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MALI: Northerners fight to learn

Wednesday 10 October 2012, by siawi3


MOPTI, 5 October 2012 (IRIN) - Teachers, the Ministry of Education and aid agencies are scrambling to provide catch-up classes to thousands of displaced children who fled northern Mali for southern towns to help them graduate this year, while those teachers and families who stayed in the north are doing the same - determined to keep their children learning despite the closure of dozens of public schools and severe changes to the curricula.

Islamist groups in northern Mali - Ansar Dine, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) - imposed Sharia law when they wrested control of northern Mali, shutting many public schools, slashing the curricula of others, and forcing hundreds of children into Koranic schools (or Madrassas) which are taught by religious leaders (Imams).

The Ministry of Education estimates at least 10,000 children are currently displaced in the south without access to education, not counting refugee children in Niger, Mauritania, Algeria and Burkina Faso. Tens of thousands in the north are also stranded without education: One educator, Sidda Touré, estimates in Gao alone some 5,000 pupils cannot attend school.

Perhaps worst-off are children in Kidal in the north where Ansar Dine has not yet permitted any public schools to reopen, only allowing children to attend one of a few Islamic schools, according to retired teacher and Kidal resident Mahalmadane Touré.

“You can imagine how this is affecting the children, having their village occupied by rebels and then not being able to go school,†Hassimi Touré, head of primary and secondary education at the Ministry of Education in the capital Bamako, told IRIN.

Catch-up classes

At the Robert Cissé Academy in Mopti, 40km from the Islamist-held north, some 68 children are crammed into a classroom built for 30, their elbows clashing as they squeeze three to a desk. They left Gao, Timbuktu and Gossi in the north to learn here. Some live with relatives, others in displaced people’s settlements and those who came alone, sleep in the school.

“When the children hear about the remedy classes they come here, often without their parents. Others come with their families and enrol when they arrive,†said Sory Ibrahima Tapo, Robert Cissé Academy’s headmaster.

At night the students sleep on thin mattresses laid out in the classrooms. Food is scarce and the living conditions are hard, says Bintou Kane, who came from Niafunké in the north to resume her studies in the south. “I brought one sack of rice from home, but it’s almost finished,†she told IRIN.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Ministry of Education are supporting the school, altogether running catch-up classes for 4,000 children across the country who were supposed to take their annual exams in June; while the government has enrolled a further 6,800 children in ordinary schools.

History teacher Ibrahim Maïga fled to Mopti from Niafunké with a group of students in August. “I cannot teach in a Koranic school,†he told IRIN. He does not expect to get a job, yet he cannot return. “The school is closed, there is nothing to go back to,†he told IRIN.

Teachers remaining in north “determinedâ€

Those who stayed in the north are doing all they can to keep classes going, including setting up private schools, or learning to make severe compromises.

Baba Haïdara, once an English teacher at the Secondary School Academy in Timbuktu, has had to drop his subject and change his teaching style. Girls and boys are now separated in his classroom, including using separate doors, and girls are veiled, but teaching continues. “We are trying to adapt to this new system, and are even trying to profit from it by having each group emulate the behaviour of the other,†he told IRIN. Philosophy and biology have been banned.

Parents and teachers in Timbuktu are running catch-up classes for 6,000 secondary schools in four locations. “Without these classes, I can’t see how children will graduate this year,†said Inalbarak Aga Zeda, head of secondary education at the Academy in Timbuktu.

Photo: Katarina Höije/IRIN
Fatoumata Adiaoykoy and Aïssa Konaré left Niafunké in the north to Mopti to attend school
Local leaders persuaded Islamist group Ansar Dine to resume classes for children aged 15 and over, but younger children have been left without access to public schools.

Sidda Touré, who heads the education part of a dialogue committee which works with the Islamists to better manage the health, education, water and energy sectors in Gao, said the teachers who remained in the north are determined. “Islamists have imposed Sharia but that does not stop us from educating our children how we see fit. We teach our students Arabic and Islamic principles, but also other subjects… The new conditions have not dampened our determination… to devote ourselves to our pupils’ education.â€

Education already fragile

These setbacks in the education sector are likely to erode recent gains in progress Mali has made to reach 2015 education goals, say educators.

Mali’s education sector is fragile - with just 37 percent of boys and 23 percent of girls attending secondary school countrywide, though primary school enrolment has shot up to reach 93 percent, according to UNICEF.

The Ministry of Education has been further weakened by a government-wide reshuffle that is under way following the March 2012 coup that overturned President Amadou Toumani Touré and instated Dioncounda Traoré to lead a transitional government. Almost all donor funding to the ministry that had passed through the government, has been stopped.

†Already before the crisis, thousands of children struggled to get through secondary school. This year a majority of the students have missed more than half of the school year,†Gabrielle Menezes, a UNICEF child protection communications officer, told IRIN. Both UNICEF and the Ministry of Education are trying to work out how to get children back in school, but it is not easy.

“We tried to persuade the Islamists to reopen all of the schools in the north, but how are we supposed to run the schools working with people who are opposed to the state and the public school system?†said the Ministry of Education’s Touré.

Educators fear things could get even more difficult if Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) forces are deployed in the north, causing further mass displacement, though an ECOWAS intervention still looks to be a long way off.