Continental Drift

November 18, 2010

Four Hundred Dollars

Filed under: Uncategorized — unaleona @ 11:25 am

Four hundred dollars is a lot of money in Sikoro. Really, four hundred dollars is a lot of money anywhere.  Except when it isn’t: when it doesn’t pay half a month’s rent in NYC, when it’s less than a quarter of a roundtrip ticket to Mali.  When it is the difference between attending high school this year or dropping out with a ninth grade diploma to work as a maid for a year or so and then go back to your village and get married, it is both insurmountable and negligible.

The Malian public education system is not, on the surface, so completely broken as to charge its students four hundred dollars for a year of high school.  On the other hand, it is hard to place the blame anywhere else.  This story is complicated, and requires a disclaimer: my knowledge of the system and its foibles is anecdotal and observational, mixed in with a few words of wisdom from people working here in Mali with large development organizations who are trying to help restore order to the chaos.

Officially, the Malian government, in keeping with the exigencies of the Millennium Development Goals, provides universal primary education for all its students.  Now, ignoring the fact that universal should mean ‘completely free,’ but doesn’t mean that when uniforms and books still need to be purchased by cash-strapped families, the larger problem with this is that there aren’t enough schools.   Simply opening the doors of schools to all students regardless of ability to pay, doesn’t build more classrooms or train and hire more teachers.  This leads to all sorts of basic problems, but let’s group them in two main categories: 1) the level of instruction drops, and 2) parallel private school systems are set up to pick up the slack.  The two are, in many ways linked.

Why not just build more schools and more classrooms? Why not just open more teacher training institutions and hire more teachers? This all comes back to a basic lack of funds.  Though I have no proof of this, I am guessing that the older system that required more payment for education was somewhat like the user-fee system of healthcare:  the fees that students used to pay before universal primary education were an important component of school funding.  Considering the history of World Bank and IMF obligated structural adjustment programs, the national education budget was or is still bare bones.  With this increase in pupils, facilities and teachers are both overworked and financially precarious.  I have heard from many people that teachers rarely get paid on time, and what they get paid is very low.  The shortage of teachers also means that unqualified teachers are often hired.  Having spent hours helping my neighbor Issa translate paragraphs from English to French and being completely flummoxed as to what exactly a sentence was supposed to say, considering the ridiculous number of grammar and spelling errors in the original, I can vouch for the fact that at least one English teacher in Mali is not up to the task.  Particularly egregious, teachers—like many other state employees in many developing countries—take  on second (and third, and fourth) sources of income in the private sector.

This, understandably, distracts them from their jobs, greatly diminishing the quality of instruction pupils receive.  As Mama explained it to me, the government teachers are supposed to be with their students from 8-12, and then again from 2-5 after the lunch-break. “But they just show up in the morning, they write something on the board very fast, and then they run away off to their own schools.  They all would rather open their own school.  Often, the children come back here already at 10:00 in the morning. Is that normal?” Whether or not it is normal, it makes it very hard to learn anything.

Shoddy teaching sets even those students with space in the public school system up for failure.  This is also exacerbated by a decision that was enacted about ten years ago in favor of bilingual education.  Based off of research results in the US that bilingual students are more likely to succeed if they learn to read first in their mother tongue, Mali officially adopted a system in which every student has the right to learn to read and write in their first language, before being taught in French.  On the one hand, this sounds great, a preservation of cultures and languages, and a boost to future academic performance.  In reality, the idea is a joke.  In fact, it is so preposterous I don’t even know to what extent it figures into the problems I am raising here, perhaps everyone has just been ignoring this regulation since it is just an absolute impossibility.

The reason this is such a bad idea is that there is no basis for an educational system in any of the vernacular languages spoken by Malians.  First of all, despite the fact that the majority of Malians belong to the Bambara ethnic group, there are a dozen more ethnicities spread across this country—which  shouldn’t be a surprise considering that the Northern border is in the desert past even Timbuktu, and that Bamako is in the (comparatively) lush, tropical, South only an hour’s drive from the  border with costal Guinea.  Even imagining that linguistic diversity were not an issue, there is no base of teachers who even know how to read and write in Bambara, let alone teach it, let alone in any of the other languages.  Formal schooling was introduced by the French, therefore it occurred in the French language.  Every person in Mali educated through the formal school system began learning in French in the first grade, and their subjects were thereafter taught in French.  The only people with written Bambara knowledge are people who have specifically studied Bambara at the university level, those who were taught to read and write in Bambara in remedial education/literacy courses, and traditional scholars of N’Ko, the Bambara word for the language itself.  As far as I understand, this emphasis on a right to bilingual education has only served to dilute the emphasis on the importance of French in the classroom.  While a part of me thinks that a country like Mali has the right to decide it would like its official and professional language to be Bambara (the actual lingua franca), that is not a direction the country is heading in.  Formal sector jobs (both public and private) require French fluency.  The professional world happens in French, and records itself in French.  Allowing students to limp through school by letting them use Bambara as a crutch in the classroom only leaves them further handicapped later in life.

