Mubuso Zamchiya is Managing Director of the Luminos Fund
The Luminos Fund has discovered something special in “joyful learning.” That is the name we have given to our pedagogy – our approach to teaching and learning. At the core of joyful learning is the mission to help children acquire foundational literacy and numeracy skills. Especially marginalized children, who have missed out on an education because of poverty, crisis, or discrimination. But the magic of joyful learning lies in how skills acquisition actually takes place. It’s all in the relationship.
You see, the joyful learning journey is not primarily about
amassing facts and details. It is instead a process of discovery that occurs
through holistic connections. By connections, I mean that joyful learning is
far from an abstract exercise. It truly invites children to engage. They engage
with their own hearts and minds, with their peers and learning facilitators,
with their families and communities, and with the broader environment and world
By holistic, I mean that joyful learning invites children to
muster, master, and mobilize all their faculties as they connect and engage. They
bring their consciousness, their physical presence, their attributes, and their
strengths. They marshal their emotional intelligence and they harness their cognitive
competencies. They draw upon their social acumen and they share the fruit of
their creative flair.
When discovery is fueled by holistic connections, as
children act and respond to the stimulus of relationship, joy is both
inevitable and automatic. They, of course, appreciate the fun in Luminos’
Second Chance program. But their joy is the product of that special “aha”
moment when they realize that the ability to learn has been inside all along. What
they needed was a little help to unlock the light within them. And that is
precisely what joyful learning does. It helps children make holistic
connections with their intrinsic power to learn.
We see this in so many profound examples of learning and life at Luminos. In my opinion, most resonant among these is the way our classrooms in Lebanon use psycho-social support and art therapy to help Syrian refugee Second Chance students work through the incredible trauma of their dislocation. There is great power in the act of using one’s own creative flair to make connections between the past, the present, and the future; great freedom in finding expression for one’s thoughts and emotions. Our students do so, not only through spoken and written words, but also through the much more communicative dialogue of markers, Crayons, and paint. As a testament to their resilience, artwork by some of our Syrian refugee students was celebrated recently at Christie’s, a pinnacle platform for global art.
Elsewhere recently, there was a different-yet-connected
celebration of the arts. Just this week, global newspapers announced that
certain iconic statues of the Zimbabwe
Bird, which had been stolen during colonialism, are now being returned home.
As a person of Zimbabwean heritage, who, among other things, also writes about
Zimbabwean history, this news was a source of joy for me. There is no deep
comparison between the trauma experienced by Syrian children and the journey of
my early childhood. However, there is some small connection in our stories. I
was born in exile as my parents, members of Africa’s formidable freedom
generation, worked with their peers to bring independence to Zimbabwe. I
therefore have a modicum of experience – not equivalent to our students in
Lebanon, but a modicum nevertheless – of what it feels like to be dislocated.
The joy I have regarding the return of the Zimbabwe Bird
statues is intertwined with my appreciation for the reconciliation the gesture
forges with the past. Their repatriation provides Zimbabweans some degree of
closure on a historical puzzle board that still has many missing pieces. In my
thankfulness, as I absorb the significance of this moment, I find myself
thinking about the eleventh-century artists who chiseled, shaped, and shined
formless slabs of soapstone into these magnificent sculptures. I marvel at what
thoughts, plans, ideas, hopes, and aspirations they might have sought to
reconcile for themselves through the expression of their incredible art. These
sculptures have provided an entire nation a great gift lasting many centuries. It
makes me wonder what sort of education these sculptors would have experienced
as children to make their work so brilliant.
I think that is why I feel so privileged to work at the Luminos Fund. In personal terms, Luminos is a place where I can contribute to the work of reconciling Africa’s past with its future. In broader terms, Luminos is also a platform upon which I can participate in helping children across the world unlock the light of learning in their lives. I derive pride that, in joyful learning, Luminos unashamedly embraces the arts as essential connective fiber in the holistic tapestry of relational discovery. I am also glad that in some small way, Luminos is playing a part in helping our Syrian refugee children build lifelong, stone-strong legacies that – like the Zimbabwe Bird – will similarly stand the test of time.
