Take a moment and think back to junior high school. Classrooms without lighting, one dictionary for the entire school and so few desks that half the students had to sit on the floor.
Doesn’t sound familiar? While American schools may have their shortcomings, schools in rural Zambia are desperate for the most basic amenities: simple classrooms for students whose daily walk to school may exceed five miles — each way.
Enter Erinn McGurn, M. Arch ’98, a Brooklyn-based architect. During a tour of Chiutika, a crumbling, four-room school in Mfuwe, Zambia, where students sat on bricks in dark, hot classrooms, McGurn and her husband, Guy Baron, were struck by the students’ desire to learn and willingness to withstand inhumane conditions to get an education. As they were standing in the dusty courtyard, the head teacher turned to McGurn and said, “What we really need is a library.” Her mind leapt to how she could possibly build from 7,000 miles away. The teacher continued, “Well, what we really need is a dictionary.” One dictionary for 1,000 students.
The visit inspired the couple to create SCALEAfrica, a nonprofit whose mission is to design and build effective and sustainable schools in this impoverished village and, someday, throughout sub-Saharan Africa.
“Only once we were in the thick of construction on that first project did the reasons for building schools really hit us,” McGurn says. “It was an eye-opening process spending time in rural Zambia talking to kids, parents and teachers about their realities and their hopes.”
Over time they saw their projects make dramatic impact. The buildings been designed to maximize light, air and scarce local resources, making for more effective learning spaces. And the projects themselves have created jobs and bolstered the local, struggling economy.
To help them further their reach, McGurn and Baron looked to their friend Paul Stekler, chairman of the university’s Radio, Television, Film Department, to create an authentic portrayal of students and teachers at Chiutika. Over a seven-day period in June 2011, Stekler and his team — including RTF lecturer Miguel Alvarez, who worked on two of the RTF Department’s LA Showcase films, “Kid” and “Mnemosyne Rising,” and cinematographer Iskra Valtcheva, who shot the Student Academy Award-winning film,“Fatakra” by UT grad Soham Mehta — traveled to Mfuwe and overcame the challenges of shooting in a remote area with limited access to electricity, nearly impassable roads and cultural sensitivities to being filmed.
They built a story around Mercy and Beauty Banda, two sisters in the ninth grade with dreams of professional careers. “Most rural girls never get the chance to attend school. They are kept at home to cart water, cultivate fields and care for family members,” McGurn says. “Those that do are often pulled out after fifth grade when their continued public education requires parents to pay insurmountable school fees. Instead, many young girls are expected to marry and command a dowry, sometimes before they reach puberty.”
More than anything the film had to give voice to those most deeply affected by poverty, the girls.
“The film has been a remarkable opportunity to share their story, but also to drive home the commonalities we all share: the desire to be educated, to be safe, to have opportunity,” McGurn continues. “This collaboration with UT RTF has truly helped SCALEAfrica reinforce that just building something isn’t enough. Through film, we’ve demonstrated that well-designed schools are critical to student’s learning, effective teaching, and in the end, to securing a future for the whole community.”