I kept a blog during my time in Peace Corps. I will start this post with one of the entries from that era, which I wrote in January 2016.
This is a blog post I have been putting off writing until the end of my service, when I had the most insight and experiences with the broken system that is education in Senegal. It’s a difficult subject to broach and even now I certainly don’t know everything about it. What follows is merely what I have witnessed and experienced in the last 22 months, in the Koumpentoum Department of Senegal.
As a brief explanation of the system, children between the ages of 7 and 12 (give or take) go to elementary school. In my area of Senegal, these are the only schools that are deep in the bush. My village has one. Between the ages of 12 and 16 (again, give or take) the kids go to middle school. These are located in larger towns that are attached to roads, whether they be paved or dirt. For example, there are many middle schools in the bush but are all in larger towns on dirt roads. From the ages of 16 until whenever, the kids go to high school. These are only located in towns on the paved road.
I’ll get back to the age variations in a minute.
In my village, and in Senegal, and hell, in Africa, there are a lot of children. 25% of my village is under the age of 5. Yes, a full quarter of the humanity in my village is that young. Between advances in health and a cultural idea that people must bear Allah as many children as they can, this percentage is only bound to increase in the years to come. Projections say that by 2050, 50% of the world’s population will be in Africa. This population explosion is a bit terrifying, but that is not what this blog is about.
I’m not sure what percentage of my village are elementary school-aged kids, but I’d guess around 20%. Let’s go with that. Of those 200ish kids, 70ish of them go to the elementary school in the village, most of them boys. Girls are not prioritized, as they are expected to grow up to become mothers and homemakers. In fact, from my village only one girl is currently enrolled in a school higher than elementary (my host sister, way to go host family!). My best friend in village has seven children, six of whom are boys. The boys all go to school (though the oldest dropped out after elementary school and I very much expect the others to do the same) while the girl stays home and does chores. This is very normal.
The schools are taught in French. However, guess what language the kids don’t speak? French! This is an easy litmus test to tell how much education somebody has had – what is their level of French? Somebody who speaks a little probably at least went to middle school, while people who are fluent went to high school. But when they’re in elementary school they aren’t learning anything in any subject because they have no idea what’s being said to them. This, unsurprisingly, discourages those few kids that actually go to school from continuing their studies, and very few adults really care whether or not their kids are in school aka if the kids choose to drop out, nothing is stopping them. Most kids leave school by the time middle school rolls around. The fact that middle schools are often far away from home doesn’t help – my village’s middle school is 15 kilometers away, which means the kids have to find a homestay in that town or they can’t continue their studies. And then high school is even harder, logistically - ours is 25 km away, so again kids have to find a homestay.
The ages of students vary greatly because, unlike in the the West, there isn’t an enforced age for beginning school. Some kids start at 5, some start at 9. (I think the technical age for beginning school is 7). They have to pass each grade before moving up and a lot of kids fail and have to try again, or drop out of school for a year or two, so that by the time middle school rolls around, the ages varying from 11 to 18. High schoolers are oftentimes in their lower 20s.
In order to graduate from high school, students have to take the Baccalaureate exam. I don’t know the exact percentage, but I’ve heard rumors that only about 30% of students pass in any given year. So of the students who actually got through all the other trials that the system throws their way, most won’t actually pass the final exam. I’ve taken a look at this test, and it is insane. Senegalese high school graduates are way more educated than American high school graduates. Each subject has a different test and they are very intense. The English language exam I looked at had used an article about...housing liquidation. The “fill in the blank” questions were asking for very specific answers about the subject of foreclosures and economic bubbles. All in English. And it was the same level of difficulty across all subjects.
On top of all this, classrooms are often over-crowded and stiflingly hot. The elementary school in my village has one room, 70 kids, and one teacher. There used to be two teachers but one couldn’t stand living the isolated life the bush requires and quit right after I arrived in the village and has yet to be replaced. Most teachers come from the Dakar area, as that region has the highest levels of education. And speaking of Dakar's education levels, Senegal actually comes up on world education websites as doing well because the organizations pull their information from the Dakar area (also, the Senegalese government definitely fudges the information it feeds them). Here is UNICEF’s information for Senegal.
And let me tell you what: nope nope nope nope nope. The literacy rates claimed here actually made me laugh out loud in a sardonic kind of way.
The system doesn’t work but I have no idea how to fix it. I have given so much thought to the French language issue in elementary school but I can’t think of a way to solve that – Wolof, Pulaar, Mandinka, etc aren’t used elsewhere. If Senegal wants to advance its place in the world, its citizens need to be able to speak a “developed world language”. More girls need to be enrolled but until the gender roles become a bit less firm, it is going to be difficult to convince bush families to send their daughters to school when they are needed at home. Most girls are married by the time they are 16 anyways, and begin having babies immediately. School isn’t necessary for that life. The BAC needs to be re-done to help more students graduate and be able to go to college. Etc etc etc…
Anyways, that’s the situation.
Back to October 2018.
Teachers were some of my best work partners in Senegal. No, scratch that, they were by far the best work partners. They had the enthusiasm that nobody else did. My "official" work partners were the health workers in Velingara Koto, but they weren't actual health workers, merely village volunteers who had answered the call when the regional medical center asked for someone. To give them credit, they did what they were asked to do. But they did not do a single thing more. Whenever I proposed projects, they were in full support but never helped. The teachers, meanwhile, would not only approach me with project ideas but would always help me whenever I approached them. Thus, a lot of my projects involved schools, at all three levels.
Velingara Koto Primary School
Like I said above, my village had one elementary school that had about 70 students in it's one room. Mr. Goudiabe was the teacher, and he was one of my best friends in Senegal. He was easily the most educated person who lived in the village, and had the best understanding of the rest of the world aka he was who I could talk to about worldy things.
