Branching into Africa

29th May 2009 at 01:00
A citizenship project has taken six pupils from a Nottinghamshire school to Cameroon, where they have learnt how vital the rainforest and education are to the local people

Deep in the Cameroon rainforest of western Africa, where the earth is red and you can almost feel the plants growing, 17-year-old Bex Bailey and Stevie Grieves, 13, from Nottingham look uncharacteristically worried. They are listening as 15-year-old Yvonne tells them she cannot afford to go to secondary school.

Yvonne is a pygmy, or Baka as the community prefers to be known, and she did well in primary school but, like most Baka, secondary education is an unfulfilled dream.

Bex, a pupil at Rushcliffe School and joint leader of the school's Citizenship Club, does not hesitate. "We can do something for you," she says, pledging to raise awareness of Yvonne's plight and raise money.

Coming from many other teenagers, these promises might appear rash. But it is thanks to Bex and her fellow club members, their awareness-raising campaigns, and tireless fundraising for the Rainforest Foundation in particular, that six Rushcliffe pupils and three teaching staff are in Cameroon. The club's work has also won the prestigious annual award from the charity Giving Nation.

This is not a trip for the faint-hearted but the school's support epitomises its dedication to good citizenship. In return, pupils take what they've learnt into all aspects of the curriculum, from geography to history to French - Cameroon's predominant language.

The Citizenship Club was set up in 2005 by Tanya Russell, who left the school last year. Since she left, Bex and Fliss Cooper run the club once a week during a lunch break.

John Rick lent the club his classroom, and was the club's first choice of teacher to come on the trip. His job is to ensure the six pupils have plenty of water and access to first aid. He guards their EV4 forms (which list each pupil's allergies, contact numbers and particular needs) like state secrets. He even spends time teaching the Baka children the song "Row, Row, Row the Boat" (complete with actions) before staying up until midnight keeping an eye on the pupils as they dance through the euphoric Baka welcome ceremony. He happily follows his small tribe, plus a troupe of Baka guides, down precipitous rainforest slopes and along a river bed.

"All I did for the group is lend them my classroom and computer," says Mr Rick. "When they invited me to Cameroon I had to think carefully before accepting. I was already taking a group of 40 students to Russia, arriving back two days before we'd leave for Cameroon. And then there were all the strict health and safety checks." The school only got approval to take the pupils to Cameroon two weeks before they left.

"I'm used to doing risk assessment forms, but I've never had to include snake bites, waterborne diseases and tick-borne encephalitis (inflammation of the brain)," he adds.

Trips like these require meticulous pre-planning. In conjunction with the Rainforest Foundation and Cameroon's Centre for Environment and Development, the school was able to secure support vehicles and even a swiftly-renovated missionary building to house the visitors.

Back home, club members have been working on allotments with their parents, so when they come across the Baka community garden planted with maize, cassava and banana, there's a collective nod of recognition. But while the Baka create a new garden every three years, the Nottingham allotment crops are rotated to maintain soil health.

The Baka rely on some plants for day-to-day survival: raffia for furniture; ngongo leaves for thatching, plates and jewellery; the large, strong leaves of the Tilipi to build leaf houses or mongulu and the sacred Moabi tree, which gives the community food, medicine and bark kindling for their fires. Best of all, the Liana vine stems provide fresh, cool drinking water.

But how can Rushcliffe translate these vivid, on-the-hoof lessons into something the whole school can use? Rushcliffe's assistant head, Shrutee Desai, says: "We are going to change the delivery of personal, social and health education (PSHE)." She is back in Africa for the first time since her and her parents left Tanzania when she was six.

"There will be days for individual themes such as health, religion and citizenship and we will create one whole day about the rainforest.

"We'll also ask the children to help recreate the geography syllabus and consolidate its rainforest content to include timber extraction, Baka rights and conservation. In history, we'll talk about the empire. I'd like to think that we could repeat this trip with different teachers - science teachers for instance," she adds. The Baka connection will also help the school meet Ofsted's requirements on community cohesion.

Mr Rick sees the school's focus on citizenship in the context of his 30- year teaching career. He became a teacher to become involved, and he encourages students to do the same.

Zoe Buckberry, who turned 13 a few days before the trip, certainly feels the club adds value. It supported her through a spate of bullying when she had to wear dark lenses to help with her dyslexia. "Helping other people puts everything else into perspective," she says.

During the long, night-time dance, the Bakas focus their attention on the only boy in the party - Aaron Mullins, who had his 13th birthday in the rainforest. Before the trip, he and his classmates learnt about the rainforest canopy, but not what happens there and why, so the cultural aspects of the trip, such as the dance, are an added bonus.

Becca Phillips, 13, found the rainforest as captivating as the community. "Every subject has been enriched by this trip," she says. "It's given me ideas for stories in English and I think it will be easier for people our age to connect to the Baka people now that we've been here. We can tell them and show them stuff instead of them having to take notes from watching a video."

In fact Rushcliffe has comprehensive footage of the adventure, thanks to Richard John of Giving Nation who coaxed regular video diary pieces out of the pupils. Wherever the pupils went, Richard and his yellow camera went too and that included an extraordinary fishing expedition in which Baka women created river dams so they could flip fish out of the water with their hands.

It's clear the citizenship message has hit home when later, as the pupils overtake logging lorries on the road, Fliss wishes aloud that people would use certified timber rather than destroying the rainforests.

Now Mrs Desai is in contact with the British Council to link Rushcliffe with a school in Lomie where a handful of Baka students have just started secondary education.

Within four days of being back in the UK, she and the "Rushcliffe Six" had mounted a display about Cameroon and begun fundraising to put Yvonne through secondary school.

The Baka teenager wants to continue her education so she can represent her people's views about the logging and mining that is destroying their way of life. Thanks to Rushcliffe's hands-on approach to citizenship, she might just do it

Jane Owen was invited to join Rushcliffe School in Cameroon by the Rainforest Foundation,


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