But that, of course, is if they manage to pass. Returning to the second problem, the parallel school system, means returning to the underpaid and overworked teachers.  A system of private schools has sprung up around Bamako, and I’m sure elsewhere in the country.  These schools are privately owned and for profit, but because of the space shortage, the government pays these schools to accept the overflow of students who could not fit into the public system.  In effect they have contracted out a large portion of their education system, which means even less oversight.  Though the state counts students enrolled in private school in their official numbers in the race towards “Education for All,” these are not government run schools.  I’m sure that this means some teachers rush out of their government jobs early to run to a private school where they are better paid, this time again by state funds.  I’ve heard that the government pays 300,000 CFA (or six hundred dollars) to the schools to educate a student for the year. I can’t quite believe that is how much they pay per student in the official public system.

Beyond this nebulous grey area of privately owned, state funded schools are the medersas.  These “Franco-Arab” schools are funded both by local Islamic groups and foreign ones, and they are the largest growing sector of the educational system.  As the government continues to lag behind the ever increasing number of students (in a country with the third highest fertility rate in the world), the medersas are being built faster and faster to fill the gap.  Parents send their children to these schools for a variety of reasons, somewhat tied to how religious the family is–but not entirely.  The elements that go into this choice are still a little ambiguous to me, but there is certainly an amount of Islamic clout that you claim for having attended madersa.

I have nothing substantive to say about the political side of this: I don’t know if these schools are places of political indoctrination though I have to suspect it.  What I do know is that the emphasis on Koranic teaching dilutes the educational experience to the point that I personally have not encountered any students educated purely within this system who can actually speak conversational French.  Though this doesn’t mean that there are none, this is clearly a failure.  I obviously cannot judge outgoing students’ Arabic abilities, though what I have heard seems to be an ability to recite Koranic passages and understand basic greetings. However, even if students were coming out of these schools fluent in Arabic, that still wouldn’t get Malian students very far in the professional world.  Without French, as I mentioned, you are pretty much sunk.

So here you have this dysfunctional, tripartite school system, in which the odds are set well against any student setting forth.  Except, of course, in primary school.  “You want universal primary education?” asks Mali, “You’re welcome to it.” And so, with a magic wand, everyone passes primary school.  There is no failing.  You can ‘redoubler’ a class, but eventually they will pass you and no matter how terribly you do on the exit exam, you will still officially have a primary school education.  But then, what to do with all these students who, due to the overcrowded classrooms, lack of books, distracted teachers, etc. never learned much of anything? How to make sure that a high school degree actually means something?  And what to do with all these students who took forever to inch their way through primary school, and are now far older than they are meant to be?  First make the primary school exit exam harder to pass.  Then, when students are examined again at the end of 9th grade, in the dreaded ‘DF’, make it incredibly difficult.  Only students who pass the DF are allowed to go on in the educational system.  If you fail it once, you can repeat ninth grade once.  You fail again, you’re out.  School is done with you.  If you pass with flying colors, you get “oriented” to a high school.  If you pass with a low score, you are placed squarely on the vocational school track.  Then, set strict age limits.  Once a student is over the age of 16, they cannot start high school.

And now we are back to our question of four hundred dollars.  Rokia Sanogo arrived in my courtyard around the time of the cinquantenaire.  She confused me at first, this awkward girl who refused to speak to me in full sentences, but then would laugh at me hysterically whenever I used Bambara phrases that up till then had been easily understood by my friends and acquaintances.  Finally, someone explained that she had come from ‘the village’ to go to high school in Bamako.  Except, when school started up on October 4th, she didn’t go.  Ma, Beiny and Bois all marched off with their new “shack-ies” (schoolbags).  Little Fatime hop-skipped-jumped out of the house with her dad on the way to nursery school.  The private school on the corner of our block was an explosion of fancy new back-to-school outfits and water-bottles on lanyards around small children’s necks.  But Rokia was still at home, and the next day as well.

The day after that I asked if she had gone to school, and she told me that no, “I haven’t been placed yet.” It seems, after much questioning, that the Malian school system administers the DF exam in June, after which they process student scores throughout the vacation.  At the beginning of the school year, they release the ‘orientation’ of every student: whether they will attend high school or vocational school, and where.  The reasons why Rokia, a girl born and raised in a village outside of Sikasso (6 hour drive from Bamako, on a good day), would have expected to be placed here, are beyond me.  For some reason, Mama had agreed to take on Rokia’s school expenses, etc, and to house her here for high school. The workings of the Malian “Grande Famille” obligations and politics are something that I doubt I could ever begin to fully understand.  But whether they had expected that she would be automatically placed here, or if they were going to go in and pull strings to ensure that it was fixed up that way at the end, I don’t know.  I just know that for days on end, Rokia borrowed my phone to call her parents and find out if her name had shown up on the list.  For a while there was still hope, the lists were late, no one had been placed.  But then the lists came out and her name wasn’t on them.

