While teaching at Lycée de Sandiara, I observed a lack of engagement and concentration among my students. After having listened to their thoughts regarding my observations, it came to my attention that the majority of the students at Lycée de Sandiara live in villages surrounding Sandiara and have to walk several kilometres to get to school. The students who walk the furthest walk up to 8 km one way. Not only does having to walk so far take away time from studying, but students are also discouraged from participating in school activities in the afternoon. Moreover, students need to leave their homes early in the morning and rarely have time to eat breakfast before going to school. Finally, once at school, the effects of having a long distance to school affects the students’ academic performance as he or she may be both tired and hungry.
A symptom of these factors combined is that several students at Lycée de Sandiara don’t perform well enough academically to pass onto the next grade. Or a tired student might simply decide it’s not worth going to school. And if a student fails to pass twice, the student will not be allowed to finish his or her secondary education.
The issue of students having to walk long distances to get to school was also raised by news reporters who came to Lycée de Sandiara and made a reportage about it, broadcasted nationally. The students living close to the national route have the option of taking a vehicle to school, but other villages are far away from any paved roads. There are cases of students being taken to school with carts dragged by donkeys and horses. However, there is no communal efforts made for all the students living in remotely located villages.
My host-dad Kor Beisse, who is also the vice principal of Lycée de Sandiara, said the solution to the issues mentioned above was simple since all the resources were already at hand in the villages. The only problem was that no one would take the initiative to organize it. Not even him. Thus, I decided that my community project would be to organize school transportation. I convinced him to help try and together we chose to try organizing school transportation in the village Godaguène, which is located around 8 km from the school.
The plan was to first mobilize the physical resources in the villages, namely the carts, donkeys and horses available to transport the students. The labour would have to be voluntary, so that the transportation could be free for all students, thereby avoiding exclusion of students whose parents aren’t willing to give their children money to pay for school transportation. To avoid that a man taking children other than his own demands payment from them, a system where the parents took turns on lending their donkeys/horses/carts and bringing children to school would have to take place, so that parents instead ‘pay back’ by taking the children to school themselves another day of the week.
This type of organization was essentially the core of this community project, and also the most challenging part. In the meantime, I would collaborate with students from Godaguène, to make them raise awareness amongst elderly members of the community of the challenges they as students face, as well as the benefits of having school transportation
28th of February, I held a meeting at school with the students living in Godaguène during which I introduced the project, and asked them to talk with their parents and spread awareness of the project’s importance, as well as their interest in seeing it succeed. I told them I would come to their village to hold a meeting for them and their parents the following Sunday.
5th of March, Sunday morning, Kor and I went to the village Godaguène to have meeting regarding the community project. We arrived on time, at 10:00 am, at the local school in this remote place.
Some people had already showed up for the meeting. Except for a couple of girls sweeping the floor of the classroom where we had our meeting, there were only men present. All of them were students except for two older men who were parents. Being in Senegal, events usually start hours after planned time. At 11:00 am, I opened the meeting to an audience of more than 60 students, both boys and girls, and 20 mothers and fathers. Between me and them was a table, and sitting by my side were Mr. Censeur Kor Beisse and two students finishing their last year of high school, Dennis and Latyr Ngom.
I spoke only in French, introducing myself and explaining my reasons for being in Senegal. I then moved on to talking about my observations during my time teaching at the school, and the problem at Lycée de Sandiara of too many students not having good enough grades to continue their education. I explained how many students don’t concentrate well at school, and that this in return impedes their learning. Talking with students, I was made aware that they are tired, hungry and sleepy because they spend hours walking to school in the morning, leaving so early that they have no time to eat breakfast, sleep well or revise before classes. I emphasised that without education today, finding a good job could get very difficult in the future, and that the students’ academic performance at school is decisive for their future. So doing something about this problem should be in the parents’ interest, considering that they are already investing 10000 FCFA a year pear child to go to public school.
