Hunger for education among displaced Malian students
Oumar, 16, was preparing for exams when insurgents overran his historic town of Timbuktu. The town was first captured in March by fighters from the Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) who want an independent state in north Mali. Weeks later, Islamist extremists seized the town from them.
All schools were closed. For five months, Oumar had nothing to do. Many of his classmates and neighborhood friends joined the Islamic Ansar Dine army but he was not interested.
“After they joined, they stopped talking to me. I would telephone them, but they would not answer. When I saw them in the market place with their guns, they pretended they didn’t know me,” Oumar said.
According to Oumar, there was a breakdown in civil services. Stores had been looted and government offices had been vandalized. Hospitals and clinics were operating with a skeleton staff and a limited amount of medical supplies. Law and order was restored when the Islamists arrived and imposed Sharia law. However, social services remained affected and electricity was restricted to three hours per week.
“I was very discouraged because I could not charge my cell phone, make ice, or turn on the fan. I could only watch TV three hours per week and I could only view the international channels because the Islamists cut transmission of Malian TV so we didn't know what was happening in our country.”
“I was very scared, especially at night because of all the shooting. I saw women being whipped by the Islamist police who had also threatened to shoot me.”
Oumar was bathing in the river with girls as usual. One day, they saw the Islamist police coming toward them and they ran away. The next day, the police snuck up on them while they were in the river. One of them said: "Yesterday, you ran when you saw us coming, but we have come to warn you that it is forbidden for girls to bathe in public. If we see you here with the girls again, you will not outrun a bullet."
“I never went back to the river!” he exclaimed, adding that he also didn't want to get married.
Oumar said that if a single man and woman were caught talking in public, they were arrested and then ordered to marry. The age of the individuals involved didn't matter. They could be children or adults. The Islamist then paid a dowry, which he heard was 2,000 CFA or $4 USD, to the girl’s parents and the couple was married without delay.
One of his friends who had fled to Segou called him and told him about the catch-up classes that Plan International was running at his school. Oumar told his mother about the opportunity and as soon as she could afford it, he was on his way.
He travelled two days by canoe down the Niger River and then 12 hours by bus to the town of Segou, 140 miles northeast of the capital. Oumar was happy to put Timbuktu behind him.
News of the classes in Segou spread by word-of-mouth. It attracted students from all over the north. UNICEF estimated that of the 300,000 school-age students in the north, 100,000 of them have fled to the south.
The catch-up classes are for the displaced students from the north. Some of these students live with their relatives while other children live at the boarding school. Meals are also provided daily – all north Malian cuisine to try to maintain as much of their culture as possible.
Plan has trained 200 teachers to help the Ministry of Education cope with the increased number of students in the Segou region.
In the region of Mopti, a few hours drive north, the education ministry has also started catch-up classes for students and they are implementing the ‘Plan model’ by using north Malian cuisine.
Once the school year begins, the children will be integrated into regular classes. However, the demand for these classes is so great that the average size of a class is 150 students.
“There is a definite need for additional classrooms in Mopti and Plan Mali is aiming to build as many as we can within our tight budget,” said Emergency Response Manager Christophe Mvogo.
“Our appeals for educational programs in this emergency have been poorly funded. We wish that we were able to provide additional classrooms and more teachers.”
Hopefully, the students’ thirst for education will overcome the constraints.