A Tale of Two Girls

Kate with Zenabou outside the hut I stayed in on both my previous trips.

My daughter Kate comes with me to the village for the first week of my trip. She’s 17 and leapt at the chance of accompanying me, even though I was at pains to underline the rigours of the experience – the heat, the mosquitos, the discomfort, fetching our own water and so on. It is her first experience of the Majority World and it would be hard to think of a better introduction for someone whose horizons are just beginning to open up – being invited into people’s homes and workplaces to learn about the realities and difficulties of their lives rather than skimming the tourist surface. It is also, by the bye, a wonderful thing for a father and daughter to do together – something neither of us will forget.

‘The thing that strikes me most,’ she says at one point, ‘is how much more friendly people are here than they are in England. They always seem so cheerful, despite everything. I like it best when we sit outside Mariama’s concession picking peanuts [off harvested bushes] – adults and children, men and women, all together chatting and laughing. That wouldn’t happen at home.’

Her presence certainly adds to the interest of my visit for the villagers. Apart from anything else, fair hair always causes a stir and my prediction that she will receive offers of marriage is, to her embarrassment, soon realized.

It also makes our visit to the village school more of a two-way educational experience. We carry with us laminated maps of the world as gifts, fruit of my memory 10 years ago that the school had no map by which I could show the children where I lived – and, indeed, where they lived.

We take the oldest, sixth-grade class for an impromptu lesson, using photos depicting our life in England – our family, our house, our modest attempt at a vegetable plot, typical shopping streets, a supermarket, the NI office and so on. As in the past, the photos are a source of great fascination for children and adults alike. I’m less clear in my mind as to whether they serve as a bridge between North and South, just because they drive home the absurd difference in terms of wealth and material comfort between our lives and theirs.

The photograph that always causes the biggest intake of breath is that of our bathroom. I hasten to add that our bathroom is small and modest (probably also not as clean as it should be), containing no more than the usual bath, toilet and basin. But the very idea that a whole room should be dedicated to this, tiled in white, somehow makes it look, in the village context, like some sort of shrine to the God of Hygiene. Éline, the midwife, says later when she sees this photo: ‘But this is a palace! I would gladly live in your bathroom!’

Salamatu as the enthusiastic schoolgirl she was in 1995.

When I was here 10 years ago the school had just three classrooms, each with between 60 and 65 pupils. This was nowhere near enough capacity to cope with all the children in the village who wanted to attend and many were turned away each year. The Government had undertaken to pay the salaries of three more teachers and turn it into a fully functioning six-grade primary school, provided the village could raise the money for the new classrooms – but there was little prospect of that happening.

Now not only have those extra classrooms been built and the teachers appointed but other schools have also been built to accommodate the ever-increasing demand. In the outlying villages of Wambako and Sago, from which children previously had to walk many kilometres to reach the Sabtenga school, new classrooms have now been established. And on the other side of the village, near the mosque, a further school is half-built and is already operating on a pilot bilingual model that will probably apply throughout Burkina in time. Whereas children in the main school are taught entirely in the former colonial language, which must be unimaginably daunting for a six-year-old starting out, here they will still be taught in French but will learn the language through their own Bissa.

Éline, the midwife, says when she sees the photo: ‘But this is a palace! I would gladly live in your bathroom!’

The educational situation in Sabtenga has therefore been transformed, reaching the point now where primary schooling is available to virtually all children from six years old. It is secondary schooling that provides the blot on this largely optimistic picture. Not that opportunities here have not also increased – there are now three secondary schools (lycées) in Garango, compared with just one a decade ago. But while school fees at primary level are affordable – each child has to pay 2,000 francs ($3.60) for a year’s education, a sum determined by a meeting of parents and teachers at the start of the school year in September – at secondary level they are a major problem.

At the end of sixth grade students can take a competitive exam to determine which of them is capable of going on to the lycée. Last year nine children made the grade. But if they are actually to take up the places, their parents will have to find 65,000 francs ($115), rising by a further 10,000 francs for each subsequent year.

Some scrimp and save to make it possible – Mariama has just about raised enough to cover the fees for her son Zakariya, but will face an added burden if Rasinatu passes the exam at the end of this year. But many more simply shrug their shoulders and say ‘il n’y a pas les moyens’ (‘there aren’t the means’). Again and again I hear this phrase as I go round the village.

This is the refrain at the concession of Adama and Zenabou, for example, and it brings me to a rather sad story. In 1985 Rasmatu was born while we were in the village and we witnessed her naming ceremony; we also filmed Zenabou carrying her two-year-old daughter Salamatu. Ten years later I was very struck by the contrast between the two girls. Rasmatu had hated school – she had pretended to set off with her satchel only to hide in the bush all day until she was expelled. Salamatu, meanwhile, was all fired up with the business of learning – she read to me, showed me her schoolbooks and sang the songs she’d learned as we walked back together from class (see photo bottom left). I challenged Adama directly about her future, knowing that it was likely to be an issue. ‘Salamatu is a very bright girl,’ I said. ‘If she passes the exam, will you pay for her to go to the lycée in Garango?’ He said he would and I had no reason to disbelieve him.

Hands up for the camera! Happy faces in the Sabtenga school yard.

Nevertheless, as I returned this time, it was with Salamatu uppermost in my mind. Had she been given the chance of a secondary education? Might she have used it as a springboard to some sort of career, perhaps in the capital?

Well, she duly passed the exam but her father did not, after all, stump up the money. I remind him of what he said and he comes out with the old chestnut: ‘il n’y a pas les moyens’. The phrase belies the reality that he actually prioritized other things, such as the motorbike that has arrived in the intervening years.

It ill behoves me in my distant and comfortable privilege to criticize Adama for this; I should be – and am – angry instead at the system that requires the poor to pay for their children’s education at all.

But I still despair at the implications for Salamatu. Denied the chance to study further, she had no alternative but to live at home and take up the traditional female role, eventually being married off at the usual age of 17. Now 22, she is living about eight kilometres away with her husband’s family in Sanokina, where I visit her. I take a series of photos of her, knowing how photogenic she is, and one of these graces the front cover of this magazine. She looks radiant in it, and lends this whole issue the tenor of hope that the village’s general progress justifies.

But her situation seems far from ideal. She has a child now but her husband left two years ago to seek work as a tailor in Côte d’Ivoire and has never even seen his daughter. There is no immediate prospect of their joining him – that too depends on when he feels he has les moyens. In the meantime she is far from her own family in a concession that is manifestly less well endowed. She says she has no idea whether or not her husband intends to take another wife and has no way of discussing this with him.

Thomas Sankara, to the UN General Assembly in October 1984.

I should guard against projecting too much of my own baggage on to Salamatu. She is probably not as unhappy with her lot as I suppose. She will have gained both as an individual and as a mother by her primary education and her own children will benefit from that too. But I can’t help but think back on the bright potential of that 12-year-old in 1995, consider the many opportunities ahead for my own daughter now, and feel just a little sad.

New Internationalist issue 389 magazine cover This article is from the May 2006 issue of New Internationalist.
You can access the entire archive of over 500 issues with a digital subscription. Get a free trial »

Subscribe   Ethical Shop