By Sean KimmonsApril 24, 2017
GAROUA, Cameroon (Army News Service) -- As the civil affairs team rolled up to a primary school in a thatched hut on the edge of a dry and barren field, rows of children in bright purple school uniforms stood outside and bellowed a song to welcome the team's first visit to the struggling school.
Inside, thin walls of woven golden hay separated three classes of children, who sat on logs or at crowded desks and faced the front toward chalkboards.
It was above 100 degrees in the searing afternoon on Thursday, but there was no electricity to power fans or any running water. When a student had to use the bathroom, they simply picked out a spot in the field behind the school.
"It's by far the worst school we've seen here in Cameroon," said Sgt. 1st Class Sean Acosta, the NCO in charge of the team, which is attached to Task Force Toccoa, a 101stAirborne Division-led unit based in northern Cameroon. "There's no hard structure at all."
For American standards, the school would have failed countless health and safety codes. But with subsistence farming as the area's main source of livelihood in a harsh climate, any funds to develop it are hard to come by.
After viewing each cramped classroom, a group of parents and village elders guided Acosta and others to a lone tree in the field. Under it, the shade provided a bit of relief as the local Cameroonians relayed their concerns to the Soldiers.
Another issue brought up was students not being allowed to enter secondary school, since many of them do not have birth certificates -- a requirement to move on to further education. The Soldiers discovered that about 70 percent of local students could not attend secondary school due to this rule.
"Together with your government we'll come up with a plan to help," Acosta, 32, of Navarre, Florida, told the concerned villagers. "We may not be able to fix everything, but we'd like to start trying to fix some things."
EDUCATION AS A WEAPON
Two months earlier, Acosta and his four-person crew, which make up Team 8321 from the 83rd Civil Affairs Battalion's Bravo Company, arrived in Cameroon as part of the U.S. Army task force. Since 2015, Soldiers have been in the West African country to help its military defeat Boko Haram, a violent extremist group that has infiltrated the nation's far north region.
While U.S. Soldiers are not directly in the fight, they serve in a supporting role to Cameroon's wartime efforts. For Acosta's team, they're tasked with engaging with locals to build partnerships and enhance services, like education.
"By improving the government's ability to provide basic essential services to the local population, it decreases the population's willingness to turn to some other non-state actor that could provide those things to them," he said, referring to Boko Haram.
The day before, Cameroonian Col. Barthelemy Tsilla, commander of the air base in Garoua, pointed to insufficient education as a factor in Boko Haram's emergence in his country.
"If a lot of children were involved in education, they would know what is good or bad and would think for themselves," he said.
The country's adult literacy rate stands at 71 percent, well below the world's average of 85 percent, according to a 2016 UNICEF report.
Tsilla's unit currently flies fighter jets for air-to-ground combat missions against the extremist group, but education can be another weapon, he said.
"To fight against Boko Haram is to go first by arms, bombs and so on," he said, "but the most important [way to fight] is the education of people who understand a better life."
The education piece, though, can be greatly affected by the poor conditions found at many schools in northern Cameroon.
Boubakary Hary, a school inspector for one of Garoua's city districts, noted that having no potable water in schools can force many children to go home early and not finish the day's lessons.
"It makes it difficult that during break periods, [students] rush back to their home to get food or water," he said through a translator. "And as they live far from their school, they just go and don't come back again."
Hary, who works as a sort of a superintendent of schools, showed Acosta's team a few that he would like to see upgraded.
Besides the school in the thatched hut, other schools also had major structure problems with holes in roofs and dirt floors, which are affecting the educational experience of local children.
"Without those good structures put in place, the children's books are always being destroyed," Hary said. "They're really facing a big problem of infrastructure in the schools."
BEYOND SCHOOL SUPPLIES
Army civil affairs teams have delivered desks and continue to give other supplies to Cameroonian schools, but that's just a small portion of what they do.
While cameras typically capture the side of civil affairs passing out donations, Acosta said, as much as 75 percent of their job is done behind the scenes.
"The donations are only part of it," he said. "The majority of it is working though the host nation government here with their officials and helping them correct their processes or improve them, so education throughout Cameroon, specifically here in the north region in Garoua, is enhanced."
With so many problems being seen at the schools, Acosta said, they plan to prioritize any possible solutions to them.
"Everywhere you go in Cameroon, there are going to be issues," he said. "By prioritizing them, it helps us see which areas we're going to help the most and which areas we can do the most for with the least amount of resources."
If the local government doesn't have the funds to pay to help the schools, the civil affairs may reach out to non-governmental organizations or interagency departments to get school projects rolling. There are also limited funds for civil affairs missions, but it can be a lengthy process to obtain them, he said.
As the team's medic, Spc. Sarah McElveen, 28, of Fayetteville, North Carolina, can't help but feel emotional at times during the school visits, she said. While Cameroon may have better health care than neighboring countries, the nation still deals with high rates of tropical diseases and youth mortality.
"It makes me sad that we can't do more," she said. "I know we're doing the best we can for what we have, but there's only so much we can do."
She hopes the team's efforts in the schools can improve -- albeit on a small scale -- children's health and thus extend their lives past the local area's life expectancy of about 50 years, she said.
"If you think about that in American terms, you're just starting to get your life together around 30 and then you get 10 to 20 years of experience before your life ends," she said. "So they're missing out on another 20 to 30 years, potentially, if their standards weren't improved."
The mission also hits close to home for Acosta, who has four girls ages 4 to 9 years old.
"On a personal level, it's very enriching to be able to go out and assist these kids," he said. "I look at the young girls and it reminds me immediately of my four girls back at home."
(Follow Sean Kimmons on Twitter: @KimmonsARNEWS)