By Monica Chapman
Childhood. In Western culture, the word conjures up images of youngsters climbing trees and flying kites. But in Africa, childhood can be illusive, even nonexistent, because of the snowballing social and economic issues that plague the continent.
In far too many cases, childhood in Africa is simply a time for survival. In fact, 15 percent of children in Sub-Saharan Africa don't survive to celebrate their fifth birthdays.
The statistics are sobering.
According to The State of the World's Children 2009 report by UNICEF, 28 percent of Sub-Saharan Africa's children under the age of 5 are moderately or severely underweight, and 1.8 million children under 15 are infected with HIV/AIDS. Of the region's 376 million children, 47.5 million are orphans -- a number predicted to increase because of the AIDS epidemic.
Issues of poverty, disease, political unrest, violence, illiteracy, sanitation and environmental degradation further complicate matters.
"Children have many roles within all of these situations, and there isn't one prescription that will remedy all of it for a continent. That's just impossible," observes Andria Sherrow, assistant director of Ohio University's Institute for the African Child. "The only remedy is to understand how children are perceived within the culture that they live in. You have to understand that to change policy."
It was this thinking that led Ohio University to create the institute in 1999.
Director of African Studies Steve Howard conceived the idea for the institute as a way to revive the field of African studies and provide an angle that "counterbalances negativity with a natural futuristic slant." Oddly, no other academic institute was focusing on Africa's children, and to date, it remains the only one of its kind in the world.
"It's a sophisticated differentiation of ours as a program and one of the features that attracts students here," says Howard, who serves as the institute's director. "We have mounted conferences and teaching in areas that no one else is teaching about."
Dialogue across disciplines is key to the institute's operations. Currently, faculty members in six colleges at Ohio University are affiliated with the Institute for the African Child through the research or advocacy work. Through a series of courses, conferences and seminars, the institute attempts to engage an even wider audience on subjects relating to African children.
"This is a topic on which everyone is an expert," Howard often tells his students. "After all, you all used to be children."
That notion -- of applying a universal lens to an increasingly complicated issue -- is a simple, yet effective one, Howard says. In the case of Africa's children, common understanding and concern opens the door for wider conversations on the issues of African women, families, communities and states. The result, he notes, is "endlessly fascinating conversation" that he believes will one day lead to solutions.
As the Institute for the African Child celebrates its 10th anniversary, several new initiatives are under way.
This fall, the institute plans to publish the first issue of an online academic journal dedicated to African children's issues. Sherrow says the biannual publication -- Childhood in Africa: An Interdisciplinary Journal -- will feature a combination of scholarly articles and success stories by grassroots workers in the field.
For the first time, a fair featuring representatives of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) will punctuate the institute's annual conference, which begins Thursday on the Athens campus. The fair will give Ohio University students avenues for volunteer involvement with such groups as Firelight Foundation, Heifer International, Catholic Relief Services, UNICEF, The Empower Campaign, HEDA Resource Centre and Zienzele Foundation.
Sherrow says the degree of the NGOs' participation points to Ohio University's strength in the field of African studies.
"Some are coming simply because they know our students are well-prepared and have the background in African studies and working with children in Africa," she says.
Ohio University's African Studies Program is one of 10 National Resources Centers for Africa in the United States. The designation from the U.S. Department of Education puts the university in the company of Boston University and Yale, among others, as a leader in African area studies and language instruction. Ohio University offers instruction in eight African languages and is the only institution to regularly teach Tigrinya and Sudanese Arabic.
If Sherrow has her way, the quality of the university's African Studies Program also will pave the way for future partnerships between NGOs and the Institute for the African Child, allowing the institute to be more involved on the ground in Africa.
Howard's ultimate dream is for a major research institution in Africa to partner with Ohio University on behalf of Africa's children. For now, he is focusing his attention closer to home.
"It's tough under these grim economic circumstances at home to try to raise the profile of this problem. But things haven't changed for the children of Africa. Things have always been pretty bad," he says. "Opportunities to come together and talk about these issues are critically important."