He was also a wonderful teacher, and often spoke to the students in Mandinka because he knew they didn't speak French. I don't know how common that is, as Velingara Koto's primary school was the only one I worked with. I do know that if the national government knew he did that, there might be trouble because the rule is that the teachers speak French, but...who knows. Maybe it's normal. I hope it is.
In the above photo, he was explaining how the supplies I had just given the classroom were to work. The American government had a few hundred backpacks with school supplies, leftover from something they had done in Dakar, and they gave them to Peace Corps to distribute. I normally don't like the handout version of development aid, but I still agreed to take about 25 backpacks to village. I decided that they would only go to girls, but that the chalkboards and protractors inside should be actual classroom supplies. The girls just needed the bags themselves. So he explained this all to the kids, before deciding which girls would be the lucky 25.
I loved working with Mr. Goudiabe. We were perfect work partners. We both knew what the other wanted to say, and we would always tag-team our presentations. I discuss in my sanitation blog one of the main projects that I did with the school. Another one I did was with Todd, the closest Peace Corps worker to me (at less than two miles, or three km). Todd was an agriculture worker, while I was a health worker, so we often came together to fuse the two topics.
At the health clinic in the village, I wanted to establish a community garden. And with that, I also wanted a compost pile in order to help the soil in the Senegalese desert. Todd came over, and Mr. Goudiabe brought over 20ish of the boys after school (only boys came because the girls had to go home and help prepare lunch). While they had been in class, Todd and I had procured a wheelbarrow, several shovels, and a pick. We told the boys that we needed a lot of both dry and wet nutrients, and sent a few of them off with the wheelbarrow to find dung and dry leaves. The rest, with Mr. Goudiabe and Todd, began to dig the hole. This is notable because most teachers wouldn't assist the students, or might for one shovel-full and then go sit in the shade. Where I absolutely was.
Once the others returned, we threw the nutrients into the hole and then called it a day. After that day, the kids didn't help with the compost or garden anymore (and by garden, I should say "garden" because I do not have a green thumb and was never able to get the thing off the ground). But Mr. Goudiabe diligently helped Todd and I with the compost until I finally called the garden project off. He tried to get the kids to help, but there's only so interesting a compost pile and failed garden can be, so I don't blame them for choosing to play soccer instead. Hopefully they remembered our nutrition discussions, anyways!
Maleme Niani and Khoutiaba Middle Schools
In opposite fashion to America, I preferred working with Senegalese middle school students than any other age. At this age, the kids who were still at school could all speak some French, and thus were able to actually learn in school rather than stare blankly.
As I was a health worker, focused mainly on malaria, most of my work with the two middle schools near me were on the parasite. Maleme Niani, where kids from my village went to middle school, was 9 miles (15 km) away, while Khoutiaba was a 18.6 mile (30 km) trek. If I was working with Maleme Niani, I made day trips out of it, while when I went to Khoutiaba I stayed overnight with Carly, the American who lived there (seen in the above photo, in the purple top).
Speaking of the above photo and malaria, this was a snapshot from a Grassroots Soccer program I conducted, which was my main middle school project. Grassroots Soccer is a really cool, two-day program based out of South Africa that uses soccer to teach kids about various topics. I, along with Todd and sometimes other Peace Corps workers, would arrive at the schools with the balls (soccer and otherwise) and various other props, including a mosquito net and several bedsheets that were also meant to represent nets because I only had the one extra net. Students would pretend to be mosquitos, or would pretend the ball was a mosquito. One of the more popular games we played is pictured below - the students used the bedsheets to toss the mosquito into the air, and then all rush under the net in order to protect themselves from the disease.
These programs were also learning opportunities for me. I remember one time in Maleme Niani, I asked the students who amongst them had had malaria. They all stared blankly back at me. Thinking I must have said it poorly in French, I struggled to figure out how to re-word it when the teacher slowly said, "what do you mean? Everyone has had malaria."
For Westerners, we think of malaria as an exotic disease, but for them it's the equivalent of the flu. Everyone has had it, multiple times, and because they usually survive, they don't take the proper precautions, in the same way that we don't always wash our hands right before we eat during the height of flu season. Sure, tens of thousands of people die in America alone every flu season, but not us so we think it's fine. It's the same in Senegal with malaria. Thus, the scare tactics that work on westerners to convince them to take precautions don't work there, and the teacher explaining that everyone has had malaria was a reminder of that. They don't think of it as the scary, exotic disease that I do. But hopefully, tossing balls into the air with bedsheets got at least one student to convince his family to use their mosquito nets.
Koumpentoum High School English Classes and Club
This is Mr. Diakaté and he was the main English teacher at the high school in Koumpentoum, the capital of the department my village was in. It was the only high school for 47 miles (76 km), and was the high school students from my village went to (if they made it to high school, which was rare. As I've said again and again, most children drop out early, if they go to school at all). In Koumpentoum, I almost always worked with the English classes rather than speak French. This way, not only did the health message get discussed but the students were able to take advantage of the whole "there's a native English speaker here" thing.
I was amazed at how good some of the students were at the language. Many weren't tremendously good, of course, but a few stood out. One in particular (who is not featured in this picture of students who were clearly pumped to be spending a Saturday morning talking about soap) was fluent; he knew every idiom, every word that I maybe use twice a year. It was crazy, but it goes back to the BAC they have to pass in order to graduate. He had to be that good in order to finish high school.
I would also sometimes work with the English clubs, though that was almost always purely as an assistant to their English skills rather than pushing my health agenda on them. For an example as to a typical evening with the English Club (as it was held every other Saturday at 6), see my 90 Minutes from Electricity post.