When one of the eighth graders stood before the class and proudly proclaimed his ambition to become an accountant, I was surprised. In such a community as this, I wondered if there was any need for such a role: there was no bank, no electricity even, and matters of taxation and compensation were meted out by the Head Men or Chief. Many people operated through alternative means of payment, money proving an inconvenience in many situations.
I reasoned that perhaps the boy had a relative – an aunt or uncle in the city, maybe – who had some sort of fiscal responsibility as part of his/her job. Maybe he liked maths. Maybe he saw accountancy as a realistic and attainable goal, or maybe he saw it as a pipe dream. In any case, he seemed to want to be an accountant.
Grade 8 became our guinea pig class. When we started teaching financial literacy towards the end of the term, we started with Grade 8.
The lesson began with a question in big, capital letters on the blackboard: What is money?
You could hear the metaphorical crickets and see the figurative tumbleweed rolling lazily behind their unengaged eyes. They understood the question; an answer was not forthcoming. Moono repeated the question in the vernacular. Still nothing.
The class continued in much the same way for the following hour.
This was not the first instance we’d seen of a lesson that seemed entirely lost on its audience. Nor would it be the last. The problem here was that this was our first class on financial literacy, and we’d simplified the lesson plan as much as possible before even heading over to the school, fully aware that many of the pupils would never have considered money as anything other than the price of a pack of biscuits. I am the first to admit to my impatience when things move at a slower pace than I would like, but this class was at an utter standstill.
We left the classroom that day disappointed by our lack of progress. If we couldn’t teach a beginner’s course on financial literacy, simplified to a level that the 8th grade should have been able to grasp, what did that say of us as teachers? It made me doubt our previous lessons: with pretty much nonexistent understanding of money or what it does, did Peter simply write that he aspired to be an accountant because he’d heard it was a good career and wanted to placate his teachers?
In our final week on placement, our small Restless Development team hosted a ‘Health Day’ for the surrounding communities. The HIV and STI testing booths and other health-related information drew a crowd of over 400 people. We had been instructed to then use the event as a means of publicising certain financial opportunities and to educate the local farming families on finance and investment. The health talks were met with the bored, ‘I’ve heard this all before’ looks familiar to the school pupils. The finance talks, on the other hand, sparked endless questions and animated conversation.
From these two experiences alone – one inside the classroom, the other before a crowd of eager adults – it was made startlingly clear that financial literacy and education is minimal, nonexistent even, in rural parts of Zambia’s Central Province and, I imagine, much of the developing world. In fact, I would go so far as to extend that thought to the UK and US and, as far as I know, the greater part of the developed world.
When we set about planning our first Financial Literacy lesson I thought to myself, What a hypocrite I must be, teaching something that I’ve had no formal education in myself. Yet I was given the role of chief ‘facilitator’ as the most numerate member of our four-woman team. I am lucky to have well-educated parents and family who have, over the years, taught me the basics of dealing with money. Most are less fortunate. From what I’ve seen, I believe that basic financial education could have helped lift so many of my friends from the poverty in which they had been stuck for generations. The same could be true of poorer families in the developed world. Give them the tools to grow their own capital and they will be equipped to take charge of improving their lives.
Give a man a fish and he eats for the day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for the rest of his life.