At this time, all of the Luminos Fund’s programs across Ethiopia, Lebanon, and Liberia are on hold due to school closures. Our team is sharing WHO guidance, monitoring the situation on the ground, tracking government and Ministry of Education responses to the crisis, and identifying opportunities to help. Our U.S. team has begun working remotely but is well-connected through digital tools.
In the near term, we are evaluating effective, agile ways to continue supporting our students. For example, in Liberia, we are distributing readers and numeracy materials for students to work on at home.
Our team is managing resources closely to leave room to respond in new ways as the crisis evolves: we want to both respond now and plan ahead for the long term.
Maretta Silverman is Director of Communications at The Luminos Fund
In 2019, the World Bank introduced the concept of Learning Poverty to measure when children are unable to read or understand a simple text by age 10. In poor countries, the Learning Poverty rate is as high as eighty percent. Often excluded due to poverty, conflict, or discrimination, these children are at risk of being forgotten or ignored as they are assumed to be uneducable. These are children like 13-year-old James in Liberia.
“I used to feel bad when I was out of school and could see
my friends go to school. I cried,” says James, a student in the Luminos Fund’s program.
“Now, my brother and I do homework together.”
“When I grow up, I want to be a journalist because I want to
talk about my country,” he adds.
The Luminos Fund in Liberia
Liberia’s struggles are well known. The country ranked 181
(out of 188) on the UNDP’s Human Development Index for 2018, there is a 64%
poverty rate, and the World Bank estimates that one third of Liberian children
are stunted. And yet, amidst these challenges, Liberian children are learning
to read in Luminos Fund classrooms at one of the highest rates on the continent.
Since 2016, the Luminos Fund has worked in Liberia to scale up Second Chance, an accelerated learning program that supports children like James to become literate and numerate in 10 months. We now operate across four counties. Many students in our Liberia program are first-generation readers and have been out of school, so the opportunity to learn to read is especially meaningful for their families and themselves.
According to Luminos external evaluation results from last year (2018/19), the average Second Chance graduate in Liberia identifies 39 familiar words per minute (wpm). This is up from essentially zero at the beginning of the program. Definitions of functional literacy vary and may include reading comprehension, like the World Bank does. Luminos sets a target of 30 wpm or more. By this measure, Luminos students are achieving functional literacy within our 10-month program. To put this in perspective, merely 21.1% of Grade 3 and 5.8% of Grade 2 students in Liberia can correctly identify this many words per minute (Ref. USAID Early Grade Reading Barometer, Liberia, Familiar words sub-task, 2013. https://earlygradereadingbarometer.org/liberia/results).
Our recipe for success
In Second Chance, Luminos applies the best global knowledge regarding what’s most effective for first-generation readers and reimagines it for the Liberian context. Through a joyful and phonics-centered curriculum, classes capped at 30 students, 8-hour school days, and locally developed reading materials, we enable children to become independent readers. In a Second Chance school day, on average, five hours are spent on literacy. Children see themselves in the texts and reading is presented as an integral part of the world around them.
We use a structured approach to phonics to ensure students
build the requisite skills to read by the end of the program. We try to strike a
balance between direct instruction, which is essential to teach the technical
aspects of reading, and activity-based learning, which is at the core of our
pedagogy. Students practice using Elkonin Sound Boxes and Blending Ladders, as
well as finger tapping as a multi-sensory way to learn spelling and syllables.
We are streamlining the process wherein teachers give students weekly timed
reading assignments and remedial support is provided to the bottom performers.
Our goal is to not leave any child behind as a reader.
We believe a structured approach, supplemented by honest,
regular feedback as well as space for creativity, is key to success. We created
detailed guides for our teachers to provide them with daily guidance on
technical aspects of the curriculum while also providing intervals wherein they
can innovate and design appropriate activities for children. This helps keep
teachers motivated and in charge of the learning happening in their own
Additionally, we provide weekly coaching and supervision in
the classroom, conduct regular teacher training workshops, and are proud to
partner with the Liberian Ministry of Education (MoE). For example, the MoE
provisions some classroom space to Luminos and we train MoE officials on our
Second Chance pedagogy.
