North Carolina HBCU Working to Produce Textbooks for BeninRALEIGH, N.C. With a little help from a boy named Bio, educators and students at historically Black St. Augustine’s College are trying to improve education in the West African nation of Benin. They are part of a U.S. Agency for International Development program called Textbooks for a Global Society that is partnering with historically Black colleges and universities like St. Augustine’s, Elizabeth City State University and Virginia’s Hampton University to develop books, workbooks, flash cards and other learning materials. “This project became one that people in Washington wanted the HBCUs to do, because we don’t do that much,” said Dr. Lawrence M. Clark, a former associate provost at N.C. State University and a mathematics educator who is one of the St. Augustine’s project leaders. “All the global and international activity has historically been going to other people.” In the past, Benin, a former French colony, got its textbooks from France. The books often depicted White people living in brick houses and included references to show all difficult concepts for children living in equatorial Benin. “In Benin, we have houses like this,” said consultant Georgette Pokou, pointing to a drawing of a thatched-roof hut. Pokou, 43, an economist who grew up in Benin and formerly worked for the U.S. government there, has assisted the English-speaking Americans at translating their texts into French, which is the nation’s official language. A little Beninese boy named Bio — Benin’s equivalent to “Dick” in old-fashioned American textbooks — is the star of much of the material. Primary education and literacy are critical in Benin, where half of the 7 million people are under 18. In 2002, Hampton University received a five-year, $36 million contract from the government to work with six African countries — Benin, South Africa, Senegal, Ethiopia, Namibia and Guinea — to produce 4.5 million textbooks, supplemental publications and other learning materials. Hampton chose St. Augustine’s as a partner in the project. The Raleigh school is receiving $450,000 annually for five years to produce items that will be used to create 650,000 pieces of instructional material. A delegation from Benin, including the country’s minister of education, visited St. Augustine’s in August. In October, team members from the school took their draft materials to Benin, where they visited a public primary school in the town of Akpro-Missrt. As is typical of such rural schools, there was no electricity. Two children shared one textbook. And the book did double duty, teaching math and French. “Very few of any books are taken anywhere except left in the classroom,” Clark said. “Paper is important. The children are still using slates. It’s very difficult to have a notebook to write in. They cost 25 to 30 cents, and sometimes this is prohibitive.” Draft materials produced by St. Augustine’s are being tested in 30 schools in Benin. One of Pokou’s main roles in the project is to avoid cultural clashes. First-graders throughout Benin are familiar with Bio, a Brown-skinned little boy in shorts and sandals who writes in his classroom on an erasable tablet and plays ball in a dirt clearing. But draft materials depicted Bio playing ball with boys and girls, which Pokou said is unlikely in Benin. A revised version will show girls playing hopscotch and the boys playing ball. In another book, children are shown a toothbrush and toothpaste and asked to count round orange fruit. But rural children in Benin use chew sticks for dental care and wouldn’t recognize an orange orange, because the fruit is not dyed in Benin, as is done to improve the fruit’s appeal to U.S. customers. Instead, oranges are a chartreuse color. “You have to understand the cultural values of a country and how they approach things,” Clark said. “It gives you a greater sensitivity about the difference in cultures and how people see things. The best thing that has come out of this is the friendship and the collaboration of trust that has been built up.” — The Associated Press
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