Disclaimer: This blog does not reflect the opinions and policies of the Peace Corps, the University of South Florida (USF), the U.S. government, or the government of Mali

Thursday, October 18, 2012

What Mali Has Taught Me About Education

A month into the school year in Mali, I have decided to devout a post to education in Mali and its importance in general to development. I came to Mali, a water and sanitation volunteer, and my undergrad was in Civil Engineering. In the five sectors in PC Mali (education, environment, health, small enterprise development and water and sanitation) there was always a friendly competition of which was the “best” sector or most needed. Of course volunteers in each sector think that they are more important to development than the others, but as you go through your service you realize the importance of each sector to development. One sector that I realized the importance of that I have taken for granted in my own life is Education.


At first I thought, well how can you study if you don’t have clean water to drink or you are sick since you lack proper sanitation and don’t wash your hands with soap? This is true but how can you maintain a pump when you have had no education on how to repair it? Even if you are taught how to repair a pump, it is a lot different teaching people who are illiterate and cannot write down all the parts of the pump and, thus, have to memorize all the parts and their function. It is also difficult for the water and sanitation committee to manage the funds collected to maintain the pump with limited people who can write who paid money and how much money they have in the bank. The list of examples goes on, but in the end, work in water and sanitation or any sector for that matter would be a whole lot easier if more people were educated, even just being able to read and write.

I have really come to cherish something so simple as being able to read and write, something I have really taken for granted, as a given really since most everyone in the U.S. knows how to read and write. But here in rural Mali, those people are few and cherished. They are often overwhelmed with having to write for all the committees that NGOs have formed in the village. When I am writing on flip chart paper at meetings women marvel that I can write in Bambara, a language I just learned these past several years and that they have been speaking their whole lives. Even those that can write always are surprised by how “fast” I can write. Even school children read and write painstakingly slow. It is because even though they study in school afterwards they don’t practice; few do their homework, libraries are few and far between not to mention computers and the internet. Some of my best memories are going with my Nana to the bookstore and choosing from the thousands of books. I can’t imagine a childhood without reading though that is a privilege of few in the world.


Now that I have elaborated on how Mali has taught me the importance of education in development, I’ll move to the education system in Mali. Honestly, sometimes when I think about all the things that need to be done to improve the education system in Mali, I find it hopeless. Even if your village is lucky to have a school with some teachers, those teachers are probably under qualified (can’t even speak the national language, French, that they are supposed to be teaching in) or have a low work ethic. With rare monitoring of teachers, some will spend a whole day drinking tea under a mango tree or go off to Bamako while their students sit in class waiting for them to write something on the chalk board for them to copy down. This is ofcourse not to say that there are not good teachers in Mali, but from my experiences they are the exception to the rule.

The teachers aside, and I don’t think I can even go into the government, but parents who often have not studied themselves can’t help their kids with their homework and often do not ensure that their kids are doing their homework or getting good grades. Before I mostly found fault in the parents, government, and teachers but there are problems with the students themselves though much of it would be helped if some if not all those three were working correctly. This year, two kids in the families I have become close to (Fatomata and Wuye), both in primary school, decided, themselves, to stop going to school. Their parents tried to force them to go to school by dropping them off but they would return home or hide. I even tried to talk to the young girl, Fatomata, who would have to repeat fifth grade. I told her she would regret not going to school later in life, but she would not even talk to me. I have heard many similar stories in village this year. Many parents are discouraged that they buy school supplies and pay fees but their kids to not take education seriously and do not know anything. I tell them to have patience and to monitor their children’s progress in school but often with so many in the household and not being educated themselves, this is difficult.

The secondary school, in a village over 4 miles away, is a whole other matter. The parents must purchase expensive bikes for their kids to bike to and from school often twice in the day to come home for lunch and go back. I bike there myself once a week to go to market and it is a hilly ride and extremely hot during the hot season from March-June. Those that don’t bike back, often go hungry since their parents don’t have money to give them to buy lunch and food here is difficult to pack “boxed” lunch. They can rarely afford bread, let alone peanut butter and jelly.  

With the school being so far away and not being an enclosed compound, it is very easy for students to skip school. Attendance records are not well kept by teachers and even if they are, there is no phone call home of “why hasn’t your child come to school for the past week?” and the parents see them leave and come back everyday so they assume there are going to class.

In all this I have not touched on girls education. My host father in the neighboring village said that boys study more than girls and perform better in school. He is trying to send his daughters to school but they are not performing well so why should he not just keep them at home instead? He said all the girls that are sent to secondary school in Torodo end up pregnant.

This year I felt I have failed my younger host sister who also shares my name, Mariam. She also was part of the first girls camp that our area volunteers organized in a larger city. Mariam is about 15 or 16. I’ve seen her grow from a skinny, little girl into a young woman that all the boys in village flirt with and this may be the reason her father has decided to marry her off this year before she gets herself pregnant. When I asked why Mariam wasn’t going to school anymore, her father said she had failed out of 7th grade for the second time and they would not let her repeat a third time. I felt I could have done something, maybe made sure she did her homework or ask about her grades but I was “too busy” and how could I help her now if she had not studied well in the past six grades? Now it is certainly too late. And even out of the ten girls that went to the two girls camps, I only know of four who are still in school. Next time I organize a girls camp, I must make sure that those girls progress in education are monitored well after the camp is over.

My host brother Issa also stopped going to school last year, he was in third grade and couldn’t even write his name. My other host brother, Moussa, who is 7 years my junior was in ninth grade and could not do addition when you had to carry the one. He thought that America and the U.K. were the same. He has since failed out of ninth grade and is looking for work in Bamako. I helped teach an English club to ninth graders who had been studying English for two years and didn’t even know how to say “Good Morning” and “how are you?”

The Millennium development goals are mostly concerned with insuring universal primary education (a goal which they are falling short of) and increasing girls enrollment. I have learned it isn’t just enough to enroll kids in school but we must ensure the quality of the education they are getting. Yes, they going to class but how are they performing? Can they read, write, and count? My work partners daughter is in fifth grade and can’t count to 40 in french.

I don’t mean to paint such a bleak picture. Mali certainly has to start somewhere and I know the education system will improve but there is not one magical solution and it will take time which does not help many of the children I have come to know in Zeala.

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