Africa: Transforming Classrooms with a 'Tutu Desk'

Thandeka Tutu-Gxashe at the AllAfrica Cape Town office.
29 December 2016

Cape Town — Recently released from hospital, retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa celebrated his 85th birthday in October. Though clearly frail, he surprised and delighted friends and family gathered from around the world by presiding at a service at St. Georges Cathedral in Cape Town and attending an annual lecture in his honor. AllAfrica will mark the birthday year by a focus on one of the causes that the Archbishop has championed – the TutuDesk Campaign to provide a simple writing surface for schoolchildren across Africa who have no desks.

Try this. Take a piece of paper and a pencil and attempt to write on it without using a desk or table.

You may or may not have a bench for sitting, but if you do, it will be shared and crowded with other people. If you're lucky and agile, you'll be able to crouch on the floor and use that as a surface, though it may have unevenness and imperfections that show in your script. But what if you are outside and have only the ground?

That is the dilemma of 95 million African children who desperately want to learn – and of their parents who often work long, hard days to earn money for school fees to secure their children the right to a place in school.

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The crisis seems far away when sitting in AllAfrica's high-tech headquarters in Cape Town. Editors work at computers connected to fibre Internet. An online 'virtual newsroom - plus large screens and what we call 'videoconferencing for the masses' from Silicon Valley's Pluot - connect this office with colleagues in Dakar, Nairobi, Monrovia and elsewhere.

But Thandeka Tutu-Gxashe, the eldest daughter of Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu visited the Cape Town office to argue that the crisis is nearer than it seems.

"South Africa has 12 million children in school," Tutu-Gxashe says. "Three million of those go to school without desks. And as bad as that sounds for South Africa, in the rest of Africa it's worse. In Mozambique, they have nine million children who go to school, and out of those, seven million go to school without desks. So you can see that it's a huge problem."

It's a cause that has captured Tutu-Gxashe's heart. She has become a spokesperson and advocate for the Tutudesk Campaign, for which her father is patron. Building on a project to provide simple, portable lap desks for students, the campaign aims to deliver at least "20 million desks to 20 million children by the year 2020".

It's not that Tutu-Gxashe's own desk is not full already. With a master's degree in public health from Emory University in Atlanta, where she also attended medical school, she became a research supervisor on multi-center clinical trials funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

Returning to South Africa, she continued to conduct and direct research and provide health interventions, much of it related to HIV-Aids. But she knows that health care access across Africa cannot grow without educating the next generation.

So far, over a million and a half desks have been distributed to students in dozens of countries. An independent study of their impact in South Africa found a 67 per cent increase in homework submitted. Eighty per cent of teachers said they could interact better with students. A similar number said they could more easily read their pupils' handwriting.

But ask successful people who had to attend school without a hard surface for writing, and they'll tell you the benefits exceed quantifiable results. Unicef, the UN Children's Fund, says a simple desk makes all the difference for a child struggling to learn while sitting on a floor or the ground.

A child without the opportunity to learn to write, says Tutu-Gxashe, "will leave school semi-literate, which has enormous impact on the child's further education, on future employment, on families and communities, on countries, and, as a result, on our continent."

The Tutudesk Campaign lists a dozen sub-Saharan African countries where half or more of students have no writing surfaces, including conflict or post-conflict countries such as Angola, Liberia and Somalia. In Malawi, according to Unicef, 70 per cent of children lack desks. Those are the countries the campaign targets.

Also on the list, somewhat surprisingly, is Kenya, a technology powerhouse, where economic growth has averaged nearly five and a half per cent for more than a decade.

Kenya has been a global pioneer in mobile money since 2007, and more than 90 per cent of adults – including those in rural areas with no bank accounts, use their cell phones for everything from paying bills and making purchases to 'texting' money to family members.

Kenya is also the home of crowd-sourcing information sharing tool Ushahidi, which has been used worldwide for diverse needs - to reunite families after the Haiti earthquake, to monitor elections in fragile countries, and to warn New York state residents to avoid flooded roads and bridges. So when Kenyan politicians promised to provide a digital device to every pupil entering primary school in 2014, it was not seen as fantasy.

Now, though, with that pledge unfulfilled, there are calls to abandon the laptop/tablet plan in favor of giving students desks. As Kwame Owino, CEO of the Institute of Economic Affairs in Nairobi, wrote in a column for the Nation newspaper, "Government data shows that the number of desks available in primary schools is far short of the number of learners…These may not be high tech gadgets.., but their arrival in schools would find very active use and help many children who have to write on the floor with curved backs throughout the day."

The genius of the Tutudesk is that it is made of a lightweight material, shaped to rest on a small lap, that can be printed with information on both sides – though Tutu-Gxashe says some teachers and schools request a blank side so that students aren't distracted during lessons. A cut out creates a carrying handle.

Students love to take them home, when allowed, but experience shows that they must be taught to bring them back for the next days' work. Advice to teachers is to give children time to develop the habit of carrying them back and forth daily, over what may be long distances.

Tutudesks are manufactured in South Africa from recycled high-impact polystyrene. Schools in the province of Gauteng - where the city of Johannesburg and the administrative capital, Pretoria, are located - were recruited into an environmental campaign to collect items such as yogurt containers and plastic eating utensils for use in producing the lap desks. The desks are designed to last each student a minimum of five years and are intended to be recycled at the end of their useful lives as writing surfaces.

Over 40 diverse organizations, business and philanthropies from around the world have sponsored the desk campaign.

"In answer to a call to action by the Archbishop," says a South African Muslim emergency response organization, "Islamic Relief South Africa and Islamic Relief USA joined forces with the TutuDesk Campaign and provided 7618 TutuDesks to learners in the Eastern Cape [province of South Africa], focusing specifically on schools that have less than 50% of the desks they need."

"We simply cannot afford more time without this simple, affordable provision," Archbishop Tutu insists.

But while the desks themselves may look simple and be more economical than most educational interventions – a good investment, therefore – paying for them and distributing them in 24 of the world's poorest countries is neither simple nor cheap. The neediest schools are often in rural areas, reachable only by dirt roads in poor condition. The Tutudesk Campaign solicits funds from large organizations to support the outreach infrastructure – but it depends on small groups and individuals to buy many of the desks it provides.

Each desk costs US$15, but the manufacturing price drops appreciably with volume purchases. The organization encourages friends and families to make group donations. But Tutu-Gxashe reminds us that each dollar contributed makes a difference to a real person – a child with dreams.

"It's really about the children," she says. Alongside the substantial educational benefits, there is the intangible but very real sense of dignity that having their own desk for writing gives a child. "Often we hand out desks in communities where children have never had anything new or that was particularly theirs," she says. "They love the desks!"

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