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For Norman Cornett's students, the 28 days of February's Black History Month weren't quite enough. Through February, March, and now into April, the students of RELG 345 and 347 have studied African-American musicians, Ghanaian witch hunts and, most recently, the work of the Campaign for Female Education (CAMFED) in rural Africa.
On April 3, they welcomed a panel to McGill for a discussion of the role of CAMFED in helping disabled girls to access education, saving children from exploitation by their foster families, and spreading AIDS awareness. Joining the students were Joan Wolforth, the director of McGill's Office for Students with Disabilities; Gilles Bibeau, anthropology professor at Université de Montréal; Ellen Corin, McGill anthropology professor and psychoanalyst; Chantal Collard, Concordia University anthropology professor; and Fiona Eberts, chair of CAMFED.
When asked about CAMFED's approach, Eberts explained the importance of employing only African women in setting up and implementing CAMFED's programs. "The girls we help educate keep the program going," she said, adding that the approach helps CAMFED steer clear of becoming a "white" organization that barges into African villages to offer arbitrary or even detrimental assistance. In fact, CAMFED's work was inspired by the work of the Learning Circle Group, an assembly of illiterate Africans who gave themselves a voice by learning how to make movies. It was these women who brought awareness of the pressing need for the education of young African women. "We [CAMFED] are not there to tell Africans how to do anything," said Eberts, who is married to Montreal-born film producer Jake Eberts (Chicken Run, Gandhi, Dances with Wolves). "We just ask, 'How can we help you?'"
A number of students and guests on the panel expressed concern about CAMFED's work, wondering if CAMFED's intervention in rural African communities is a threat to African culture. Yet as is stated on the CAMFED website (www.camfed.org), "It is the culture of poverty, not the poverty of culture that keeps girls out of school." Wolforth stressed that "the bottom line is that education gives people a language to think with and to make choices." Corin added that African culture is strong and that "it is an insult to the culture to say that it can so easily be altered."
Today, CAMFED's network is comprised of 4,700 young African women — among them doctors, lawyers, and teachers. These women have been educated through CAMFED programs and now share the benefits of their education with their own communities.