A tragedy unfolded last week in Niger when 20 small children burned to death in a school made of straw.

This story is personal to us and to the many Torontonians and Canadians who have joined us for the past 15 years since we founded Pencils for Kids, a charity made up entirely of volunteers, dedicated to helping with education in Niger.

When Pencils for Kids began in 2006, after hearing that 30 children were sharing one pencil in a classroom, we focused our energy on education for children. Niger is the poorest country in the world, ranking dead last on the UN Development index. During this time we initiated 14 kindergartens in Libore, a commune comprised of many villages. Only one of these kindergartens was built out of cement, as the cost of building with cement is extremely high. The other kindergartens have metal frameworks, but the top and sides are covered in straw, as this is the least expensive way to build a kindergarten facility. It is not ideal, but it also afforded an education to thousands of children 3 to 5 years of age.

On Wednesday, April 14th, our national media reported that tragedy had struck. In the capital Niamey, at a kindergarten built entirely of straw, 20 small children, ages 3-5, died when a fire started and the structure  burned in minutes. They were unable to escape. As was written in one newspaper: “Wiping away tears with her veil, the school’s director Habiba Gaya said all of Niger was in ‘total mourning’. The little children, innocents, were really burned alive in this fire,” she told AFP news agency, explaining that while older children were able to make it out, those aged five and under were not: “They were little so they weren’t able to run.”

In the wake of this tragedy, Pencils for Kids has undertaken to re-build each of our 13 kindergartens, converting them from metal and straw to cement structures. This is a huge undertaking, as each kindergarten will cost approximately $20,000 in Canadian funds, for a total of $260,000 to rebuild all 13 of them. But it will be a signal to the people of Niger that we care, that they are not forgotten and that the lives of their smallest citizens matter.

“The global pandemic has taught us a lot about inequity in our own country and around the world,” said Robin Mednick, President of Pencils for Kids. “It’s a small step toward social justice to create a safer learning environment for these precious young children.”

We are looking to raise Canadians’ awareness of this terrible tragedy that has caused the country of Niger to go into mourning. “We are a tiny group but we will do whatever we can to help, and show our solidarity with the incredible people of Niger, who have so little and have lost so much.” said Mednick. “ We are reaching out to Canadians, asking for their help with this project.”   

Please also feel free to share this with anyone whom you feel may take an interest in this story. It would be most appreciated.

If you wish to contribute to our Kindergarten Re-build Fund, please click the link below.

Kindergarten Re-build Fund >

4023779236_965b9a9ac2_c

Check out the 100th episode of the Preconceived podcast — we’re featured!

preconceived-podcast

We are so pleased to be featured on the 100th episode of the podcast Preconceived, hosted by Zale Mednick. In the episode, titled Do it Afraid, P4K founder Robin Mednick shares the inspirational story of how Pencils for Kids came to be, and what she has learned along the way.

Watch the interview on YouTube >

Listen to the interview on Apple Podcasts >

2020 Marks Pencils for Kids’ 15th year in Niger – a milestone.

50498108272_d94e99576e_b

This year has been one of the most challenging for the world in recent memory. The people of Niger have not only been impacted by the pandemic but by the worst flooding in over 100 years. Niger is considered to be one of the poorest countries in the world and this situation has been devastating for the people of Niger. While these events have hampered our short-term progress, they have not stopped us from moving forward on any of our long-term goals.

 

As Professor Dov Pasternak always said, “Never ever give up”!

 

50497959986_11b6a22b59_c 50286771652_24e7f6e6e0_b

The devastating floods caused the destruction of homes and rice fields across Niger. Pencils for Kids along with our partner Eliminate Poverty Now delivered rice, soap and oil to many affected villages.

 


15 years for P4K!

In these past 15 years, we have accomplished so much with the help of our team, our supporters and donors and the work on the ground by our partners in Niger.  

Here are some of the highlights from these years.