I mostly steered clear of this issue, mostly because I didn’t understand it, and partly because Rokia always had a somewhat accusatory air about her when she demanded my phone to call home.  Her French, considering she was supposed to be starting high school, is poor.  And I eventually discovered that her strange way of speaking to me in Bambara stems from the fact that her first language is Senopho, since she is from a small Senepho village. Even so, when she got off the phone each time, she would angrily explain that things weren’t working, in a way that made me feel like she expected me to fix it.  Why does this girl, appearing in my life a week ago, expect me to fix this for her? And anyway, I’m obviously the last person who can help her, considering that my grip on the intricacies of the system is abysmal compared to Mama (who has put 7 children through it) or any of the other Sanogo relatives in Bamako who made it through themselves.

Finally, in listening to a discussion between Mama and one of those mysterious relatives of her late husband who always come at night and whose names I never remember, I put the pieces together and understood that the issue came down to age.  Rokia is 19. You cannot start high school if you are over the age of 16.  She is too old. And so the campaign was launched to make Rokia 16.  You’d think that this might be the hard part, but no.  Glance at any grown-up Bamakois’s (person living in Bamako’s) birth-certificate, and glance back at the person, you will do a double take.  One of our community health workers consistently claims to be 24, one year older than I am. He has even showed us his birth certificate to prove it.  If that man is younger than 32, I’d be shocked.  In amongst the bureaucratic cogs that must be turned to get a new copy of a birth certificate, it is as easy as anything to shave off a year or two when you claim the date.  By the time you have stumbled your way through the mine-fields of primary education, you’re probably not the 11 year-old that the government thinks you ought to be.  By the time you actually succeed at passing the DF, it is unlikely that you are 14, like you are supposed to be. And you might need some extra years later on, in case you run into trouble in high school and have to repeat a grade.  Given the ubiquity of age changing, I assumed that now that the problem was identified, Rokia would be heading off to school toute de suite.  But she didn’t.

Several weeks into October, I asked Mama why Rokia wasn’t around the house the last few days.  “Has she started going to school?” “Oh no,” said Mama, “She can’t go to school.  She’s been working as a bonne since if she stays here and helps me I can’t pay her.”

A bonne? Bonne’s are village girls who come to the city for a year or two to earn the money for the extensive set of cooking ware and fabric that they are expected to have on entering their marriage.  Here in Bamako, your family is expected to provide you with this, I guess you would call it ‘trousseau,’ but in the villages there is little chance of amassing that much cash.  So you come to Bamako to slave away for families who can afford the luxury, for a pittance, usually about ten dollars a month.  What was a girl with a ninth grade diploma, destined for high school, doing as a bonne? “She can’t go to school because she is too old,” said Mama, interrupting my confusion.” “But I thought you were going to change her papers?” “We can’t,” she said simply, “it’s too late.” Sensing my incomprehension, she explained. “Here in Bamako, we know how to do these things.  As soon as Ma repeated third grade, I went and got her papers changed.  For Bois I did it before he took the CP.  But Rokia took the CP with her real papers.  And then now, she took the DF with her real papers.  When they looked at her exam to grade her scores, they know that she is too old. You cannot change them now, it is too late.  Now, she could go to the private school, but they charge 200,000 CFA (four hundred dollars) a year.  I called her family, I told them this, but they do not have the money.  You know that I do not have the money.  So she should be a bonne.”

I was flabbergasted by this dead end.  A girl from a village, having made it past the odds to get all the way to ninth grade and pass this difficult exam.  And then, no exit.

I had already heard about this division between government students and paying students, “Private Agents,” they seem to be called.  My friend Dauda had attended Koranic school all the way through 12th grade, but the way he explains it that doesn’t count if you want to go to university.  So he had started all over again in primary school, and has gotten back to 11th grade in the private system.  Because he is too old to go to school, he has had to pay every year.  In high school, not only are school fees covered, but properly placed students receive a small stipend to cover expenses.  Dauda wants to go on to medical school.  As a student far too old for the system, if he passes the exams he’ll be allowed in, but only if he pays large amounts of money while the other students are being paid to attend class.   But this was his choice, to return back through the whole system, and he talked about the difficulties cheerily enough, considering that his family is able to find the money to pay these fees.

I talked longer that night with Mama, trying to understand why the other, richer members of her late-husband’s family (this girls relatives), were not going to help Rokia.  Everyone I mentioned was a dead end.  For whatever reason, the people who feel obliged to provide for her have no means, and those with means do not feel obliged to provide for her. That, according to Mama, was the end of that. Rokia was lucky enough to have already found work with “Les Ivoiriens” down the block.  “Hopefully, when she has enough money, she’ll get married.”

