Former Ann Arbor resident partners with people of Cameroon to develop preschools
Five years ago, Ann Arbor native Sarah Strader founded the nonprofit Two Rabbits with a mission to bring culturally adapted education to children in the remote forests of Africa. “Our goal is putting people in the lead so they can do amazing things for themselves,” Strader said of her work.
An impossible choice for parents
Strader lives and works among the Baka people of Cameroon, partnering with the indigenous group of hunter-gatherers to develop community preschools that combine the forest and the classroom while celebrating the richness of their culture and traditions. Early on, a Baka father explained to Strader the “impossible choice” Baka parents face: Baka children today need to learn forest-based skills for survival, as well as school-based skills to engage with the outside world. He said that “they are both vital, but they are like two rabbits running in opposite directions. If you try to chase them both, you lose them both,” the father explained to Strader.
Strader explained that the Baka are capable and knowledgeable about the forest, yet 80 percent of the adults self-identify as illiterate. Children face many barriers to formal schooling, including that they don’t speak the French language taught in schools. Because of their lack of formal education, the Baka people find themselves marginalized by society, excluded from the educational system and unable to participate in decisions that affect the forests that surround them and their very way of life.
“Their forest is rapidly disappearing around them, and a lot of them worry that the forest won’t be there in the future,” Strader said. “Some want to prepare their children for a life without the forest, while others say they need to do everything they can to protect the forests for everyone.”
Preschools for Cameroon’s Baka
To address these needs, Strader works on an ongoing basis with Baka community members and local Cameroonian nonprofit ASTRADHE to create a curriculum in the Baka language and musical style that honors the rich oral traditions already ingrained in the community. The curriculum is similar to Sesame Street, using stories, songs and games to teach basic literacy skills to young children. They learn math, letters, sensory skills, drawing and social skills in their Baka language and also learn French through stories, games and other activities to prepare them for primary school.
Two Rabbits then works with community members to record the curriculum in audio form onto crank-powered mp3 players and train community teachers to use the audio lessons as a guide to delivering rich early learning activities.
Blending forest and classroom
Strader’s interest in early childhood education and social justice issues was sparked when she was a student at Pioneer High School. She traveled to Ghana through the AFSinternational student exchange program, and, later in college, went to Cameroon through a study abroad program.
Before starting Two Rabbits, Strader lived among the Baka people of Cameroon as part of a year-long Fulbright research grant. She said she was constantly in awe of the skills of her Baka hosts in their forest home. One day, she watched 4-year-old Buba catch a spined fish with her bare hands. To the Baka people, these forest skills are vital to their people’s survival, culture and way of life.
For Strader’s part, she started Two Rabbits because she wanted to help those families “catch both rabbits” by helping them balance a classroom-based education that respects and preserves the traditions and teachings of their forest-based way of life.
“It is not just about making sure kids are ready for school and know their letters and numbers,” Strader said, “but also to make sure they are proud of their culture and they have the opportunity to pursue forest-based learning too.”
Cultural exchange possibilities
The Two Rabbits program has seen success, having expanded from two pilot classrooms to 20 centers, reaching more than 1400 children to date. Beyond empowering the Baka people to take the lead in educating their children and advocating for themselves, Strader also wants to foster understanding through a Cultural Exchange Partnership between Ann Arbor area children and those in Cameroon. She hopes to engage Ann Arbor area schools, churches and other child-focused organizations in sharing stories, photos and ideas with one another about their lives.
“Person to person connection—I think that’s how we’re going to overcome a lot of the challenges we face today. That’s how we’re going to create a more equitable world: by connecting and caring about other people.”
To learn more about Sarah Strader’s work with Two Rabbits and the Cultural Exchange Partnership, go to chasingtworabbits.org or contact Two Rabbits at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Q&A with Sarah Strader
When you are back in town, where is one “must-go” place for you? Washtenaw Dairy.
If you talk to the families in Africa about your hometown Ann Arbor, what would you share as its best attribute? We have four perfect seasons: sunny summers, bright falls, snowy winters, and flowery springs.
Best part of living in Cameroon? I love spending so much time in nature! The forest is beautiful.
What is the most surprising thing you have seen or done while in Cameroon? Somehow my favorite food has become a white forest grub. Yum!