A second chance at education
The Paoula Accelerated Learning Centre brings hope to children who have had to drop out of school
In 2014 Sosthéne Bengaï became an orphan.
That year the Central African Republic plunged into a humanitarian crisis with that had a profound impact on communities across the country. Sosthéne grew up with two brothers and two sisters in Bouar, a town in the west of the country not far from the border of Cameroon.
His father was a soldier in the national army who believed in the value of education and made sure his children went to school. In 2014 his platoon came under fire during a deployment at the border. He was badly injured and died of his wounds soon afterwards. A few months later Sosthéne’s mother was bitten by a poisonous snake and died.
Sosthéne and his brothers and sisters were sent to live among various relatives. He was brought to Paoua in north-western CAR, where another shock awaited him. “My aunt was a farmer and didn’t have money for school fees,” he explains.
For the next five years he worked around the house and on the farm. He was not alone: in 2014, more than 65 per cent of schools in CAR were closed or became non-functional due to the conflict. However, whereas other children gradually returned to their classrooms or attended emergency education centres set up by UNICEF, Sosthéne stayed at home.
I felt very bad. I missed school a lot.
Then he heard about the Paoua Accelerated Learning Centre, which is supported by UNICEF and its partner IEDA Relief, the global fund Education Cannot Wait (ECW), the European Union’s humanitarian aid fund (ECHO), and the Danish Refugee Council (DRC).
The centre targets children who have dropped out of school – or never enrolled in the first place – thanks to the conflict. Intensive tuition allows learners to complete Grades 1 to 6 in just three years.
The school can accommodate 160 learners in three classrooms and has four qualified teachers who offer three levels of tuition: beginner classes for learners who’ve never been to school; intermediate classes for those with some schooling; and advanced classes for those who can read and write in French. Its classrooms are set off from the road in a shady, walled enclosure and offer a safe, tranquil environment for learners to make up their lost years.
These learning conditions are exceptional for Paoua. Regular schools here cram between 160 and 240 learners into each classroom. Many have very few qualified teachers.
At the Paoua Accelerated Learning Centre, learners in the beginner class are taken through their paces in reading, writing and basic arithmetic. Others in higher grades, like Sosthéne, are taught subjects such as maths, science and French grammar.
Sosthéne’s aunt was immediately supportive of his plans to resume his education. “She said thanks to God. She advised me to go back to school and not give up.”
He started at Level 2, and still vividly recalls his first day in class. “The moment the teacher walked in I knew I was in the right place,” he says.
Less than six months later he progressed to the highest level. Now he has set his heart on becoming a civil servant when he graduates to earn enough money to look after his aunt.
Leonard Bissi landed up at the centre after he dropped out of school when he was hit in the leg by a stray bullet during a shooting incident in Paoua. After spending two weeks in hospital, it took months before he could walk again without pain.
When he heard about the centre, he jumped at the chance to enrol. Now the 16-year-old feels he can make plans for the future. “When I finish my studies, I want to learn how to drive and so that I can get a job as a driver,” he explains.
The demand for catch-up education in Paoua already way outstrips available resources. When the centre opened in October 2019 it received 300 applicants, but it only has space for 160 learners. The rest had to be accommodated in overcrowded and underfunded regular schools.
Rémy Zolo, a retired local schoolteacher who heads the centre, says ideally each of the town’s eight municipal wards should have such a school, but there’s simply not enough money to go around. “The students are so poor, you must provide everything – books, pens, chalk, even soap,” he explains.
Many children affected by the conflict are still too afraid to return. Like Leonard, some were wounded themselves. Others such as Sosthéne lost their parents, teachers or classmates.
Rémy points out that of 60 000 children of school going age in Paoua and its surrounding villages, more than 30 percent didn’t go to school at all last year. The need for accelerated learning can only increase as more children are persuaded to complete their primary education. But at current funding levels, UNICEF and its partners will only be able to meet some of these pressing needs.