More than seven thousand Liberian children have learned to
read through Luminos programs: children who now have a pathway out of learning
poverty. Ninety percent of Luminos students transition to mainstream school at
the end of the program. We have trained 350 teachers and government officials
at the district and regional levels.
Key opportunities and challenges lay ahead as we build our program and experiment with new routes to scale in Liberia, such as working more with overage students (i.e., children in school but years behind their correct grade level). We are immensely proud of our program to-date, but recognize that ongoing, urgent work remains to build our evidence base in Liberia. Our team is eager to expand upon the successful programming and strong relationships we have established to help more Liberian children, like James, realize their dreams of learning – and learning to read – in a joyful classroom environment.
“As Liberia works to provide all children a quality education, we are pleased to have non-government organization partners, like the Luminos Fund. They are working to ensure those who have missed out on an education get a second chance to learn. It is such vital support here in Liberia where for many out-of-school children the second chance to learn is a first chance at an education. Partners like Luminos align well with our national vision for education.” — Professor Ansu Sonii, Minister of Education, Liberia
From February 7-11, 2020, Christie’s New York hosted an innovative exhibition, Educate: A Charity Exhibition, Benefiting the Luminos Fund, that raised over $80,000 for children’s education. Luminos works to ensure children everywhere get a chance to experience joyful learning, especially those denied an education by poverty, conflict, and discrimination. We believe rich “five senses” learning is possible even in the poorest corners of the globe.
The lively Educate Opening Reception on Friday, February 7 spanned multiple galleries at Christie’s Rockefeller Plaza location, featuring an exhibition of 38 up-and-coming artists, silent auction, a SPIN ping-pong tournament, and live performances. Student artworks by Syrian refugee children in the Luminos Fund’s Lebanon program were also exhibited and auctioned. Artnet News highlighted the event as “not to miss.”
“All 38 artists in the exhibition generously donated a work
to the silent auction, the full proceeds of which were donated to the Luminos
Fund,” said Celine Cunha of Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Art and
co-Chairman of Employee Initiatives, who spearheaded the exhibition. “I am
humbled to report that over $80,000 USD was raised for Luminos through the
silent auction and ticket donations.”
Celine explained her vision for the event: “As an art lover
and a Contemporary Art Specialist, I’m aware of the transformative power of art
and of the difficulty to be discovered as an artist. It was very important to
me, and to my CSR team, to use the Christie’s space, which has been used to set
so many world records, to give back to the artistic community directly. It was
imperative to me that Educate: A Charity Exhibition serve a charitable
purpose by giving back to the larger disenfranchised global community. The
overarching purpose of Educate was to highlight and support The Luminos
Fund, which provides joyful learning to refugee children in Ethiopia, Lebanon
and Liberia, aiding those denied an education due to poverty, conflict and
A Shared Worldview
The Luminos Fund and Christie’s met one year ago when
Luminos hosted a small exhibit of some of our students’ artwork, thanks to the
generous support of one of our funders. Christie’s employees, including Celine,
graciously volunteered their personal time as docents for that event.
Caitlin Baron, CEO of the Luminos Fund, said, “Connecting
through our students’ artwork, we realized the Christie’s team and Luminos
share an understanding that the drive to create is universal: that the artistic
impulse is as strong in Bushwick, Brooklyn as it is in the Bekaa Valley in
Lebanon. We also share a belief that every child has the right to learn and
grow in safe, creative spaces.”
Educate: A Charity Exhibition was a remarkable expression of this shared vision.
Oh, What a Night
At the Opening Reception, Christie’s broke a record for
number of guests in their galleries. Over the weekend, roughly one thousand
people of all walks of life and ages viewed the exhibition.
“The overwhelmingly positive response to Educate has been heartwarming and inspiring,” Celine said. “We were blessed to work with Luminos, who practices what they preach, providing hands-on work in disaster regions and giving the greatest gift of all to children in need: an education.”
The Luminos Fund team felt similarly fortunate to partner
with Christie’s on such a unique fundraiser. For Luminos colleagues at the
Opening Reception, it was humbling to view the beautiful galleries and artworks,
and to speak with many of the artists and guests.
A Second Chance at Education
The outpouring of generosity from Christie’s New York,
guests, artists, and SPIN will give more than 500 underprivileged children a
second chance at education through Luminos programs — providing learning,
creativity, joy, and opportunity to young people who can use it dearly.
