History, math and the bad men

A temporary stop in schooling can lead to a permanent break. In Mali, small locally-based solutions can keep up the habits of learning

By Anne Kennedy
Fatoumata lisant un livre
UNICEF Mali/2018/Kennedy
07 January 2019

Both Fatoumata* and her parents believed there would be a solution, even after she had to leave their village. It was only when she was taken from her village in central Mali to her uncle’s house in Bamako, the capital of Mali, in the south, that she began to understand that her local school was really closed. Yet neither she nor her parents ever gave up hope. She is now back in her village, learning in a community learning center.

In 2017, while Fatoumata was in school, “the bad men” arrived in her village in the Ségou region of Mali and insisted that the two teachers there leave. They had come and gone, before the pupils were told to go home by the elders.

On that day, Fatoumata was not concerned.  She thought it was only for a day or two. But the school remains shut nearly two years later.

''The bad men came .... They told the elders that they do not want to see those teachers at the school''

Before the closure she liked school, particularly reciting, which is used in Mali to teach basics such as numbers and vocabulary. Her school was filled with both girls and boys. She doesn’t remember any of them not liking it.

But that’s not because school life was easy. Alongside the normal highs and lows of classes, she had, like most village girls going to school, to do work before and after. Her tasks were to collect water from a distance away and to sweep her home before class started. At school, work continued and only the girls were asked to clean the school each day before class. She smiles at the idea of the boys being asked to help.

''I do calculations so as to be educated"

Fatoumata lisant un livre.
UNICEF Mali/2018/Kennedy

She still found time to go over her mathematics in the evening. Her reasoning was simple: it was the worst of her subjects and the only way to improve.

After the closure of the school and her move to Bamako, her city life was new, but after its novelty was lost she decided to return to the village. By the end of a year she had grown accustomed to not going to school. As with so many girls whose education is interrupted, she was in danger of slipping out of education forever.

''Community learning centers are not just bringing continued learning to crisis-affected children, they are also bringing a direly needed sense of normalcy''

Unknown to her, UNICEF was putting in place temporary mechanisms to keep children learning in Mali. Thanks to funding from Norway and with the help of the NGO OMAES, a community learning center was set up in the center of her village: a place where the children would feel safe and regain or gain for the first time, the habits of learning.

Community learning centers are basic structures, providing a small safe area where children can learn basic math and reading. The pupils are encouraged to write their own histories, putting into their own copybooks their own community’s history in their own languages. Most of all, they are encouraged to play, which is vital for children living in insecure areas.

In the Ségou region, there are now 19 community learning centers, attended by over 1,200 children, 587 of them girls.

''The future of children is found in schools''

“Community learning centers are not just bringing continued learning to crisis-affected children, they are also bringing a direly needed sense of normalcy,” explains Sharmila Pillai, Education in Emergencies Specialist at UNICEF Mali. “While our task in Mali is difficult, we know that it is harder to stop children from learning than to help them.”

849 schools in Mali stood closed in January 2019; with over 254,000 children like Fatoumata deprived of schooling in the conflict-affected areas of the country. Conflicts can deny children access to education and undermine not only their own future but those of their societies.

The insecurity in central Mali may continue but as her parents had hoped, Fatoumata is back in the center of her village, learning. A local volunteer, called an animator, has been trained in basic teaching techniques and the centre uses the local language. There are no desks or chairs: just a simple blackboard and cover from the sun. But the children can learn. Since the center opened Fatoumata has not missed a single day.

''I always believed there would be a solution''

Yet the center will always simply be just a holding line for education. The animator is looking forward to the full school re-opening. “The future of children is found in schools,” Mohamed*, the animator in Fatoumata’s center, says.

Fatoumata is not the type of girl to smile easily, but she does when she remembers her first day at her old school. She can still remember, and recite, the poem she learnt. The new community learning center in her village is not the same, but it allows her to stay in the habit of learning. “I always believed there was a solution,” she says.

Since she can remember she has wanted to open a phone credit shop and finish secondary school.

To do these things she has already achieved what she says is an important step: she is now better at mathematics than her parents.