you work. Teacher says it really doesn’t help me concentrate, but whatever.

Imagine an armed conflict. Now imagine a classroom. Both of these things are real but you are only in the same place as one of them. You are now sitting with 60 others on rough wooden benches, others crowd in and are sitting on the floor. The sweat drips down your neck and back as you sit quietly listening to the teacher. You wish you could have a drink of water, but the well is a mile away. The corrugated steel walls block any breeze and the bare concrete floor is dusty and hot on your feet. The single light bulb hanging by a wire from the middle of the ceiling, when it works at all, casts odd shadows across the rickety slate chalkboard on wheels that the teacher is writing on. You’d like to write down the notes, but you used your last piece of paper last week and teacher says there won’t be more supplies unless donations come from the UN, so you just try really hard to remember all she is saying by chanting it over and over again to yourself. You miss the school you used to go to with the desks and chairs, but it’s gone now. This make-shift classroom might be gone by tomorrow, who really knows?

Imagine a small two room hut in a rural village. You watch your brothers as they leave your hut to go to school. You wish you could go with them, but girls aren’t allowed. Even if they were, your family can barely afford to get uniforms, books and supplies for your brothers, so you stay home and do chores. Your father wants you to learn your household duties well because he’s been busy making arrangements for your marriage. You’re not sure what to think, but it’s better than what happened to your friend. She got sold and was taken to the city to work there and everyone knows when that happens you never come back. Or even worse, you could end up like your neighbour who tried to go to school and had acid thrown in her face. She can never be married now.

There once were two brothers who grew up in a little village. Upon entering adulthood, one brother left the village and struck out to make his way in the world. He sailed the seven seas and made his fortune, eventually settling down by a crystalline lake where he built a home of great beauty with the wealth he had amassed for his wife and children. His riches allowed him to send his children to the best schools and even hire tutors to aid his children when they so desired. The other brother remained in the little village, caring for his parents and toiling long days to eke a living from the drought-ridden land. He also married and had a family, but he worried all the time for them because of the dangers and hardships they had to endure. He tried to ensure his children learned to read, but the school was a great distance away and they needed everyone to help at home or they would starve. One day the poor brother wrote to his rich brother and asked for help. But the rich brother only scolded his poor brother that he should have left the little village as he had then he wouldn’t be in this mess. The next day the rebels raided the village, burning the poor man’s crops and destroying his home. They all tried to run, but the rebels kidnapped the children and mowed everyone else down.

If I was staying true to Atwood’s “Bread”, I would tell you this is a fairy-tale. I would then go on to write that I conjured the classrooms, but I haven’t.

This is all real.

UNESCO estimates that there are 110 million children in developing countries not in school. In his article, 10 Barriers to Education Around the World, Phineas Rueckert states lack of funding, no teachers or untrained teachers, no classroom, lack of learning materials, exclusion of children with disabilities, being the ‘wrong’ gender, conflict and war, distance, hunger and poor nutrition, and expense are the biggest factors keeping children from a basic education. He goes on to explain that

increasing access to education can improve the overall health and longevity of a societygrow economies, and even combat climate change.

Phineas Rueckert, 10 Barriers to Education Around the World

Therefore, education is a key way for all of us to move forward with many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, provides a blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet. At its heart are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which are an urgent call for action by all countries – developed and developing – in a global partnership to end poverty, improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.

Many of the poorest countries can’t afford to finance their own education systems and rely on foreign aid to fill the gap. Unfortunately there is still a $39 billion short fall. In addition to funding problems, many countries struggle with not having enough trained teachers. UN estimates show a need of 69 million new teachers to achieve universal primary and secondary education by 2030. Right now, in 1 out of 3 countries, less than 75% of teachers are trained to national standards. Case in point, primary-schoolers in Mali have a 50/50 chance that their teacher is trained to teach. Even if the teacher has the appropriate training, often there is a lack of basic supplies.

In Tanzania, for example, only 3.5% of all grade 6 pupils had sole use of a reading textbook. In Cameroon, there are 11 primary school students for every reading textbook and 13 for every mathematics textbook in grade 2. 


More alarming is the fact that many lack a classroom altogether.

Teacher Mahajera Armani and her class of girls pose for a picture at their study open area, founded by Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee (BRAC), outside Jalalabad city, Afghanistan September 19, 2015. (Reuters)

A lack of walls is not the only problem to create a viable learning environment,

in Malawi, for example, there are an average of 130 children per classroom in grade 1. It’s not just a lack of classrooms that’s the problem, but also all the basic facilities you would expect a school to have — like running water and toilets. 

