Mission KidMin: The Donated-Curriculum Connondrum

“We have some used children’s curriculum we would like to donate to Africa. How can we get it to you?”

It’s a question we receive on a regular basis and to be honest, it’s a hard one for us to know how to respond to.

We are so excited that you want to help. The lack of curriculum and resources is one of the three most common challenges churches here struggle with, and we appreciate that you are willing to spend money and make the effort to ship us your materials.

So how do we  let you know that your materials would be better donated somewhere else without punching your compassion in the throat?

The answer, I think, is to show you.

three reasons why U.S. Curriculum doesn’t usually work in Africa

1. Language

Your curriculum is probably written in English. This is a problem in some countries in Africa for the simple reason that English is not spoken. Africa is home to somewhere between 1/3 to 1/2 of the world’s languages, with even small nations like Togo recording 40 or more languages. Many countries have adopted a foreign language as their official language, the three primary being French, Portuguese, and English, but even those three don’t cover all of Africa.

In the nations where English is the official language, it is often people’s second or third language. Children may not learn to speak it until they attend school. Adult teachers will have to read the curriculum in English and translate it into the local language to teach it. And in some places, such as Liberia, the English spoken is so different that even the teachers would struggle to read a curriculum written in American English.

Still, there are plenty of places places in Africa where an English curriculum would be usable in terms of language. In fact, English is one of the primary languages in which we try to make materials available. But language isn’t the only issue.

Official Languages of Africa: The map is a bit oversimplified as many countries have multiple official languages.

Official Languages of Africa: The map is a bit oversimplified as many countries have multiple official languages.

2. Resources

When we first arrived in Cote d’Ivoire in 2001, we visited a local church that was asking for help with their children’s ministries. They were using a donated curriculum from the US that someone had translated into French for them.

We opened it to the first lesson- Creation.

Opening Activity: Attach a large sheet of paper to the wall. As children enter the class, give children crayons and have them draw a mural of all the things God created.

We looked around at the classroom space. A concrete floor, wood supports, a corrugated tin roof. No walls.

Even if they had walls, they had no crayons. Colored pencils were available but the cost was out of reach. The church had no budget for children’s ministries and the teachers couldn’t afford to donate them. Even the cost of the paper was out of reach.

Lesson Introduction: You will need to black out the windows before class. Seat children in a circle and turn the lights on and off. Talk about how God separated the light from the darkness.

No windows to black out. No electricity. Even seating children in a circle is problematic because there will be over 150 children in this 15′ x 15′ space on Sunday morning. They will be crowded so tightly on the benches that the children on the end will fall off.

The lessons continued, item by item, with very few ideas that could reasonably be done in this setting. At some point, their curriculum was just irrelevant because most of the ideas wouldn’t work as written. They just didn’t have the right resources.

The slideshow below highlights conditions in various Children’s church/ Sunday schools in West Africa.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

3. Cultural Appropriateness

Anybody who has worked in KidMin for a while is familiar with the term “age-appropriate.” It refers to adapting content and teaching methods to correspond to the age of the child. But did you know there is such a thing as “culturally-appropriate” too?

American curriculum is full of cultural imagery and references. For example, one lesson refers to a fisherman character. He wears waders, a utility vest and a big floppy hat. He carries a fishing pole and makes puns about the Bass Pro Shop.

Children here don’t understand any of this. A fisherman here goes out on a lake or on the ocean in a wooden boat and uses a net. He’s often dressed in nothing but a pair of shorts. Bass Pro Shop? What is that?

Superheros, spies, science laboratories, the circus, adventure sports– All themes that most children here would not relate to at all. Don’t even get me started on Pirates.

Setting aside the cute themes, let’s just talk about a curriculum’s application to children’s lives. The issues that children in America deal with are very different than those that African children deal with. There is overlap to be sure- some issues are common to all of mankind. But rarely does an American curriculum deal with trusting God in the midst of Ebola outbreaks or war. Rarely do they address the issues of children who are kicked out of their home onto the streets because a new step-parent doesn’t want them there, or with children accused of witchcraft, or children converted out of Islamic families.

