Profile: Student Lives With African Village, Authors Children’s Books

Elizabeth Guerra, above, spent Sept.-Dec. 2009 in Burkina Faso, where her three children’s books were distributed through village libraries. Photo Courtesy of Elizabeth R. Guerra

The opportunity to travel in Africa and publish a children’s book for a small village does not come by very often. For junior Elizabeth Guerra, accomplishing just that was an experience of a lifetime. Guerra traveled to Burkina Faso, a small country in the heart of West Africa that is known to be one of the poorest countries in the world, “with about 80% of its population living in rural villages and earning their livings by working as subsistence farmers,” Guerra said. For four months, Guerra traveled with a group of eight other students from September to December 2009 through the Santa Clara University Reading West Africa program.

For the beginning part of her stay, Guerra took classes in the capital city of Ouagadougou, studying economic development, community development, French literature and photography. The official language is actually French, since France colonized the country until Burkina Faso gained its independence in 1960 .

During the other half of her time in Africa, Guerra stayed in the rural village, Sara, in Burkina Faso for a total of 6 weeks. There, she shared a village house with one other student, and together they worked as librarian assistants in the village’s library, which was established by Friends of African Village Libraries (FAVL) and the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO).

In working for the village, Guerra became inspired to do more for the community. The literacy rate in Burkina Faso is about 20%, and this inspired Guerra to make a change. The head of the study abroad program, Dr. Michael Kevane from SCU, who is also the founder of FAVL and professor of economics at Santa Clara University, came up with the idea for Guerra to write books for children. “FAVL operates under the belief that true development can only happen when people are empowered by access to information and the habits of reading and critical thinking,” she said.’Guerra eventually wrote three basic children’s books, which were written in French and coincided with the photos that she took for in Africa for her photography course.

Student Elizabeth Guerra grew to be accepted as a friend by the people of a small African village. Photo Courtesy of Elizabeth Guerra

The first book she wrote,“What Can I Be When I Grow Up?” targets children learning to read. “It featured photos from all types of professions that could be found in my village, such as a librarian, doctor, farmer, shoemaker, shop keeper, etc.” she said. The book gives a visual representation of the world that they can imagine for themselves in the future.

For the second book, Guerra said she wrote it for readers of all ages–not just children. The book,“The Life of the Peuhl’s,” is about a semi-nomadic ethnic group. The idea came from the fact that during her time in Burkina Faso. there was a small group of semi-nomadic people living there. She felt inspired to express the presence and value that these people brought to the village.

The third and final book touched upon the history of the Islamic presence that is seen in Burkina Faso. “Islam in Burkina Faso” touches upon religion in the village, presenting an understanding of Islamic principles. Guerra said, “This book was my civic engagement book, which was for higher reading levels and touched on the religious aspect that is so deeply ingrained in their society.” Religion is dispersed in Burkina Faso with about 50% of people being Christian and the other 50% being Muslim, Guerra said. Due to this significant separation of religions living together, Guerra wanted to highlight its significance. All of these people live in a village together, regardless of their difference in religious beliefs, and through Guerra’s outlook during her time there she recognized their ability to live and work peacefully side by side one another. The book featured the different aspects of religion due to Guerra’s belief that religion is truly a fundamental part of a culture. Religion can also often dictate conflict or advocate for overall peace. FAVL funds made the publishing of the third book possible, created and distributed by Blurb.

All three books were published and distributed throughout 10 FAVL libraries in Burkina Faso. The book project enabled Elizabeth to really open up and communicate with the people in the village, which is a community home to about 2,000 people with around five to eight families. Guerra said, “It really got me out and talking to people and helped me make friends. By the end of my stay in my village I was accepted as part of their community. They trusted me. I wasn’t just the white girl walking around with my big camera anymore; I was considered a part of their family.”

“The most important thing that I took away from this trip was that the poverty of the Burkinabé people is independent of their dignity. Many of us look at Africa as the “dark continent,” but what I realized while I was there was that Africa and Africans are rich in ways that many Americans could never understand.”

Currently Guerra is not sure when she will be able to return to Africa. Her hopes are to return sometime soon and that upon graduation she will be able to travel and work in the FAVL libraries. The time that Guerra spent in Africa has truly changed her view of the world. Guerra is an International Studies major with a minor in African Studies and French Studies.

“Africa has many developmental problems, but when we strip away all of our preconceived notions of abject poverty in Africa, we see that they are just like us. They have the same goals and aspirations as we do, and they are driven by the same emotions as we are. They are humans too and we tend to look past this in all of our backwards analyses of the continent.”


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