Calgarians could give Oprah a lesson on helping Africa
Good on Oprah Winfrey for opening a $50-million school for disadvantaged girls, complete with beauty parlour, in South Africa. Here’s hoping she can find teachers to put in it.
That’s no easy task in Africa, where teachers are poorly trained, poorly paid and in drastically short supply.
But thanks to an African teacher training initiative spearheaded by a group of Calgary businessmen, that could change dramatically.
According to Oprah’s website, the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls, South Africa — which opened Tuesday with high-profile attendees Tina Turner, Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, Sidney Poitier and Spike Lee — will use “the best and the brightest” of South African teachers and administrators. It must have drawn from a small talent pool.
The quality of education in African nations is abysmal by western standards. Teachers often have little education beyond high school, if that. Many have no access to proper training.
On Sunday, the former CEO of Ballard Power, Firoz Rasul, will detail how a Calgary-driven initiative is close to raising $10 million to improve the quality of teacher training in another part of Africa. There won’t be any Hollywood celebrities in attendance at Sunday’s brunch at the Westin Hotel, but the Calgary project will likely have as much of an impact on African education as Oprah’s high-profile academy, perhaps more.
Rasul, who calls upon the best traditions of Islam to shape his leadership at Ballard and on various boards, assumed the presidency last year of the Karachi, Pakistan-based Aga Khan University. The university is about to receive a $10-million Calgary shot in the arm for its plans to build a teacher training institute in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
Half of those funds have been raised privately by Calgary’s Jim Gray, chairman of the Canada West Foundation. The other half comes in the form of a matching contribution from the Canadian International Development Agency.
It is the first time the agency has partnered with a private group, according to Sherali Saju, a Calgary businessman who has also been a driving force in the Calgary fundraising initiative, known as Awali.
Awali in Swahili means first, which Saju says is appropriate. In addition to the agency’s involvement, the Awali project is the first time members from outside Calgary’s Ismaili Muslim community have partnered with them in such a large international project.
Founded in 1983 as Pakistan’s first private, autonomous university by Prince Karim Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the world’s Ismaili Muslims, the Aga Khan University is progressively non-denominational in its approach.
Gray, who helped establish the private Calgary Academy — a school for gifted, special-needs students — embraced the university’s East Africa Institute for Educational Development after trips to Pakistan and Dar es Salaam in 2004 and 2005.
Most African nations have adopted education-for-all policies to lift their citizens out of a morass of poverty. But as Gray learned on his trip there, it means little to have schools, books and desks without competent teachers.
Convinced that Third World problems eventually come home to roost in North America, Gray set about calling his contacts in the Calgary and Canadian business community to raise the dough needed to help the university.
A call from Gray is a somewhat dreaded affair, because it usually means opening your wallet for a good cause and there is usually no delicate way to refuse. He, Saju and Calgary lawyer Brian Fekesy, one of the other movers of the Awali project, have a knack for getting things done, just like Oprah.
They expect to wrap up their Awali fundraising by spring, about one year after tapping their CEO buddies to support a strangely named project halfway around the world.
That’s not an easy task when there are so many needs right here in Calgary, including the issues of poverty and homelessness. Gray is working on that, too, but that’s a column for another day.