Students of the Agnan Lodoube Primary School near Matam, Senegal, take part in outdoor instruction before a meal served on the campus using food provided by Counterpart International. Counterpart International is implementing the USDA-funded McGovern-Dole International Food for Education and Child Nutrition program in eastern Matam as a way to combat both malnutrition and illiteracy in Senegal.

© David Snyder/ Counterpart International.

By Jennifer O’Riordan

The old “classroom” used by a religious school called the Daara Thierno Malal Talla was nothing more than a small roof made of thatched branches held up by some old poles. It leaned against a hut made of mud that looked equally shaky.

Today, the new classroom has a concrete floor, sturdy walls and a proper roof. A volunteer teacher writes on a blackboard and the children have an opportunity to learn.

Not long ago, however, the children at the Daara Thierno Malal Talla were like other “talibe” kids in Senegal. They were sent to the streets to beg for money or food for their Koranic school.

These independently run religious institutions typically lack sheltered classrooms and food, let alone notebooks, pencils and other basic school supplies.

To fill this gap, it is commonplace for the school’s religious leader, called a Marabout, to send students out to beg for the money needed to fund the school. This practice not only reduces the amount of time children spend learning but it also puts them at risk of exploitation.

For many of these children, school is also where they live. Many are orphans or have been sent there by their families who cannot afford to provide for them.

As part of the Basic Education of Vulnerable Children Program, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Counterpart is working with 65 Koranic schools to keep children off the streets and in the classroom. \

USAID and Counterpart have helped these schools to construct classrooms, install latrines and provided school supplies and food, thus giving the Marabout less reason to send the children out to beg. Counterpart also provides food commodities to these schools, knowing that a healthy child can participate in their schooling a lot more.

“We have to remember that malnutrition and poor health were also reasons for poor attendance,” explains a volunteer teacher at one of the Daara Thierno. “The children attended more when they were receiving food and they had more energy. For those children, it’s easy to see that without Counterpart’s help it would be almost impossible for them” to survive.

More varied curricula has also been developed so students learn basic skills, how to read and write in French and even some vocational skills they can use to make a living afterwards. With Counterpart’s help, these schools are collaborating with training institutes so that pupils can acquire new skills in fields such as tailoring, metalwork or computer science.

Overcoming doubts

The Marabout at the Daara Thierno Ousmane Koranic School says that some of his peers were skeptical about accepting help for the school out of fear that it would require them to make changes that were not consistent with the institution’s goals. Despite such concerns, he wanted to improve conditions for the hundreds of kids under his care.

The children were living in unsafe conditions and he could not let that continue. At night, for example, they would sleep on the ground and the scorpions would sting them. During the day, they would sit in the blazing sun with temperatures that would soar above 100 degrees. Learning took a backseat to survival.

“One of our strategies was to conduct what we call exchange visits,” explains Medoune Diop, Counterpart’s Deputy Country Director in Senegal. “We brought Marabouts and religious leaders from this area to another region in Luga to see one of the biggest Koranic schools in the country where they are learning the Koran but they’re learning other things.”

After that visit, Diop recalls, that “they spent the whole week there, and even before they came back, they said, ‘we definitely want to do the same thing.’”

Today, the Daara Thierno Ousmane Koranic School has proper facilities, including a one-room classroom, latrines and a kitchen. The volunteer French teacher provides about 12 hours of instruction a week, which ensures that the children will have basic educational skills.

Reaching 45,000 children

The program’s objective is to keep around 55,000 children off the streets.

“We’re in the third year of five years and we’re already at 45,000” students, says Josephine Trenchard, Counterpart’s Country Director in Senegal. “I think anybody would agree that education is one of the important things. The more educated you are the more opportunities you have.”

Counterpart has helped these schools to construct classrooms, install latrines and provided school supplies and food, giving school leaders less reason to send the children out to beg.

With Counterpart’s help, these schools are collaborating with training institutes so that pupils can acquire new skills in fields such as tailoring, metalwork and even computer science.

“We also hope this will have a knock on effect on the poverty within families here,” says a State Education Inspector in St. Louis Province. “Because the child has access to education and professional training and then can be employed and not only have their own lives but contribute to their families.”

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