Addressing the audience at the Opening Reception, Caitlin said,
“We are deeply grateful to Christie’s and all the artists and supporters who
have helped make this ambitious exhibition a reality. It is truly incredible
what a small group of dedicated people can achieve.”
The Luminos Fund extends heartfelt thanks to Christie’s,
especially Celine Cunha and Matthew Capasso, for their generosity and creative
vision, and looks forward to continuing this unique collaboration.
Educate: A Charity Exhibition at Christie’s New York Benefiting the Luminos Fund
On Friday, February 7, 2020 at 6:30 p.m. EST, an opening reception will be held at Christie’s New York commencing a charity art exhibition benefiting the Luminos Fund.The Luminos Fund is a philanthropic organization which aims to bring the life-changing opportunity of education to the most disadvantaged children around the world. The night will include live performances, complimentary refreshments, and a SPIN New York sponsored ping-pong tournament open to the public.
The reception will inaugurate a group exhibition of global emerging artists of diverse styles, and mediums. Each artist will donate a single work into a silent auction with proceeds fully benefiting the Luminos Fund. Additional works will be available for purchase directly from the participating artists. The silent auction and artist’s exhibition will remain open to the public until Tuesday, February 11, 2020.
The following is a plenary address given by Mubuso Zamchiya, Managing Director of the Luminos Fund, to the International Education Funders Group (IEFG) Bi-Annual Meeting in November 2019 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.The meeting was hosted by the Luminos Fund.
A young Program Officer, working at a large philanthropic institution, pays a visit to his former development studies Professor at Oxford. They greet warmly. And they reminisce about the many “save-the-world” arguments they once had. Spirited debates which rivaled that of Jeffrey Sachs and William Easterly. Disputes softened only by the several pints they tenderly nursed at the Kings Arms, on the corner of Parks Road and Holywell Street.
On this occasion, seeking to recapture the erstwhile glow of the good old days, the Program Officer posits a question, “Professor,” he says, “What must I do to fulfill the objectives of SDG4?”
“Hmm,” the Professor muses. “Well, what does best practice tell you to do? What have you learned from the entire canon of development literature you’ve assimilated all these years?”
The Program Officer, back in student-mode, straightens his frame and most eagerly responds,
“You shall innovate, scale, mainstream, and reform. This, with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength, and all your mind. And you shall engage your partner as yourself.”
The Professor heartily congratulates him, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will succeed.”
But, eager to go deeper and, perhaps, trying match the Professor’s intellect, the Program Officer asks a penetrative follow-up question.
“And so, Professor, please explain. Who exactly is my partner?”
The Professor responds with a brief anecdote.
“There was a certain community in a particular African country – one of the least economically-advanced nations in the world. Its population had been systematically colonized, despotized, and marginalized. Millions of adults were illiterate. And the formal education system was not serving many children well at all. Now by chance, the country was visited by the representatives of three international foundations. The leader of the first cohort was Debbie Deficit.
‘Oh it’s just awful,’ she complained during the site visit. ‘These people have absolutely no clue. What kind of parents stand in the way of their children going to school? And what kind of government fails to provide its citizens with quality education? I don’t see anything happening here, unless we intervene.’
‘I completely agree,’ said her colleague, Sid Savior. ‘We need to make things right. If not us, then who? If not now, then when?’
The second convoy pulled up just as the first one was leaving. Its most vocal member was Pat Paternalist. ‘I mean, what do you expect?’ he said rhetorically. ‘It’s not a sophisticated country. It doesn’t have a lot of resources. Its teachers and education officials don’t have our sort of knowledge and expertise. We’ll just have to show them the way. Help them – whether they like it or not.’
When the third group arrived, Emma Empathy led her team off the bus. She immediately connected with the children. And she also sat down to listen to their parents. She had fruitful meetings with local educators and government officials about their work and their plans. And she constantly asked how her foundation might be of help. ‘We’ll fund what we can,’ Emma concluded. ‘Building, of course, on the remarkable progress you’ve already made.’”
At that point, the Professor squares up the Program Officer “Tell me,” she says. “What do you think? Which one of these groups was a good partner to the community?”
