SAINT-QUAY-PORTRIEUX, France — My wife, Kathryn, was against it from the beginning. “You’ll have no time for yourself,” she said.
In a sense, she was right. Five years after starting a nongovernment organization that supports women’s higher education in Burkina Faso, I spend three to four hours a day on the computer running an association that this year helped 20 Burkina women go to a university or nursing school in one the poorest countries on earth.
Each year, one or more developments have fallen into place to make the association work better.We have essential partners in Burkina Faso. A Burkina university women’s association keeps our books, writes our checks and counsels our beneficiaries. Last year, we began a health fund with help from a women’s organization at the United Nations in Geneva. It is run in Burkina Faso by volunteers, who included the recently retired director of the World Health Organization’s office in Ouagadougou, the capital.
We urge vaccinations against preventable diseases and medication for sticklers like malaria, which has no vaccine. One of our interns did a survey and found that, on average, our beneficiaries suffer three bouts of malaria a year, each lasting two weeks. Medication can cut those two weeks to three days.
I go to Burkina Faso every year during January, when the weather is less hot. Accompanied by one or another of the university women, I meet our beneficiaries collectively and individually. I visit their schools to talk to their professors and their administrators. And I visit with their families. This makes for good administration, but it also enriches my life. I stay in touch with the women by email; they all have cellphones; I can dial them at will.
Hélène was one of our first two candidates. We have supported her since 2010. In 2014, she didn’t show up for our general meeting. Her sister Madeleine told me that their mother was sick. Madeleine took me to the hospital, where their mother was in a room with five other women. She could barely lift her arm to greet me. She thanked me for helping her daughters. Two weeks later she died — of AIDS. I told Hélène that she should go back to school; her mother would have wanted that.
This past January, Hélène again wasn’t at the general meeting. Madeleine told me that she was sick. She guided me to their uncle’s house, where Hélène was slumped on a couch.
She had been sick for a year, she said. She is anemic and had consulted traditional healers. I called the head of our health fund right away; he thought Hélène might be depressed. We arranged for her to see a doctor the next day. Two weeks later, she was all smiles and back at school. She has started her last year of study for a master’s degree in accounting. Fingers crossed.
Of the 20 young women we have helped, I am most impressed by Sophie. I met her in 2009; she told me that she wanted to be a midwife. She had come to see us by bicycle from 35 miles away. I told her that if she got her baccalaureate (a secondary-school certification), we would pay her way to nursing school. She failed the bac. Her mom sold a few goats and sent her back to school. At the end of the next year, Sophie passed the bac with a minimum grade of 10 out of 20 points. One could say that she’s not very bright.
I kept my promise of a nursing education and sent Sophie to a very good private nursing school in Ouagadougou. For three years, she has been near the top of her class with grades averaging over 16/20. She is doing what she wants to do, and she is good at it. I’m looking forward to her graduation this year.
Sending 20 young women to university is about my limit. I pay my own way to Burkina Faso so that 100 percent of our donors’ money goes directly to the beneficiaries. A noted philanthropist told me that this is naïve. No big donor would take you seriously, she said. But I don’t think I need big donors. We scrape up the 25,000 euros [$27,436 at current rates] that we need yearly from friends, family, former colleagues and local merchants in France, the United States and elsewhere. I know almost every donor. And that too enriches my life.
Seven girls should graduate this year. That makes room for seven new candidates. But I already have 14 applications. We’ll have to take some tough decisions. But it will be fun.
These kids keep me young.