- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 18, 2003

In the impoverished hills of Swaziland, from which I recently returned, remarkable people are performing miracles daily with next to nothing.

There in the hinterlands of southern Africa is a place where you learn the true meaning of community and commitment.

Young men who earn a little extra money working in the fields make surprise baskets of staples such as rice and flour to give to local grandmothers.

Members of churches — congregating in windowless, cinderblock buildings miles apart in the mountainous region of Mponono — share their collection plate pennies to pay for teachers’ housing at their rural school. Older children, often barely preteens, work so just one of their siblings can attend classes.

In Swaziland, as in most of southern Africa, there is no such thing as a free education. Even the poorest must find some funds to pay for the mandatory uniform or bus transportation to the nearest school if it is close enough that residential accommodations are not needed during the school term.

Yet there is a waiting list for the coveted spots at the schools, more often than not heavily funded and operated by worldwide churches such as the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and international charities such as the Delta Sigma Theta sorority. I traveled to Swaziland earlier this month with members of Delta Sigma Theta, who provide funding and supplies as well as teacher training during their two-week mercy mission.

Noticeably, many of the well-disciplined students had no socks but they wore an unmistakable desire to learn.

And learn they do in spartan surroundings with no fans, no running water and few pieces of paper or pencils. Sometimes not even a tin roof covers a classroom, as at the Hillside School in Manzini, Swaziland.

If ever an adage applies here, it’s got to be: “Where there’s a will there’s a way.” The commitment to educate children, seen as the key to the economic survival of a nation, is clearly the community priority for the determined and dedicated leaders, teachers, parents and students. By comparison, in this bountiful country of ours, where a free education is an American birthright, we have an abominable dropout rate right here in the nation’s capital that is an embarrassment. The majority of schoolchildren in the District’s public schools cannot read “proficiently” at their grade level.

Shamefully, here we take for granted what is offered for free while others beg for used books. Here there is no will and no way.

Here we have lost sight of the goal.

Look no further than the money mess that has unfolded in the D.C. school system in recent days for evidence of how far afield we have strayed. A good education for all equals a good future not only for the individual students but for the nation. The American public should insist on a world-class educational system for all children and force patronizing politicians to stop playing word games and experimenting with “reform” gimmicks and deliver the real resources necessary for an educational system designed to meet the needs of varied communities. Had that been the case today, for example, American businesses wouldn’t be faced with the dearth of American talent that forces them to import technology workers from all over the world.

It does our economy little good to be populated with illiterate layabouts, which is where we are headed.

Just because you can afford to send your child to a decent school doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t care about your neighbor’s. To the contrary, you should care more. We don’t teach children just because we want them to know when the country won its independence or the difference between the First Amendment and the Fifth, or even what Shakespeare meant when he asked “to be or not to be?” We teach children to read and write and compute so they can become productive workers, innovative businessmen and informed citizens capable of making conscientious decisions about how to govern themselves.

Unfortunately, the priority to educate the next generation in this country is now mired in political agendas and ideologies for personal gain. We must put politics aside and get back to basics.

If the people of an impoverished land such as Swaziland can instill in their progeny the desire, dedication and determination to learn, we ought to be able to accomplish so much more in this land overflowing with abundance.

For I’ve witnessed that where there’s the will, there’s a way. We must find the will.

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