“I suppose, the one led by Emma Empathy,” he replies. “The one that built good relationships.”
And the Professor says to him, “You go, and do likewise.”
Now, some of you will have noticed that my story is a cheeky adaptation of the parable of the good Samaritan. Yes, I remixed it. But, to depict a Professor, who, like the Lord Jesus, cares more that learners cultivate the right sort of relationships, and less that they demonstrate capacity for abstract intellect.
This is a crucial point. Especially in the African context – where having good relationships is both fundamental to the way of life and also forms the basis of how people learn. The connection is well-explained by Jomo Kenyatta (the first head of state of Kenya). In his seminal anthropological book, entitled Facing Mount Kenya, which is a fantastic body of literature, he discusses the structure of African society and the nature of the African mind. And while the subject is the Gikuyu people, the exposition captures the experience of Africans throughout the continent. Chapter five is of particular interest to us, as it examines traditional African education.
Says Kenyatta, “The striking thing in Gikuyu education, and the feature which most sharply distinguishes it from the European system, is the primary place given to personal relationships.” He notes that western education is characterized by five things: (i) the schoolhouse is the source of learning, (ii) freedom of personality is the greatest good, (iii) accumulation of knowledge is the chief objective, (iv) self-actualization is the highest aim, and (v) individuality is the finest ideal. But not so in African education. There, the foremost purpose is to build character for wise and useful living in a collective society. Not merely the acquisition of knowledge. In the African paradigm, relationships give agency to learning, and the homestead, not the schoolhouse, is the cornerstone of wisdom.
In African education, learning begins at birth and ends at death. And parents drive the process. They shape language, inform heritage, and provide apprenticeship. And the three concentric circles of relationship that organize African life – namely family, kinship, and peer group – facilitate the learning journey. Nothing is abstract in this approach. And every lesson – whether philosophical, ethical, or functional – has a specific interactive object to which it relates. Children learn what they practice and practice what they learn, as they emulate adults, and conduct their own experiments. All the time acquiring a mass of useful knowledge and proficiency in both functional and theoretical matters.
Assessment is also different in these two polar systems. Success measures in western education are largely transactional. They are all about value extraction – from the exchange between teacher and student. My inputs, your inputs. My outputs, your outputs. My outcomes, your outcomes. By contrast, progress measures in African education are relational. They involve monitoring the value that is inserted to the communion between family and child, kinspeople and child, and peer group and child. Our love, your love. Our well-being, your well-being. Our fulfillment, your fulfillment. Care is taken to ensure that learning reflects the culture and that the culture informs learning. It is the reason why African languages have words like Harambee in Kenya, Ujamaa in Tanzania, Ubuntu in South Africa, Hunhu in Zimbabwe, and Medemer in Ethiopia.
Now, I am not here to argue that there is no merit at all to western education. And I also am not saying that traditional African education is perfect. But I am suggesting that western education is a cultural import. One that sits very uncomfortably within its host. Moreover, since traditional African education persists within the ties of family, kinship, and peer group, there results a sort of “tale of two cities.” A forging of a complex context within which learners must code-switch daily – as between home and school. And because these two systems are in tension with each other, the souls of African children are very much being stretched dangerously thin. Some, indeed, to the very breaking point, where sense of identity, sense of belonging, and sense of readiness for adult life, are all but torn asunder.
What’s the way forward, then? Well, perhaps we cannot put the genie back into the bottle. But we can apply ourselves to listening. To Jomo Kenyatta, for example, who recommended, almost fifty-five years ago, that we ought to figure out how to connect formal education to the traditional bonds of family, kinship, and peer group. Or, more recently, to Kwame Akyeampong, Professor of International Education at the University of Sussex, who has also called for a reclamation of African education. He argues that we need to fix the deficiencies in our interrogation of education delivery on the continent. We have focused largely on structural and capacity issues, which are important, of course. But this at the expense of deeply investigating fundamental questions related to pedagogy, culture, context, and relevance. And this also at the risk of causing children to become widgets in our production processes as we seek to mold international development outcomes in the image of SDG4.
