|© UNICEF Gabon/2007|
|Yacine, 10, at school in Gabon. His mother pays his school fees with produce and fish, which are used to supply the school canteen.|
By Helene Ayika
OMBOUE, Gabon, 1 March 2007 – "Look, I can write ‘3’,” Yacine exclaims, proudly holding up his slate chalked with many number threes carefully aligned.
Yacine, 10, is attending school for the first time. In his class at Sainte Anne Catholic School, there are 12 other students aged five to seven. He is the oldest in the class, but is working hard to catch up.
Yacine’s mother, a single parent of four, lives in a small fishing village called Nenguessika on the remote Fernan Vaz peninsula. She did not have money to send him to school and had no other choice but to put the small boy to work farming and fishing. As a result, until recently Yacine had never gone to school.
“It was my uncle who brought me here, after the holidays,” Yacine says of his attendance as a boarder at the Sainte Anne school. “I already learned how to write and to read the figures and I can count up to 10. I want to become a male nurse,” he adds.
Paying school fees in kind
Built in the 19th century by French missionaries, Sainte Anne’s is a mixed boarding school that can accommodate 50 boys and girls, 30 of whom board there. The school has four teachers.
Students are taught for free, but boarding fees are about $50 per month, which is unaffordable for most families.
“The people of Fernan Vaz are fishermen and planters, so they pay the school fees in kind with products of the culture, hunting or fishing when they do not have money,” explains school official Odile Baumann, adding that the students “are nourished, educated and they are in safety” at the school.
“My mom comes to visit me on Sunday,” says Yacine. “She brings cassava, which I share with my classmates. I miss fishing sometimes, but I prefer being at the school where I drink milk and eat well every day.”
Education for the underprivileged
A high primary education rate in Gabon hides many geographical disparities. The province of Maritime Ogooué, where the Sainte Anne school is located, is said to be the country’s most prosperous province since most of Gabon’s oil resources come from there.
Paradoxically, youths living in remote localities of the province confront many problems, including prostitution, HIV/AIDS, domestic violence and early pregnancy.
Last year, with financing from Marathon Oil and its partners Devon, Energy Africa and Tullow in 2006, UNICEF Gabon was able to start a community-supported radio station, which is owned by the community and managed by the youth.
A child-friendly school project starts this year, with a focus on children’s health, nutrition and education. Support will be also given to enhance schools’ capacity to accommodate children from underprivileged families – which should allow more children like Yacine enrol and complete the primary education cycle.