Phineas Rueckert, 10 Barriers to education around the world

Koen Timmers, an awarded educator, lecturer, researcher, author and speaker, and project coordinator for the Kakuma Project and Innovation Lab Schools recognized these problems. In relaying how he started the Kakuma Project, he highlights an impactful Skype call with an outreach officer in the refugee camp that then prompted him to ship his personal laptop to them. This began his work to help increase the level of education in the camp by offering free Skype lessons to the refugee students. Timmers recruited other teachers to give lessons via Skype and also began a crowdfunding campaign that allowed him to ship a solar suitcase, another 20 laptops and bolster internet infrastructure in the camp. To date, there are 324 educators from 70 countries offering free education via Skype to the Kakuma refugee camp which is based in Kenya and houses 200,000 refugees and 30 schools.

 Right: We Care Solar solar suitcase which allows the teachers to charge laptops.
Left: The average class size is 250 students (crammed into an average size classroom).

Timmers’ work did not end there. He is currently working with Jane Goodall and other partners including Goodall’s Roots and Shoots, Microsoft, Lego Education, Global Teacher Prize, Participate, Edukans, Dyade, Empatico, i3 Technologies, PXL University of Applied Sciences, and Cross Trade OBL to bring learning to students in rural Africa and all over the world. The Innovation Lab Schools opened their first location in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya. The next stage includes development of more Innovation Lab Schools. To date, schools have been opened in Pugu and Gombe, Tanzania; Tchimpounga, Congo; Rhino Refugee camp, Uganda; Lagos, Umanagbor Ihitte, and Ezinihitte Mbaise, Nigeria; with more schools planned for Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Morocco; Bragado, Argentina; Chimp Eden Sanctuary, South Africa; and Australia.

Project Lead: Marie-Christine Ghanbari Jahrami

Timmers’ work offers hope to the desperate situation of many, but armed conflict and natural disasters continue to destroy education systems for scores of children around the world. In fact,

nearly 250 million children are living in countries affected by conflicts. Around 61 million children are currently out of school because they live in conflict and disaster zones, with young girls 90% more likely to be out of secondary school in conflict areas than elsewhere, according to UNESCO.


As if conflict and other disasters weren’t enough to hamper the educational prospects of children, there are still many countries where gender decides your educational fate.

There are well over 20 prominent nations, which continue to discriminate against females by preventing them from learning. In these countries, gender inequality in education not only stifles the development of women, but also their sense of self-worth.

Laura Argintar, You Won’t Believe How Many Countries Still Won’t Allow Women The Right To Education

A staggering 60% of the children not in classrooms right now are girls. The plights recounted in the earlier paragraphs of this blog echo real situations that young girls have to face everyday. In Nepal, for example, many young women are sold into bonded servitude. In Chad, a country that boasts the highest rate of underage marriages in the world, education is not a priority for girls. Nine out of ten women in Afghanistan are illiterate and face death threats and acid attacks for going to school, making it one of the most difficult places in the world to be a girl. A close second would likely be Pakistan, infamous now for the Taliban attack on Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the head for pursuing her right to learn.

Imagine a classroom. You don’t have to imagine it, you’re in it right now. The colorful poster on the wall with the sparkly stars that says “Shoot for the moon, even if you miss you’ll land among the stars” stares back at you as you sit in your bright, clean desk. It’s telling you something. It’s telling you that you can shoot for the stars by working to make a difference in education across the world. You can support efforts like Koen’s or the many others going on as we speak, Camfed, UNICEF, UNESCO, Global Partnership for Education, and Save the Children to name just a few. Get actively involved. For example, Nine Viaene, a former student of Timmers’ and avid supporter of the Innovation Lab Schools, is Climbing for Kakuma where she will ride the Cannibalette, a ride of 131 km with four climbs including 2x Mont Ventoux. There are no limits to what you can do. And along the way, you’ll be able to imagine better scenarios for learning and appreciate yours all the more.

The diverse world of blackboards, chalk and duster around the world.


Argintar, Laura. “You Won’t Believe How Many Countries Still Won’t Allow Women The Right To Education.” Elite Daily, Elite Daily, 7 May 2019, www.elitedaily.com/women/separate-unequal-countries-worst-gender-inequality-education.

Atwood, Margaret. “Bread.” This Magazine, Feb. 1981.

Coughlan, Sean. “10 Toughest Places for Girls to Go to School.” BBC News, BBC, 11 Oct. 2017, https://www.bbc.com/news/business-41558486.

O’Neill, Jennifer. “Worst Places for Education Around The World.” Global Citizen, Global Poverty Project, 3 Aug. 2016, www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/worst-schools-world/.

Rueckert, Phineas. “10 Barriers to Education Around the World.” Global Citizen, Global Poverty Project, 24 Jan. 2019, www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/10-barriers-to-education-around-the-world-2/.

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