By Virginia Sowers, ChildFund Community Manager
To celebrate Blog Action Day 2012, we take you to Mékhé, Senegal, where a community has discovered the “Power of We.”
The sun is high overhead when we arrive at the daara school on the outskirts of Mékhé, Senegal, located in the Thies region, about 100 miles from the capital city of Dakar. A large crowd of community members has gathered in the circle of shade bestowed by the largest tree in the compound. The children, unfettered by the heat that is radiating from the parched and sandy soil, run quick steps around us, flashing shy, yet welcoming smiles.
Thies is home to more than 700 daaras, which are informal Islamic schools that most parents favor over the government school system. From an early age, boys are sent to board at daaras, where they learn religious principles and how to read and write. Because most of these schools have operated independently without oversight or financial assistance from the government, more than 30,000 children in the Thies region are missing out on a well-rounded formal education. Far worse, these children – often lacking proper shelter and food at the daaras – beg on the streets and are exposed to risks and abuses.
To address this situation, while respecting religious traditions, the government of Senegal is undertaking a daaras modernization program, working with nonprofit partners like ChildFund. The goal is to provide a safe and nurturing environment for children while incorporating languages (French and Arabic), math and science education with traditional religious teachings.
During the past 12 months, ChildFund has been working closely with community leaders to jointly transform the Mékhé daara. We immediately see the results all around us – a new building with two airy classrooms; a brightly painted dormitory for 60 children, complete with neat bunk beds and hall bathrooms; and an open-air shelter for religious studies. Well-built private latrines are available for boys and girls—yes, the school now welcomes female children to day classes.
The new facilities are impressive, yet it’s only when school and community leaders lead us through the old classroom and dormitory building that we begin to comprehend just how much Mékhé daara has changed. On the opposite side of the compound are the old buildings. Inside, we find a dark and dingy classroom that once held 300 students in what must have been impossibly crowded seating. Across the way is an equally bleak dorm room where 50 students once slept with cots and mattresses crammed together. As we step outside, we drink in the fresh air and sunshine while inwardly wondering how children could have possibly learned and slept in such environments.
Community members make room for us under the shade tree, eager to talk about the modernized school and to answer our questions. “We wanted to improve the situation of the children living here,” the leader of the Daara Management Committee says. “Everybody in the village is involved; we want to be effective,” he says.
As we talk with the men and women, we learn that the work of keeping up the school and grounds is now divided among subcommittees: education, children’s health and welfare, animal husbandry and food. The community has welcomed ChildFund’s efforts to strengthen and support teachers in delivering expanded courses. “Our children can now do the same exams as in formal school,” one community member says.
ChildFund also has been instrumental in helping establish the animal husbandry program (goats and cows) and a large garden to grow eggplant, okra, tomatoes and other nourishing foods for the children. “Children in other daaras must go outside [the compound] and beg for food. We are growing our own food, and the children have mother and parent figures they can turn to,” the committee leader explains. “It’s a big difference in the old way of running the daara, and the way it is now.”
We turn to ask the children what they think about the changes in their school. Shyness renders them silent. But then, Moy, a young boy of around 12 speaks up. “I like the new beds and the sleeping arrangements. I like the classrooms. And the fences that protect us.”
The success of the school has not gone unnoticed in the region. More parents are now sending their children to Mékhé. In turn, the Daara Management Committee and ChildFund are working together to gain more financial support from the Senegal government to pay teacher salaries and add more classrooms and teachers. Plans are under way to expand the garden and promote more community farming of millet, corn and peanuts to feed the children and also provide an additional source of income.
Working side by side these past 12 months, community members have discovered that they have the power to bring about positive change.