Obviously, in the days that followed, the four hundred dollars nagged at me.  When I bought my ticket home, I cringed doubly, once for the hit to my bank account, once for the ease with which I was parting with more than twice the missing four hundred dollars.  Next year, I reasoned with myself, I’ll be employed.  With a little bit of economizing, I should be able to find $400 within even the paltriest of starting salaries.  I was still hesitant, feeling that it was not my place to help a girl that for some reason her own family didn’t seem especially motivated to help.  Part of it was personal.  Her attitude continued to grate on me.  The requests to use my phone increased and continued endlessly, and I began to resent the way she was eating through my phone credit, without ever a thank you.  Rokia never began to feel part of the family, though thinking about this only made me more aware of the arbitrariness of the family ties I do feel here.  Why would I feel differently if this were Papu’s education, or Ma’s? Are they really any more related to me?

October was almost over, a month of school already lost and I knew what I had to do.  I asked Mama if Rokia could still start school if she could pay.  She said yes, so I made my offer.  Always the pragmatist, Mama pointed out that one year wasn’t enough, what would happen after the first year was up?  I had already realized that signing Rokia up for one year of high school and then dropping her would be far worse than doing nothing at all, so I was ready to commit for all three remaining years.  Mama promised to talk to her ‘son’ who lives in another quartier, one of these mystery men related somehow to her late husband.  She would have him come to the house so I could talk things over with him.  He would know where she could or should enroll, and would help us set things up.  There seemed to be an unspoken agreement that until he came, Rokia was to be kept in the dark.

So I waited.  For a week I expected some information from Mama at any moment.  Then I started to search for a moment when no one was around to ask her what the situation was.  I asked once, she said she hadn’t had a chance to contact him yet.  Then Mama was hit with a bad case of malaria, and the family pretty much came to a halt.  We held our breath, I helped buy some medication. Abdoulaye, our neighbor nurse, treated her at home and she recovered enough to yell at me just as much as she always had.  With things back to normal, last night as I was on the way out the door to a friend’s going away dinner, I spotted Mama alone indoors.  As I said good bye, I asked if she had made any progress on the plans for Rokia.  “Rokia cannot go to high school,” she told me, “She is pregnant.”

Just like that, my four hundred dollars are back in my pocket, irrelevant, and Rokia is about to be hustled back to the village.  Evidently she’s four months along, she arrived here already in this ‘condition.’ “Am I supposed to take on all those expenses? No, she must go back where she came from.  Her parents have no means, she should live with her man.” “Is her man aware…?” I ask.  “Ha, is he aware, that is the question.  Does she even know who the proprietaire of the baby is? She arrived here, right away I asked her if she was pregnant she said no.  ‘Les Ivoiriens’ asked her, she said no.  Finally, I paid 2,000 CFA for a ‘text’, a midwife gave it to her and now the two lines both showed up.  She will stay to finish the month of work and then she must go, right away. Her stomach is already out.” She paused a bit on her angry tirade, and then said more softly, “She knows her parents have no means.  How can she mess around like that?”  I’m not entirely sure where Mama places the blame for Rokia’s messing around, quite possibly squarely back on Rokia herself.  But I have to think about that four hundred dollar tenth grade year, would there have been an hour of sex-ed throughout the whole of it?

And in all of this, what does Rokia want? Did anyone ask Rokia if she wanted to set out to the unknown world of Bamako to struggle through three more years of studies? Would she rather have stayed back home with her family? Would she rather have gotten married in the first place? Was she heartbroken to be denied schooling when her placement never arrived, or relieved? Did she already know that she wouldn’t be able to finish 10th grade this year anyway, or did her ignorance (or lack of access) to contraception extend to an ignorance of the signs of pregnancy? Though I live with her and see her every day, our relationship remains mute.  She greets me, giggles, and returns to whatever she was doing.  Soon she will be gone, as arbitrarily engulfed back into the great unknown of Sikasso and “la brousse” (the bush, as Malians and particularly expats in Mali refer to the countryside), as if I had never known to claim her has family.  Maybe someday when I return to Mali, Mama will tell me the baby’s name.  And who knows? Maybe her baby will have better luck with the educational system, and won’t need to rely on the largesse of an American stranger to find those impossible four hundred dollars.



  1. Oof! Like a kick in the stomach.

    Comment by Paul Rosenblum — November 19, 2010 @ 8:26 pm | Reply

  2. I am so touched by this post, knowing what education and continuing/not continuing it has meant even to our own family here, but magnified there. Your knowledge of these issues in Mali is impressive.

    Comment by Eileen — November 20, 2010 @ 11:02 pm | Reply

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