  • We remain a volunteer organization with overhead between 3- 5% and no paid staff.
  • We have built three schools, a library, 14 kindergartens
  • Given out over 500 scholarships for girls – 39 girls graduated from Secondary School and went on to University or post-graduate institutes 
  • Created a Sewing Centre for Girls – hundreds have enrolled in this three-year program and learned an income-generating skill 
  • Income-generating gardens for women in Liboré and Balleyara training hundreds of women to grow fruits and vegetables for a profit, in partnership with Eliminate Poverty Now (EPN)
  • Trained horticultural technicians who are now working with many rural women of Niger
  • ***Most significant accomplishment – we started to change the mindset of so many in the country about the importance of educating girls and teaching women how to be agricultural entrepreneurs.

In recognition of this milestone, in July 2020, Dan filmed Robin answering seven key questions about the history and progress of Pencils for Kids.

 


The most ambitious program yet!

In November 2020, we began construction of The Dov Centre, our Horticultural Training Centre for Technicians, named in memory of Professor Dov Pasternak and built in partnership with Eliminate Poverty Now (EPN).  When the Dov Centre opens its doors, we hope to train 40 technicians per year, in a two-year program affiliated with the Ministry of Higher Education. These graduates will then have the expertise to train rural women in Niger how to grow fruits and vegetables for a profit in desert conditions, how to market their produce and invest their earnings. It will be the culmination of Dov Pasternak’s dream and a way to help lift so many from poverty. 

 50644018763_15628dfcae_b

On November 24th, 2020, the Minister of Higher Education officially launched the Dov Centre building by placing a brick on the foundation. A moment of history. A moment remembering and honouring Professor Dov. A vision for the future.

50563176207_2bf248c0f7_c

Construction begins on the Dov Centre — the new Training Centre for Horticultural Technicians — first of its kind in Niger, named in memory of Professor Dov Pasternak.

 


Scholarships for Girls

Six more girls in our Second Chance Scholarship program, graduated from Secondary School in August 2020 to bring the total to 39 who have gone on to university or post secondary institutions since our Scholarship program began in 2009!

 

Our six graduates 2019-2020 from Secondary School (left to right): Leyla Moussa Issaka, Adamou Madougou Salawa, Safiya Oumarou Amadou, Bariratou Kimba Alfari, Amina Sadou Adamou, Moukassifou Mallam Hafsi

This special program has continued to give girls in their final year of Secondary (called the Terminale level) a “second chance” by opening a special classroom for them, hiring a teacher, and providing all the tutoring and class time needed to pass.  Even though schools were shut down for five months due to COVID 19, we were able to double their learning time in July and August and six girls passed this very challenging exam to graduate from Secondary School. This is such a huge accomplishment. Girls who graduate with their BAC diploma from Secondary School have much greater opportunities to earn a good living in Niger. It will change the course of their lives and those of their families forever. 

In the current 2020/2021 school year Pencils for Kids is giving 24 Scholarships to girls in our Junior level and up to 20 scholarships in our Second Chance Scholarship program.  This brings our total number of Scholarships awarded since 2009 to 584. P4K is tremendously proud of having been able to support the educational advancement of young women in Niger.

OF SPECIAL NOTE: This year also marks the first time that one of our early scholarship recipients, Fati Mounkaila Moussa (received three years of scholarships in junior high school) achieved her degree as a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine.

 

FatiMounkailaMoussa-2 FatiMounkailaMoussa-3 FatiMounkailaMoussa

Three photos above show Fati Mounkaila Moussa graduating as a veterinarian, the first ever Scholarship recipient to become a doctor of Veterinary Medicine

 


Cooper Sewing Centre celebrates its 12th anniversary!

The Cooper Centre, founded by P4K with generous support from the Cooper family, is a sewing program where girls take a three-year course, pay their own tuition, and participate in examinations that are accredited by the National Sewing Association. The goal is to give girls and women, who are no longer in school, a second chance to get a profession. P4K started this program with only four girls in 2008, helping them acquire an income-generating skill. They are learning embroidery, sewing, knitting and fabric-dyeing and also take courses in numeracy and literacy. Students pay a yearly fee to help cover the costs of the teachers. 

