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Lesson Learned

The road to “D’oh!” is paved with good intentions

Author James Michael Dorsey Illustration Marc Rosenthal


WEST AFRICA – While on a photography assignment in West Africa recently, I learned that many local schoolchildren write their lessons on wooden tablets. In remote villages, paper and pens are almost nonexistent, so while this ancient medium isn’t ideal, there really is no alternative.

The tablets are hand-hewn, about the size of a legal pad, and many have a small handle at the end. Often passed down through generations, they have historic and personal meaning. Ink is made by mixing ashes from the evening fire with a little water and mud. A feather or twig serves as a pen. When school is over, the tablet is rinsed in a river or well, and it’s ready to go the following day.

On my next visit to the region, moved by the children’s plight, I filled my bags with paper pads and ink pens, and at the first village I visited I distributed them to a cluster of giggling kids, who seemed delighted with their new school supplies. I went to bed that night feeling good about myself.

The next morning, I was woken by an urgent banging on my door. Outside stood the local schoolteacher. The pads I’d handed out, he told me, had been used as kindling for the evening fire. As for the pens, the children had used those to scribble on their tablets, and also on themselves. In one fell swoop I had destroyed their learning tools and their family heirlooms.

I spent the day sitting by the river-bank, scrubbing 18 wooden tablets with pumice, rethinking my role as a philanthropist.



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