In your world, how many children ages 5 to 14 do you know who work rather than go to school? In Angola, it’s 30 percent of that age group.
They transport fuel. They make charcoal by burning trees and other plants, in the process exposing themselves to harmful dust and chemicals. They work on plantations for long hours in the sun. They carry loads too heavy for them. They are couriers for illegal substances. Many are orphans. Some are ex-child soldiers. UNICEF estimates upwards of 10,000 children working in the streets of Angola’s capital, Luanda.
A ChildFund program has demonstrated the power of education against exploitative child labor. In 2007, ChildFund partnered with World Learning for Educational Development, with nearly $3.5 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Labor and $1.25 million from ChildFund, to reduce the incidence of exploitative child labor by providing educational services for children and youth in Benguela province and in Luanda. The program would withdraw or prevent 7,000 children from participating in exploitative child labor.
The effort’s name, Onjoi, comes from an Umbundu word that means “dream,” and it exceeded its target by 42 percent, benefiting 10,286 children by the end of the program cycle in summer 2010. It’s a remarkable achievement in light of conditions in Angola, a country whose nearly three-decade civil war ended just eight years ago, in 2002.
Onjoi’s tasks were wide-ranging: to improve infrastructure and teaching quality in schools, to provide nonformal educational opportunities in areas where none were available, to raise awareness in communities of both the importance of education and the dangers of exploitative child labor, to accelerate advocacy work encouraging the Angolan government to build child protection into policy, and to develop a child labor monitoring system. ChildFund provided project management and the education elements, sharing the huge monitoring component with World Learning, whose primary focus was on the advocacy piece.
In some schools, bullet holes still pock the walls. Some walls are missing entirely. Some classes take place under trees. One teacher told us, “During the war, they would blow up a school, so we had no choice — if we wanted to continue to teach, we had to go teach under a tree. If they blow up the tree, we move to the next tree. We sort of got used to that.”
Until Onjoi, schools in the targeted area had no learning materials — no books, no maps, nothing at all. Teachers had little if any training. Onjoi rehabilitated 26 schools, providing desks, benches and instructional materials. The program also partnered with Angolan teacher training institutions to train 378 teachers in academics as well as in extracurricular activities and child protection issues. Onjoi emphasized re-creating the schools as child-friendly, welcoming environments, where teachers understand what children have gone through and where there is no harsh punishment. Onjoi also partnered with Joint Aid Management to provide school meals to children in all 26 schools.
Of course, there was the issue of getting children out of exploitative labor situations and into school in the first place. Gilberto Mendez, a ChildFund senior education specialist, says Onjoi staff “did a terrific job in terms of getting children back into school. One of the interesting features of Onjoi is they were able to establish educational opportunities in areas where there was no organized educational activity.”
Onjoi provided two primary forms of alternative learning that each served to draw children into — or back into — formal education settings. Mendez describes how, to create what they called “Play and Learn” spaces, Onjoi staff would partition an outdoor area with colored ropes and then, simply, begin engaging children using Hula-hoops, balls and other toys. “And they would also bring math charts,” says Mendez. “They would bring letter charts, science models and things like that. They would start counting. They mixed play and teaching in a very nice way. Those places were packed.”
Onjoi’s other alternative learning opportunity — accelerated literacy classes provided in partnership with the Angolan government — proved to be one of the most effective ways of bringing older children back into the educational system. Onjoi’s program director, Luis Cevallos, writes, “Youth recover their capacity of dreaming about a better future; they start thinking again about having a profession, becoming a teacher, becoming a policeman, getting a job and having a family.”
About 1,000 children and youth completed the first level of the literacy course this year, and most have enrolled in Level 2. Many of them also took advantage of life skills and vocational training Onjoi offered. Some of the youth were trained to be volunteer facilitators in the Play and Learn settings, where they worked side-by-side with Onjoi staff.
A collateral effect of all this activity was that the youth improved their relationships with the adults in their communities, and the adults in turn threw their support to the program. In effect, Onjoi’s educational offerings were its own best advertisement as they showed parents, in concrete ways, the value of viable educational opportunities over the dangers and meager income of exploitative child labor.
The work of Onjoi took place within a setting marked by paradox. Although Angola is now one of the world’s fastest-growing economies thanks to its abundant oil reserves, almost two-thirds of its population lives on less than $2 a day. As of this writing, the country’s average life expectancy is the lowest in the world, and its infant mortality is the highest.
The Angolan government, which is still working to rebuild the country essentially from scratch, has recently turned its eye toward the needs of children. According to a 2009 Reuters report, it pledged to spend more than one-third of a $42 billion budget to improve education and health.
For Onjoi’s part, says Mendez, one of its accomplishments was to move forward Angola’s 11 Commitments for Children, “a set of principles to protect children and make sure they have the opportunities to develop to their potential.” The next step is to build these commitments into Angola’s legal frameworks. The government will continue to support the improved schools as well as the literacy programs. What Onjoi set in motion for the children it served will continue for more generations of students.