The Blackboard Jungle

Nothing Typical About MK Education


There’s no doubt about it—my son was not your typical American kid. When Daniel was born, he was the only Caucasian baby in the hospital. To get there, my husband and I traveled 300 miles on a mission plane and stayed at the home of our missionary doctor. A generator provided electricity for the delivery room. Daniel was jaundiced, and the doctor told me to lay him naked in the sun every day. Who needs special lights when you live a couple of degrees from the equator?

His childhood was a little out of the ordinary. He played outside with his African friends, making toys from bamboo, palm branches and old cans. We bought him a little bike, and he and his friends would take turns learning how to ride it. “Noki, noki!” (Faster, faster!) he cried as they pushed each other up and down the village paths. Once, they roasted grub worms for an afternoon snack. Another time, Daniel fell in a swamp, and we had to pull leeches off his legs. He helped the neighbors make mud bricks, climbed mango trees, sang with the choir, swam in the river and translated for short-term missions teams. He flowed with life in the African village. And it wasn’t that hard for us to raise a little boy in Africa.

Beyond the Village

However, in time Daniel needed to learn readin’, ’ritin’ and ’rithmetic. He needed the discipline and challenge of a classroom. He needed to prepare for life beyond our African village.

We looked at educational options. The local school was so overcrowded that kids squatted on homemade stools, balanced notebooks on their knees and copied phrases to memorize off a rickety blackboard. On the other hand, we were reluctant to send our child to a distant boarding school to be raised by others during his formative years. We decided to homeschool.

I am a trained teacher and loved the idea, but I have to admit that it wasn’t always simple. I had to order curriculum from the United States and set up a classroom. The neighborhood children had a hard time understanding why Daniel couldn’t play outside all day. Short-term missions teams, friendly neighbors, tropical sicknesses, ministry demands and a difficult pregnancy drained my stamina and creativity. Heat melted the crayons, and cockroaches nested in the workbooks. There were no libraries, homeschooling co-ops or curriculum fairs. Homeschooling in Africa was challenging.

No One-Size-Fits All

The Alliance knows that every MK (missionary kid) and parent in West Africa has a story to tell about getting a good education. That’s where Regional Educational Consultants (RECs) come in. My colleague, Debbi Clouser, and I serve as RECs for the C&MA in West Africa. We help families evaluate educational options, choose the best one for their children and maximize the education they are receiving.

Education is not one-size-fits-all. Not only do the situations of the missionaries vary from place to place, but the needs of a child also can change with time. It takes discernment, wisdom, creativity and teamwork to find the best way to educate each child.

Boarding schools used to be the only educational option for most Alliance MKs. No one visiting West Africa fails to be impressed with the number of current missionaries who grew up in our MK boarding schools. It is still the best choice for many.

Dakar Academy (DA) in Senegal is a great option for MKs in West Africa. It’s a day school for the children of families serving in Dakar. We also have dedicated, loving dorm parents for middle-school and high-school students from other countries. Students at DA can be involved in musicals, sports, social events and discipleship while their parents serve in sometimes isolated and difficult circumstances.

New Options

For families serving in big cities, a good choice may be an international school, with students often hailing from 30 or more countries. More than a dozen Alliance MKs attend the International School of Ouagadougou (ISO) in Burkina Faso. A couple of C&MA missionaries are teaching there. They are shining lights in what is often a very secular environment. As a REC, I evaluate international schools in varieous capital cities and am an advocate for the MKs attending these schools.

French schools serve the international community in several West African cities. These excellent schools offer a no-frills, traditional, academically challenging program that is, however, long on memorization and short on positive feedback. Some kids find this discouraging, but others excel in this setting.

An increasing number of missionary parents are choosing to homeschool their children. This is especially popular among families living in isolated areas that don’t offer a variety of educational options. Part of a REC’s job is to assist families in sorting through the myriad of curriculum choices and help them set up a schedule, keep records and assure that their child is studying at the appropriate level.

For some families, the right educational choice is obvious. For others, there are many questions and extenuating circumstances. They are grateful for a listening ear and possibly even a voice of experience to give reassurance and encouragement.

If we, as RECs, encourage or lighten the load for even one set of missionary parents, make growing up in West Africa a happier experience for even one MK or help prevent even one MK “wreck,” then our job is worth it. That is our desire and prayer.

Train Up a Child

MKs often have the unique opportunity to get involved with Kingdom work as children and to continue that ministry into adulthood.

Three girls and I spent our spring break at an orphanage in a West African village called Yako. There are 45 children in the orphanage ranging from 6 weeks to 19 years old.

In the mornings, we played with and fed the babies. It was good for them to get extra loving since they had not had much attention. In the afternoons, we played and talked with the older kids. One night, I played my flute for the older children. I especially enjoyed that because they had never seen a flute. Another night, I translated the story “Mulan” into French.

My friends and I heard a lot of sad accounts. Some of the babies had been abandoned. An older girl’s father had died and her mother has AIDS. There are so many stories like these. The orphanage staff is searching for families to adopt these children. We got to see one set of parents who are adopting. They were scheduled to take the baby in July, but they couldn’t wait, so they came for a three-week visit.

My friends and I are already planning to return next year. We enjoyed meeting and helping the children in the orphanage.
—Rachel Harrison

Daniel is all grown up now and was recently married in East Africa. The wedding was a family affair and a glorious mixture of Africans, Americans, Asians and Europeans. Daniel; his new wife, Kim; and her family have been involved in ministries to street people, lepers and the destitute. These dear folks were all invited to the wedding. Daniel and Kim made sure that each person received a new outfit for the wedding. We had the privilege of helping Daniel and Kim distribute new clothes and invitations.

Our other daughter, Christy, recently returned to the United States after working with a nongovernmental organization, serving the poor in a creative-access country in West Africa for the past year. She is currently studying International Community Development in preparation for returning overseas. 
—Deanna Harrison

Did you know that:

  • more than 100 C&MA MKs have returned overseas as Alliance missionaries?
  • there are numerous C&MA MKs serving in North American ministries?
  • there are adult MKs among the missionary staff whose parents are serving or have served with other missions?

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