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War, cholera and floods blight start to new school year

[Cote d'Ivoire] Children at a UN/NGO sponsored school hold up tablets to their teacher while learning math.
Schools across the north have closed since war broke out in September 2002 (IRIN)

The school holidays are officially over across West Africa and children are beginning to settle in to another year at their desks. But perennial poverty, compounded by war, cholera and record floods, are keeping many budding scholars out of class.

“My father always gets very irritable as we get close to the start of the school year,” said 12-year-old Jocelyne in the Togolese capital of Lome. “He shouts and tells us off for the smallest thing, I think it’s an expensive time for him.”

At the bustling main market in Lome, stalls are loaded with exercise books, pens and pencils to fill school bags ahead of the new school year. But not everyone’s buying.

“Since this morning I haven’t sold a single thing - not a pack of exercise books or even a biro,” said Therese Mensah, manning a stationery stall in the baking sun.

With household budgets already stretched in this desperately poor region, parents have to cut back where they can.

“Because there’s no money, many people really suffer to find the cash to buy all the school books and things,” said Pierre Afanou, a young father of three who works as a mechanic.

Little over 60 percent of children in Togo attend primary school and even fewer attend secondary school, according to the UN children’s agency UNICEF.

Yet Togo is not at war. And though education has suffered since donor assistance was cut off in the political upheaval of the 1990s, the country ranks a regionally respectable 143rd in the UN’s human development index of 177 countries - the bottom six all being in West Africa.

“Education is a general problem in the region - it is a problem even in the few countries where there is no crisis or post-crisis situation,” said Yves Willemot, the regional communication officer for UNICEF.

“There is a lack of resources, a lack of good teachers, and in many cases a lack of understanding on the part of the parents of the importance of sending their children to school,” Willemot said.

Schools closed by conflict

When war erupts, schools and education systems typically grind to a halt, as seen in the rebel-held north of nearby Cote d’Ivoire.

Rebels staged a failed coup in September 2002 and have been in control of the northern half of the country ever since. Cut off from government funds, public services including schools have stopped operating.

“Cote d’Ivoire is quite an alarming situation for us at it is now three years since exams were organised in the north,” said Willemot. “Three years at school age is a long time for a person to lose out on their development.”

Most civil servants, including teachers, fled the north as the rebels took over. The only education available these days in rebel-held towns such as Bouake in central Cote d’Ivoire, is run with help from local NGOs, UN agencies and volunteers.

“We work with the small number of teachers who remained here,” explained Sekou Toure who heads a local NGO called School for All. But most schools largely rely on volunteers who don’t always have any teacher training, explained Toure.

The voluntary teachers are supposed to receive a stipend for their efforts - paid for with whatever money parents can scrape together. But times are harder than ever in the war zone, so parents can’t always pay up and teachers regularly complain of going without cash.

Meanwhile, in tiny Guinea-Bissau, conflict, cholera and lack of cash are harming education.

State schools in the former Portuguese colony nestled on the West African coast between Senegal and Guinea have been unable to open because teachers haven’t been paid and the country is in the grip of a massive cholera epidemic.

“I hope that good relations will resume between teachers and the minister for education,” said teenage student Fatima da Silva last week. “If not, the students are going to suffer all the consequences of this stand-off.”

After four months without pay, Prime Minister Carlos Gomes Junior this week promised that all public sector workers finally would receive unpaid wages “within the week”, removing one obstacle to launching the school year.

But concerns over public health are also keeping schools closed. In August, the UN appealed for US $104,000 to help the cash-strapped government deal with a cholera epidemic ravaging the low-lying capital of Bissau.

More than 300 people have died since the epidemic began in early June. At the end of September, the government said schools would not reopen until the water-borne disease was brought under control. Current plans are to bring children back into class at the end of October.

Floods wash out classrooms

Further north, in the Senegalese capital of Dakar, record breaking heavy seasonal rains have disrupted the start of the school year.

Two weeks after lessons were supposed to have resumed, classrooms in some areas of the capital, Dakar, are flooded and unfit for use.

Heavy rains have also left 60,000 people homeless, many of them moved onto camp beds in classrooms to avoid the infested knee-high waters swirling about some of Dakar’s crowded shantytowns.

Authorities now are pondering ways of sharing out classrooms between the homeless and the children.

State school education is free in Senegal, where parents merely pay uniforms and basic school equipment. Yet less than 50 percent of children go to primary school, according to UNICEF, and 63 percent of adults are illiterate.

“Yes, state school is free here, but there are 100 children in each class, so how can the children learn anything?” said Francois, who works as a guard in Dakar. “You have to find the money to send your kids to private school, or it’s not worth the bother.”

“Even though it’s free, parents still have to find money for uniforms and books, so the majority of kids end up packing it in to get work or get married.”

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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