Go Green Africa: Thinking Big, Starting Small

September 14th, 20098:36 am @


Go Green Africa: Thinking Big, Starting Small

(Photo: Lucy Gent, 22, teaching environmental education to high school students in Cameroon)

When Lucy Gent was only 10, she traveled with her family to Nigeria. She describes one experience that particularly stood out for her:

I distinctly remember the night-time drive away from the airport and seeing frequent and evenly spaced piles of burning trash where there would otherwise be street lamps. Even at age 10, I knew that burning plastic was very bad for humans and for the environment, although it didn’t seem like any of the people there understood that. When looking at first-world countries, I see that there is plenty that needs to be done to change our habits, but when I look at third-world countries, I see that there is not even a basic understanding that plastic disposal is different than organic disposal; plastic bags are called “papers” and everything is burned.

Twelve years later, Lucy has finished her first summer of Go Green Africa, where she taught about environmental sustainability issues in Cameroon. Lucy had four classes of 20 to 40 8th and 9th graders, 120 students in total. Her curriculum focused in on basic tenets of environmental education, including the basic science of global warming (where she used sections of Al Gore’s movie, “An Inconvenient Truth” to help explain some concepts). As early as her second lesson, Lucy drilled down to the issue of plastic bags, directly challenging her student’s attitudes. She explains,

My second lesson for all of the classes was one in which I held up a thin plastic bag and asked the class, “What is this called?” Most people responded, “Paper!” but others said, “Plastic Paper!” I told them that what I held in my hand was nothing even remotely similar to paper, that what I held was a plastic bag and should not be confused in property or function with paper. We then proceeded to investigate why it was called paper (“Is it opaque? Can you write on it? Is it made of the same things as paper?”) and to ALL of my students’ surprise, I told them that plastic is a PETROLEUM product. I told them about how alarmed I was at age 10 to see burning plastic, and how I continue to worry about the practice of boiling food traditionally prepared in banana leaves in plastic bags.

This became a central part of Lucy’s curriculum. Every single student ended up writing a letter to the Minister of Environment and Nature Protection in Yaounde, sharing the new information with him and asking that Cameroon be like Rwanda, South Africa and 21 other countries around the world that have banned thin plastic bags. She personally deposited all 120 letters to the Minister’s office on the day she flew out of the capital.

Lucy’s first summer was an enormous success. She was able to able to directly challenge some students’ assumptions about the environment, pique their interest and inspire them to take action. By the end of the summer, some of her students were stopping by her apartment with friends and relatives. They wanted to continue the course into the school year. They wanted to carry out some of the theoretical environmental campaigns they discussed in class. They were genuinely concerned about environmental issues, global warming, and protecting their natural resources. And Lucy’s project had accomplished all this with minimal resources and a lot of motivation.

Every new project faces challenges. Grantmakers often look for a track record of previous accomplishments. Social entrepreneurs see their most ambitious goals run up against the realities of limited resources. Lucy applied and competed for funding from many sources, ranging for grants for recent college graduates, to online social entrepreneurship competitions. Finally, she received the Ruth Dietrich Tuttle Prize from Smith College, her alma mater. It was just enough to cover her airfare to Cameroon, leaving Lucy to fund the rest of her project from small gifts and donations from friends and family. Lucy had made some connections in Cameroon from her previous summer’s work as a Kiva.org fellow. Actually setting up her classes was simply a matter of talking to the administrators at the two high schools in Bamenda and then continuing the dialogue with them over the months preceding summer break. Lucy was able to teach her classes as part of a pre-existing program of holiday courses, giving her access to students without having to recruit them independently.

However, minimal resources and other constraints presented challenges for Lucy.

I was way too ambitious about what I planned to accomplish. I had screen-printed 110 t-shirts with the Go Green Africa logo on back and title on front, but was only able to take 80 because of weight restrictions. As I mentioned before, I had 120 students, so not only were there too few shirts, there were too few funds to transport the students and take field trips. I was frustrated with the class-sizes because I wanted to be able to take students to affected sites (like the un-regulated stream of contaminated water coming out of a soap factory) and into nature to identify native species. As a result, we spent all of our classes inside, except for a special field trip with about 10 of the best students from both schools.

In spite of tough competition for grants and donations for projects like Go Green Africa, Lucy remains impressed by the number of resources available to new projects and social entreprenuers, especially young ones. She explains,

One thing that worked to my benefit was that I am still under 25, which makes me eligible for youth grants. I was amazed by the number of grants offered to young people when I began the process of looking for funding. It’s something that that I’m really grateful for, that with the grossly unequal wealth distribution in our country, there are still philanthropists and people who care for the greater good. There are also those corporations like Mountain Dew who are surely doing it to improve public relations, but I’m still grateful. While I didn’t win most of the money I applied for this year, I truly believe that the people who won deserved it more and I just need to refine my own objectives.

With one summer under her belt, and photo and video documentation of her work, Lucy hopes to be able to expand the scope of her project. Having successfully developed and implemented a curriculum gives her project credibility, and makes it replicable and scalable. Lucy is considering expansion into other African countries, as well as recruiting college students to spend their summer vacations teaching about environmental issues. With success with her first group of students, the possibilities for growth are many.

If you want to learn more about Lucy’s Go Green Africa project, follow her on twitter (@lucygent) or email GoGreenAfrica [at] gmail [dot] com.

(Photo provided by Lucy Gent)