Giving back to Africa
Grateful Chico State student conceives of a way to help his villagers help themselves
If he continues his current vision and program, Chico State student Koudougou Alfred Koala may soon be considered a saint in his poverty-stricken, West African home country of Burkina Faso.
The 30-year-old junior accounting student’s plan, called Feeding Nations Through Education, already has helped lift the specter of misery and death by starvation and malnutrition from five of his native village’s large families. His goal is to spread this relief throughout his country and beyond.
“FNTE is in my heart,” he said, smiling during a recent interview. “I’ve tasted the life of orphans, famine, disease and lack of drinking water, and I wanted to use education as a loving weapon against them.”
Koala’s story begins in his native village of Thyou, population about 4,000, a place that has little of what Americans would recognize as civilization. Scarcities include drinkable water and electricity in addition to food. Families live off the meager crops they can grow during the three rainy months of the year. Dry years result in mass famine, sickness and death.
His village—like the entire country—is plagued by a major orphan problem due to an intense AIDS epidemic between 1996 and 2004, and also from parents who have abandoned their children after watching one or more of them die slowly from famine, disease and medical neglect. Poverty causes the vast majority of kids to miss elementary school. Few go on to junior high or further education, since there are no such facilities in his village.
Upon arriving in Chico for college in 2007, after a childhood of poverty, homelessness and hunger, Koala resolved to improve the lives of his people back home. He began conducting feasibility studies and devising a plan to help them rise above their poverty on a long-term basis.
His idea was to choose families from those who had adopted at least one orphan. Using donations, he would give them two vaccinated oxen with harnesses, plus a plow for them to pull. The program would include lessons in how to increase crop yields and other farming techniques foreign to a people who typically work with only their hands and sticks.
They would receive a 220-pound bag of rice to sustain them during the hard year before harvest. After the fourth harvest year, when Koala estimates production would triple, each family would be required to sell their surplus crop and send at least one of their children to elementary school. After six or seven years, when the animals began slowing, the families would be required to sell them to the government for meat and leather. Half the proceeds would be mandated to purchase two young oxen and the other half to send another child to school.
Koala has been sharing his story throughout the semester, in part because of its similarities to the tale contained in this year’s Book in Common, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, by William Kamkwamba. Kamkwamba is a native of another destitute African nation, Malawi. The biography, co-written with Bryan Mealer, details Kamkwamba’s impoverished childhood and his invention of a windmill to help his family and village.
“Koala is Chico’s own William Kamkwamba,” says Brooks Thorlaksson, coordinator for Chico State’s American Studies Program.
The annual Book in Common program features presentations and activities based on a book chosen by committee members from Chico State and Butte College that inspires others to believe in their ability to help their schools, society and the environment.
Indeed, the story of Koala’s journey to America is inspiring.
Koala is the fifth of 10 children in his family, and the first to attend elementary school. His parents later paid for his move to a village with a junior high school. There, he converted from his family’s animist religion to Christianity, causing them to disown him. This led to a life on the streets and in donated housing. “I’ve had too many days without food to count,” he lamented.
But the determined Koala kept working and attending schools until he reached his country’s sole college, the University of Ougadougou.
During his time there, Koala reunited with his family. He also had a vision he believes came from God, which would lead to his life’s work. He saw himself and his friends in an airport. Bewildered, since only the rich and powerful use airports, he recalled visualizing his friends saying farewell and that he was going to the United States.
Koala faced much discouragement, because people of his social status rarely venture to America. Knowing only a few English phrases, he somehow applied to and was accepted at the randomly chosen Chico State University.
Eventually, his uncle paid for a plane ticket to the States. But Koala’s knowledge of the country was so poor that, after landing in New York, he asked the police how to take a taxi to what he thought was nearby Chico. Perseverance and a bus ride brought him here. He quickly took a crash course in English, and then saved money by attending Butte College before going to Chico State.
One of Koala’s principle helpers has been Tom Grothe, a Butte College professor of intercultural communications who took an instant liking to his student.
“One of the main things that stuck out about Koala is how far he’s come with such incredibly low resources,” Grothe said.
Koala’s father died before he finished his plan. When his classmates and teachers offered to give him money to fly back for the funeral, he insisted that a better use of their donations would be to help make his plans a reality. The result was Feeding Nations Through Education and the accompanying website. Subsequent bake and yard sales, along with donations, helped him collect the $8,500 needed to start his project with five families this past January.
So far, the program is working splendidly. In fact, each family reports yields so high that they plan to send their first child to school a year ahead of schedule. Koala respects aid programs that donate food, clothing and other necessities, but views them as only temporary solutions.
The adviser to Chico State’s Office of International Education, James Luyirika-Sewagudde Jr. said, “Koala is trying to empower people to support themselves by giving them assistance so they can produce.”
Koala’s 10-year plan is to build a high school in his village that gives preference to orphans. He would like for teachers from Chico and elsewhere in the state to volunteer, which will help them understand the plight of his people. He also plans to expand FNTE beyond his village.
Meanwhile, he is a full-time student, member of four honor societies, and works on campus as a student assistant at the Chico Student Success Center. He is also personally financing the schooling of two Burkina Faso orphans. He believes that there cannot be development in third-world countries without education.
“I value education as gold,” Koala said.