Trading crops for education

Labor Day | Koussingé Luc grows and sells manioc, a Chadian staple, to help finance a school for 250 girls
by Rob Holmes
Posted 8/31/13, 08:21 am

This week through Labor Day we are publishing six brief pieces on people working hard and enjoying their labor. Some are Christians and some not, because through God’s common grace people of many faiths can enjoy meeting challenges. Three of the stories come from Rob Holmes, who lives with his family in Chad. Three others come from World Journalism Institute students who wrote and rewrote them during this year’s Asheville course. —Marvin Olasky

TANDJILÉ-OUEST, Chad—At only 7 years old, Koussingé Luc began the fight for girls to have a better life: His mother lay dying and handed him his week-old baby sister. He was 25th out of the 38 children his father and four wives produced—and the only Christian. 

“I kept my sister and milked a goat for her to drink out of a calabash,” he said. “Because of caring for her I couldn’t start school. I worked in the fields with her on my back, just like a woman, to keep her.”

She lived, but Luc never stopped his fight. After raising his sister, he enrolled himself in school at 15, learned French and made it through junior high by 22. Then he entered the Chadian military. French officers trained him as a paratrooper and he rose to become a lieutenant, fighting in various desert oasis towns during Chad’s first civil war (1979-82).

But his real desert experience happened in a jungle: In 1983 he fled from troops loyal to Hissein Habré—soon to face trial for war crimes—fighting in the bush of southern Chad. Lost and alone, he wandered for eight months in dense tropical forest, living on honey, wild yams and fruit, sleeping in trees for safety. When he finally emerged, he found Northern Armed Forces (FAN) were still killing southerners like him. He only got a break from conflict in 1987 after the so-called Toyota War with Libya, when Chadians won using pick-ups to move troops. 

In 2000, after retiring from 21 years in the army, he trained his sights on hunger in his home area by starting a business in Béréumango and Bérékou villages in Southern Chad’s Tandjilé-Ouest region. The business aimed to alleviate suffering by growing and selling manioc, especially during annual August famines when people’s food stocks ran out before the next harvest was ready. Today, nine employees call the business by its long French acronym, AUDPRT.

Having battled famine with business, Luc returned to the fight closest to his heart: “Girls in our area don’t go to school. At 13, they get married. Parents get dowry.” He walked around villages and convinced 15 parents to give their girls an education. And in 2004, with money earned from selling gari—ground manioc—the Girls School of Béréumang ostarted with 15 girls in first grade. Each year, he added a grade.

Ten years on, Luc, father of nine, works as a handyman for an NGO in the capital and sends money to help his three teachers. But the profit from his business is crucial to the school’s success. Manioc in one koro—a small basin—goes for $2. Another source of revenue comes from charging a fee to grind local people’s millet. 

“We use the money to buy school books,” he said. “Each girl only pays $1.50 per year in fees. And even that is hard for people to manage!”

Last year, 24 girls graduated sixth grade. This year, Luc has 250 girls, including nine nomadic Fulbe girls. Seeing their particularly low rate of schooling, Luc reached out to Fulbe leaders. Two of their girls have graduated so far.

A terrible windstorm completely destroyed the school one night this past May—tearing apart its millet-stalk structures, books and class materials. Four students were killed. Luc lost many manioc plants. Rebuilding looks to be a grim battle. Finding money for books and materials eats at Luc, since his business can only grow so much manioc to sell. Parents’ help is not really an option. “They can’t even afford one book. Some even pay fees with millet or soap.”

The girls, who learn in French, will have class under trees for now. Luc fights on for learning to continue. Though Saturdays at school always were reserved for Bible teaching and prayer, this year dependence on God holds new meaning.

Workers harvesting manioc. (Photo by Rob Holmes)

Rob Holmes

Rob is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute’s mid-career course. Follow Rob on Twitter @SouthernFlyer.

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