In 2020, the Sewing Centre was upgraded, a second-floor washroom was added and the facilities improved with new paint and tiled floors. The money was provided through the rental of the Training Centre Boardroom, built by Pencils for Kids adjacent to the Sewing Centre, which is now in high demand from companies. The rental money from this Boardroom and from the rental of chairs purchased by P4K, help sustain the operation of the Sewing Centre.

For the 2020-2021 academic year, 19 new girls have been enrolled in the first year, 13 girls are enrolled in their second year, and 19 girls are in the final year of their three-year program.

 


Thank you for supporting the work of Pencils for Kids and letting the children and women know how much you care! 95% of every donation goes directly to our projects.

Life in Niger in the time of COVID-19

Below is a glimpse into how life in Niger has changed since the arrival of COVID-19.

Using masks…

Before the pandemic, it cost only 100 CFA (West African franc) for a mask ($1CDN Dollar = $433 CFA). But as soon as the Government announced the first case of Covid-19 in Niger, the cost increased to 500. The following day it jumped to 750, then 1000. Soon after, it was impossible to find masks in any of the pharmacies. 

Since it has become so serious, people have started making their own — but because of the conditions they are being made under, they’re not very safe. The cost of a locally-made mask  is around 300 to 500 CFA.

women on the road don't care

Today, fewer than 1% of people are using a mask in Liboré.

It’s not easy to purchase masks for all members of the family as the priority is on food. Today, fewer than 1% of people are using a mask in Liboré. In Niamey, 20 to 30% are using a mask because they can easily purchase them and there are government protocols in place on wearing masks in public places (supermarkets, markets etc..).

 

Effects on food…

Only 1% of Nigeriens are able to stay at home and have enough food for their family.

99% of Nigerians get what they eat on the same day they are working. So, if they don’t go to work one day, they will not have food.

P4K-postphoto2

The fact that the borders are closed has made everything very expensive. Many families have changed their eating habits because of this.

It’s difficult not to share germs because people eat from the same plate, and drink water and tea in the same glass without washing them with soap, but many are trying to do what they can.

people are at home but no masque and they are using the same bol for drinking watter or tea

 

Trying to keep our distance…

IMG_20200401_100920

One small example of people observing social distancing

The Government has asked people to not pray together and to not visit the mosque, and taxis must not take more than 3 people at a time. All ceremonies and training have also been suspended.

Niamey has been closed for the past three weeks. No one can enter or leave — which has had a big effect on the country’s business.. 

P4K-postphoto1

Many people are still visiting the local market

The Government wanted to close all markets, but they know that people need to visit the market to buy what they are going to eat each day.

In the bank, there is a hangar that people must wait under before entering — it gives a bit of shade, but on “pay-days” the wait time to enter could be over an hour.

even if Niamey is cloosed, inside of the town, people are free to conduct their works.

The streets are pretty empty these days…

Electricity companies can’t cover 30% of the country and in the few families who can get electricity, many of them are not able to buy a fridge to store food.

 

New modes of transportation…

Due to the closed borders, there is a new mode of transportation. People are coming to this country because of Ramadan and also because of the rainy season — which they don’t want to miss, because it’s one of the only times they can get food for their family. Now that the borders have been closed, people have been taking bicycles from places like the Ivory Coast or from Ghana to come to Niger, usually in groups of 5-7. So it’s not uncommon these days to see someone travelling over 1000km on a bicycle. 

Since they limit the number of people in public transportation, motorbikes are now available for hire. Instead of paying 1000 CFA to be transported by car, the cost to travel by motorbike is 4000 CFA to go the same distance — 4 times the price!

IMG_20200424_184628

…And that’s the latest update from our community. Wishing everyone safety and health in these unprecedented times!