Oxfam in West Africa
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Education, peace, food and water: A mosaic of tales from Niger – Part 1

March 17th, 2012 Posted in Uncategorized

By Muyatwa Sitali, Advocacy Coordinator Essential Services

As I prepare to leave Niger later today, I reflect on the 10 days I have spent in this country full of wonderful people. Images of what I have seen and experienced fly through my mind. When I try to put all together, a mosaic is formed that is not easy to define or classify in a dual sense of good or bad. Like everywhere, the picture is always mixed but some things remain profound.


Children in rural class

Firstly, the sight of the 125 pupils in that rural class that should be taught by one teacher remains a scene of profound impression. Just how will she effectively teach them all so they can effectively learn? I am sure she teaches every day but am not sure there is any serious learning and education going on. She is one of a group of 10 teachers that have to provide a meaningful education to over 440 children. By normal standards, her class alone should be handled by 5 teachers as the recommended ratio is 25 pupils to a teacher. But the number of these students is rising rapidly due to the continued fighting in the Northern region of Mali that is sending scores of refugees every day.

As I leave the ‘Mega’ class, I encounter two girls, both possibly below 13 years of age. They are full of smiles and excited but at the same time seem uneasy. Excited and full of smiles because at long last their families have reached the refugee camp and the long walk to peace is over at least for now. They have walked dozens of miles from Mali to finally settle in this refugee camp just about 500metres from the school and now there is a real chance they can continue with their studies. They are uneasy because their fate concerning registration at this school hangs in the balance. They have just been told to wait as discussions are going on about which class they can join and whether one of them, the older one, will have a class equivalent to her level because apparently the curriculum in Mali and Niger differs when you get to grade 4 even though you end up writing the same West Africa Exams (WAEC).  I am more than certain they will be registered as there are 30 others in their situation who have already been assimilated into the school but like them, I am uneasy about the quality of education they will receive. I smile back to at least to show am happy they will finally be getting ‘some’ education even though ‘some’ is not what they may be hoping for. In my heart am deeply concerned that the facilities at this school are very inadequate.

In a meeting later, the headmaster lists the challenges the school is facing, the list is endless and all very important. I can’t help but wonder how he can choose which is more important because to me, they all seem very important. He has only 10 teachers including himself. The celebration in my mind about the fact that most of them are females does not last long as he quickly brings back the point that these 10 have to handle more than 440 students and this number is rising. Crude mathematics would show that at least you would have 44 children to a teacher but obviously education mathematics doesn’t work that way as class load depends on a number of things, grades and age being some of them —this is why the number of pupils in a class at this school can range from anywhere between 35 to 125. The standard is 25 pupils to a teacher and this is not easy to come by at this school. So am not surprised when he stresses the lack of teachers as a problem but he also adds that these teachers have sometimes to travel long distances to get their salaries and sometimes they have to wait for up to 2-3 weeks for their salaries to be ready and during this time, they would be in the city awaiting for the salary as it would be too costly to make the trek back home and have to come back to the city again.

He later adds school equipment, class room space, desks and text books among others. Later he takes time to discuss the lack of a school canteen for children. This proves to be a significant area of discussion especially given the looming food crisis that may affect up to 13 million in several countries in West Africa. At this school, the headmaster notes that a number of children have had to leave school for a number of reasons, some due to early pregnancies but he insists lack of food at family level and at school is a key factor in this case. He explains that same families would rather keep their children at home so they can help fend for food or take part in some local income generating activities than send them for long distances to a school where they will come back more hungry than when they left. This is confirmed by one of the parents who takes part in a later discussion.

I am struck by how this parent makes his point.  He stands up to go out for the mid day prayers and he seems set to continue without interruption had one of the parents not chosen to be more diplomatic in presenting the problems facing the school management team. As he walks out seemingly unconcerned about the discussion he is leaving behind, he suddenly stops at the door, u-turns and tells the parent who is speaking to hammer the nail on its head and not bit about the bush. He emphatically says the problem facing us is that, we have not had a good harvest. ‘I only harvested 20% of my normal harvest this last season and the next harvest is not until September’ he explains. There has been a drought in this place and the community has been badly affected. Then he storms out but he has made his point and soon we have to close because it is prayer time but a fundamental point has been made; Sort out school feeding programme and it will be much easier to guarantee continued education. More impressive was that these families committed to start this programme themselves as it was more important for them to mobilise themselves and they see the solution as internal than external.  

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