Equipping girls with science to drive change

Tuesday, 22 July 2014 11:40 GMT

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 From behind the walls of a humble-looking building in Bali, a residential neighbourhood of Doula, Cameroon’s fast-paced economic hub, comes a steady, low hum. It emanates from around 20 women — avid learners immersed in scientific theory and hands-on practice.

They are just a small fraction of an emerging generation of women scientists soon to hit the ground running after graduating from an educationprogramme initiated in 2001 by a local NGO, the Rubisadt Foundation. Officials say its genesis was motivated by a conspicuous apathy towards science and technology education demonstrated by girls in Cameroon. “I was not happy with the way the sciences were taught,” says Florence Tobo Lobe, founder of the foundation and a PhD graduate from the University of Paris-Sud, France, who returned home to Cameroon in the late 1990s to find what she termed “appalling realities demanding urgent change”. 

“Students just memorised concepts they didn’t understand,” Lobe says. “They didn’t do any practicals and had no real-world experience of what they were learning.” She says that, despite their brilliance at primary school level, an alarming number of girls were forced to quit secondary school as a result of soaring financial burdens and social pressures. 

Figures from the UN Children’s Fund indicate that, despite constituting more than half of the population, women make up only 4.5 per cent of the country’s university student population. Most end up as key drivers of the country's flourishing informal economy, where they control more than 80 per cent of activity. Lobe says the Cameroonian trend is representative of Sub-Saharan Africa, where girls are generally blocked from their potential contribution to growth and development.

Fine-tuned for success

In the dozen years since its inception, the Rubisadt Foundation has been fine-tuning its curriculum. It now offers a holistic learning package, blending pragmatic science and technology lessons with career development programmes. Its sessions target secondary school girls aged 11 to 19, selected on the basis of interest and potential to excel in science, through supplementary after-school classes.

We have big dreams for our next generation of girls to become real actors in the country, in Africa and in the world.

Florence Tobo Lobe, Rubisadt Foundation

“Before starting the foundation, I saved my earnings because I wanted the project to be self-sustaining,” Lobe says. She funded a team of 12 specialised educators, instilled with the foundation’s methodology of mentoring girls in analytical thinking and autonomous problem-solving — important additional skills to the country's formal secondary education curriculum. The educators lead the students through small-scale laboratory experiments, and take them on excursions to engineering firms, public debates and scientific conferences to help bridge gaps between concepts and reality, and complement the effort of the formal education system.

Bintu Coulibaly, one of the foundation’s students from Mali, says: “I have gained a lot of self-confidence.  I used to be very timid. But today, I can talk science and technology anywhere with a lot of self-assurance, because I have mastered what I’ve learned. Science is no longer abstract to me.”

Shining examples

There are 300 official alumni, though the school has seen up to 1,000 girls taking part in some courses and conferences. Among them, are many who have not only lifted themselves out of the prevalent poverty ensnaring especially Cameroonian women, but are also contributing to boosting the living conditions of their siblings as they find jobs both within and outside Cameroon.   

Others are currently flourishing in several universities and in the corporate arena worldwide. Among them is Jessie Wamal, a 2011 graduate who is soon to graduate with a degree in computer sciences from HEC Paris, in France. Another, Judith Joëlle Mbondji, spent five years working at the African Union, after graduating with a BSc in computer science and an MBA from Kenya. She returned to Cameroon in 2011 and currently devotes part of her time to volunteering as a mentor at the foundation.

“We have big dreams for our next generation of girls to become real actors in the country, in Africa and in the world,” Lobe adds. Its success, according to Lobe, is hinged on the choice of its instructors.

“These are young women who go through a particular training fashioned by Rubisadt according to its needs. So, the teachers not only come to school to teach, but also to build one-to-one relations with the children and that way they can identify their individual problems and work towards giving them confidence alongside the learning process.  It works very well,” she says.

Lobe's dream is to scale up the initiative by opening other Rubisadt schools in Cameroon and across Africa, to help lift more and more girls out of poverty by empowering them with science and technology knowledge. She says that, over the past decade, the Rubisadt Foundation model has proven feasible and is replicable anywhere worldwide.

The graduated Rubisadt girls have been making regular financial contributions to ensure the sustainability of the school. Lobe believes the increasing alumni numbers implies bigger charitable donations in coming years.

“Most of them currently working or furthering their education both in Cameroon and abroad have expressed strong desires to contribute financially, materially and even personally to our plans to open similar institutions across Africa and make them sustainable,” says Lobe.  

Funding the future

The Rubisadt Foundation’s space is being fitted with a live-in centre for girls from particularly impoverished backgrounds. It already operates a micro-science laboratory for basic applied science lessons, a multimedia computer laboratory offering possibilities for distance-learning, a science library, and medical and cultural centres. This is funded by the foundation’s membership fees, as well as financial support from family, friends and international donors. 

UNESCO, for example, through the TVE Rubisadt-UNESCO Gender Pilot Project, is working with the Rubisadt Foundation alongside the government and local communities to train marginalised girls and women aged 15-35 to help reduce early school drop-outs living in rural areas. The aim is to help them develop an entrepreneurial mind and to be creative and autonomous, serving communal interests while improving their living conditions and social status.

But Lobe says that amid the venture’s local and global praise, diminishing funds represent a huge challenge. She hopes that new funding models will guarantee sustainability. “People now need to know that this quality of education cannot be free of charge,” she says, adding that eventually students will be expected to pay comparatively reduced tuition fees of between US$550 and US$1,000 each year. "It's not that expensive if you compare it with private secondary schools," she says.

David Mbiba, an education inspector, says he thinks it is worth the sum. “It’s a complete education on offer for our girls, who always shy away from the sciences,” he says. The Cameroonian government has also provided support, and has granted the Foundation authorisation to open a conventional school for girls taking scientific courses, “which will have a specific Rubisadt flavour with a focus on science and technology”, Lobe says. It is now in negotiations with local companies and multinationals over scholarship funds and guarantees of future employment for graduates.

This article is part of a series Africa’s Minds: Build a Better Future produced by SciDev.Net in association with UNESCO, with funding support from the Islamic Development Bank.