The truth is, acing standardized tests and acing non-standardized life are dramatically different things. Excel academically or not, the learners who pass through our reformed education systems, must all go back and engage productively with their parents, siblings, kinspeople, and the broader society around them. But how, though, if their education does not prepare them to do so?
Therefore, when it comes to those core tenets of best practice in international development – namely the charges to innovate, scale, mainstream, and reform – I think the plea of Kenyatta and Akyeampong is that we stop throwing the baby out with the bath water. We need to put to death our inner Debbie Deficit, and Sid Savior, and Pat Paternalist. Self-correct when we find ourselves disparaging rural parents for essentially homeschooling their children. Or African teachers for relying on pedagogies that are not scripted in western instructional manuals. Or government officials for not unequivocally adopting the imported interventions of international NGOs. And we need to bring to life our willingness to listen and learn from them. Not to hear a parroting of, “Think, pair, share,” or any other western instructional strategies. And not just to tick the box when the western curriculum is delivered in local languages. But to gain a deep and rich understanding of how African relationships and culture contribute to learning.
Perhaps the greatest contemporary “professor” on African relationships, was none other than the beloved musician, Oliver Mtukudzi. My favorite song from him is Dzoka Uyamwe. You see, Mtukudzi had kinship roots in Dande – a rural community in the Mashonaland region of Zimbabwe. There, and across the country, Mtukudzi was known as Sahwira – which means “close friend” or “good partner,” the kind who tells it like it is. And the song, Dzoka Uyamwe, is the lament of an African who has long been estranged from home and feels alienated in a foreign land. So, Mtukudzi’s lyrics say, “You see my dark skin and you conclude that I’m rotten. But a man’s rottenness is in his heart. And his darkness is in his mind. Because of you, I think of Dande. Of returning to Dande. Because I miss Dande.”
And since Mtukudzi’s music often follows a call-and-response structure, his melodious backup singers deliver the emotional overtones of a mother beseeching her last-born son to return. “Come back, my son. I’m waiting for you. Come back home and be nursed. Dzoka Uyamwe.”
Now, as a Zimbabwean – and as someone working in the field of international education – Dzoka Uyamwe strikes me in a profound way. So, in the mother’s portion of the song, I hear the voice of Africa itself. I hear the continent calling back its children. Children it knows feel alienated in an education system that has gone adrift. Dzoka Uyamwe. “Come back,” it says. “Back to those relational moorings that once nursed you and made you secure, and wise, and vital, and strong.
And since the way back is the way forward, I wonder whether the children of Africa will find good partners to accompany them there. Partners who will work with their parents and with their governments to transform the tale of two cities into a story about the best of both worlds. Both African and western education. It is exactly what the Ethiopian philosophy of Medemer is all about – combining the constituent elements of separate parts into a single or unified whole. This is in fact the crucial next step. Because we cannot secure the future for African children by indiscriminately destroying their past. You see, the blackness of Mtukudzi’s Dande – indeed, the blackness of all of Africa – is beautiful. And so if, in our pursuit of education development, we learn to look, not at the deficits of Dande, but at the fabric of riches which hold it together, then we can be confident that our contributions will be of some good.
Let me end with the words of N’Dri Thérèse Assié-Lumumba, whom Kwame Akyeampong quotes in his Inaugural Professorial Lecture of 2018. Dr. Assié-Lumumba is a Cornell Professor and President of the World Council of Comparative Education Societies. She asks this:
“Which systems of education do we analyze to inform which future? From whose perspectives are learning opportunities seen or ignored? When studying education in the Global South or former colonies, do we tend to see opportunities in their systems of thought, learning, and knowledge? Or do we simply dismiss what already exists in favor of some so-called superior global knowledge?
Now, I know – because I created her –that Emma Empathy, and those like her, are committed to higher levels of reflectiveness and lower levels of dismissiveness in their work in Africa. And I have to believe that this room is full of Emma Empathys. I think that’s why we’re all here. To discuss government adoption, not as an abstract intellectual exercise. But as a pathway to surround children with the right relationships to help them learn. So let’s come together, not matter how different we are. Let’s unlock the light in our own hearts – and in every child. And let it be our love, their love. Our well-being, their well-being. Our fulfillment, their fulfillment. Medemer.