I’m not saying that every child in Africa deals with such extreme circumstances. Even in less extreme circumstances, a US curriculum is much less likely to deal with food insecurity or how to witness to your Muslim friend.

American curriculum, written for American kids, just isn’t culturally-appropriate.

The Result:

If we try to fit this sort of square peg into a round hole, if we give a teacher a curriculum imported from the US, knowing it isn’t designed for her situation,  one of two things will happen-

  1. The teacher will conclude that in order to do children’s ministry, she must have walls, electricity, crayons, paper, glue, puppets, a projector.  If she cannot get these things, or the missionary cannot purchase them for her, she cannot do children’s ministry.

2. Or, she will just set the curriculum aside and not use it.

This is not a projection or a guess on our part of what may happen. This does happen. We’ve seen it. Either way, the investment of  purchasing a western curriculum, or of shipping donated curriculum here, is wasted.

The slideshow below is a real-life example of an American curriculum, with notes about what can and can’t be done in our local churches and why. *Note: The curriculum pictured is the Gospel Project, ©LifeWay 2016. The curriculum is well-received and popular in the US and this slideshow is in no way intended to disparage the materials. It is simply to highlight the difficulty in using them here in West Africa. 

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

what you are probably thinking:

Let’s keep the conversation going. If you have read this far, you are probably still interested. I can guess what you are thinking because its what I would have been thinking.

Isn’t something better than nothing? An experienced teacher could adapt activities to their situation when they don’t work. 
That is true. And “experienced” is the key word. Few teachers here have  worked with creative teaching methods. They weren’t taught themselves using creative teaching methods.  They have no frame of reference. They aren’t ready to adapt. So what happens? Either item 1, or item 2, above.

We can provide the paper, the craft supplies, and the puppets as well. 

Thank you for your generous heart! I don’t want to be a jerk, but let me ask this question. Can you provide those things to all the churches? If you provide them to one church, another may conclude that they also need those things in order to do children’s ministry. Since they can’t get them, they can’t do children’s ministry. Is that the message we are trying to send?

We’ve donated before and the national people are always happy to receive it. 

Yes, they are. You are offering to help them and they need help. They may not yet realize that the materials you are sending them won’t work. Even if they do, their culture will not allow them to turn you down. It would be very rude to say “no,” to an offer of help, so they say “yes,” even if it won’t help them.

I’m not saying there is not a place in the world for donated curriculum. Even if Africa, there are a few isolated places where the conditions might be right for donated materials to be reused. But those places are few and far-between.

So now that I’ve trampled all over your good intentions, let’s look at the alternatives. What is the solution? What is the better way?





4 thoughts on “Mission KidMin: The Donated-Curriculum Connondrum

  1. Connie Malcolm says:

    Very informative article! We often assume everywhere is what we have grown up with, what we are surrounded by. In my very limited experience with children in the mountains of Guatemala I know children’s workers face some of the same issues when trying to teach Bible lessons.


  2. chris ness says:

    Phil you are such a jerk to people with generous hearts. Just kidding. When we were in Zambia one church wanted me to come and train them how to use the curriculum from the west (can’t remember where from). Another time a bunch of used curriculum from GPH made its way to Zambia. I simply went through it and pulled out all of the flannel graph and made little kits for local churches. Flannel graph, a story telling method probably considered outdated in the US. I still think someone can make a story come alive, even using flannel graph, if they are a creative story teller. My experience has been, people are generous and have good intentions. It is hard for me to not accept resources, bit is easier to honestly decline when it is going to cost getting non-relevant resources to Africa.


    • Malcolms in Africa says:

      Hi Chris! Thanks for reading and commenting. It’s actually Robin- I write the blogs.
      I appreciate your input. I think you hit on one of my main points from a different angle. It takes an experienced and creative person to use materials that aren’t culturally appropriate. Most of our teachers aren’t at that level.

      I’m glad you were able to find something that was usable.

      As I said, there are places in Africa where the materials can be used.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s