Cameroon: Education For All In Africa

Learning Exercise

Filmmaker Gilbert Mbeh has a hopeful message for young Africans who embrace education.Despite daunting odds, many roads can lead to success. Mr. Mbeh will celebrate some of them in his forthcoming documentary film series, “My Journey.” Ongoing profiles will feature prominent Africans like Kelly Mua Kingsly, whose career spans strategic planning and financial management for billion-dollar projects in the public and private sectors.

Mr. Mbeh started his own career on a different path. Home in Cameroon between consulting assignments for a global employer, he was due for a relaxed vacation with family and friends. He had completed the company’s rigorous management training program, equipping him to advise governments, companies and NGOs that require construction, information technology and environmental services across the Middle East, including conflict zones.

Vacation took an unexpected course as Mr. Mbeh walked with a friend in Yaoundé, Cameroon’s bustling capital with 2.4 million residents. He was about to tackle an urgent social challenge in his home country, culminating with the formation of Education For All in Africa, also called EDUCAF, a global community of people engaged in the fields of education, social equality and environmental advocacy.

“We saw a nine year old child when every other kid was supposed to be in school,” recalls Mr. Mbeh [pronounced EM-bay], the founder and president of EDUCAF. The small boy was trying to lug 20 liters [5 gallons] of water down the street, a load much too heavy for a child his size. But the larger question, asks Mr. Mbeh, why wasn’t the boy in school?

A brief investigation determined that the child wasn’t living in his village with his parents but, instead, in the city with an uncle and aunt who had adopted him. Instead of sending him to school, the aunt and uncle put him to work carrying water and cleaning floors, among other chores. A child with no future and no hope appalled Mr. Mbeh, whose successful career did not blind him to a random child’s misfortune.

The uncle and aunt blamed absence from school on poverty. They could not afford tuition, they claimed. Mr. Mbeh was more inclined to think that they elected not to pay tuition for a child who was not their own. For whatever cause, the harsh reality alerted Mr. Mbeh to a similar plight for dozens of neighborhood children.

Inspired to act, Mr. Mbeh proposed an NGO with a singular objective: get to work so that kids can afford to pay for their education. By American standards costs may seem negligible. A government lower school might cost $100 a year. Village schoolhouses might ask $40. Secondary schools command $200 to $500, depending on their facilities and resources. Lacking those sums, children face very difficult, dangerous and short lives.

Friends embraced an idea that caught on quickly. “We started very small,” says Mr. Mbeh, who returned to his post in the Middle East. Meanwhile, friends knocked on school doors on behalf of children unable to pay tuition. “We said we have talented kids who cannot afford school.”

Persistence soon paid off. Individual and corporate donors dug into their pockets to supply financial support for kids in need. Education For All has won friends and built momentum, even in a stodgy government. Other philanthropic organizations took note. Rather than register and operate separately, which imposes costs and diverts resources, other initiatives merged under the Education For All banner. Workshops now feature conferences on social equality, human rights, educating parents and other subjects in a bilingual country where three quarters of residents speak French and one quarter speak English. (Mr. Mbeh spoke English growing up. His wife spoke French.)

Steering an NGO, filmmaking and entrepreneurship all buttress the same message for a young population: educated and motivated Africans can succeed. “What makes me happy now is that many people believe in Education For All,” Mr. Mbeh declares. “People are beginning to see that if we work together, we can achieve real impact.”