I introduced the project. Pointed out that their village already has a person taking some children to the school in the morning with their cart and donkeys. I asked why only a few students were taken, and why they shouldn’t give all students of Godaguène the same chance to succeed in their lives. Why couldn’t they make a communal collaboration in which everybody in Godaguène were given the same access to education, so that they don’t unfairly compete against students from Sandiara who don’t face the same challenge they do. Or in Dakar, where prestigious schools make sure their students have school transportation.
I asked my dad to translate what I had said in French to Serer, considering that many parents’ have never gone to school and therefore don’t understand much French. I had already informed him thoroughly about the project, so he knew just what to say to get that engaged response from parents and students. He spoke for a long time, saying every point I had told him about. I observed the parents, nodding fiercely and occasionally exclaiming ‘iyoo!’ (yes) and who clapped enthusiastically once he finished talking. More parents started talking. The president of parents was present, and did right in saying that this is the parent’s duty to organise. He declared that a meeting for the parents would be held that same day, and became the first man to offer his voluntary services for the project.
Students spoke as well. One student in particular, while talking about the hardships they face, was on the verge of crying as he spoke. It was touching to see how brave they all are, how willing they are to work for each other and contribute to bettering each other’s lives. One of the students sitting on my side of the table stood up and thanked me, not only for having come to set such a project in motion, but also for contributing to Senegal’s development, which I felt was too much than I deserved because I felt I hadn’t done anything really.
I finished off by saying that I was only there to get things started. That now it was up to them to take on the project themselves, to collaborate and ensure its sustained success. And finally, that once they succeeded, they would be of inspiration to other students from other villages facing the same challenge. Then, it would be their obligation to help them get started with organising school transportation in their villages, and it would be them who would contribute to Senegal’s development.
In order to encourage the initiation of the project and demonstrate its feasibility, I committed to funding the first two weeks, from Monday 6th of March to Friday 17th of March (10 schooldays, excluding Saturdays). A cart fit around 10 students and costed 1000 FCFA. Thus, I spent a total sum of 30 000 FCFA for paying 3 carts daily for 10 days. Another reason why I wanted to fund the first two weeks was so that sceptic parents would still transport the students and perhaps get a better understanding of how much the students appreciate transportation in the morning. Additionally, a few representatives of each neighbourhood in Godaguène were responsible of informing and motivating students living in their neighbourhoods to speak up for themselves to their parents.
During this period, I would hold daily meetings with the representatives to follow up on the progress of the project and improve as we went noticed faults or lack of commitment.
On the first day, 5 carts with students came, two of which were voluntary. The following day there were 4 carts, one of which voluntary. Third and fourth day, 3 carts, all of which were paid for.
I started worrying the system of taking turns hadn’t been properly understood by the parents and that students weren’t believing they had any say in making this project work. But that Thursday, the president of parents held a meeting with around 30 parents, and the following day 8 carts came, 5 of which were voluntary.
The second week, there were ups and downs as well, but overall the impact of having had school transportation for two weeks showed itself during the third week, from the 20th to the 24th of March (last day before school vacation), when there was no external funding of the project and the community members continued with the project themselves. This week they demonstrated that the project is one that has the possibility of being run and sustained in the long-run by the community itself, thus without any need of external funding and/or help.
(Photo of Ngor Dieng, one of the volunteer contributors)
The community of Godaguène became the prototype for this project of organizing school transportation and showed that they could keeping it going by themselves.
I was supposed to present the project at a meeting with the Student Government and the students representing Godaguène one Wednesday afternoon, but unfortunately, they had to postpone the meeting because of unexpected afternoon classes. The object of the meeting was to make the Student Representatives and the representatives of Godaguène inform all classes at the Lycée de Sandiara about the project done in Godaguène, so that students facing the same challenges of having a long way to walk to school would know they have the opportunity of reaching out to their student representatives. This way, students at Lycée de Sandiara could develop this project at a much larger level, for the remaining remotely located villages around Sandiara without school transportation.
A couple of weeks ago, I e-mailed my host dad to hear if the project was still going. He replied saying that there are only two carts still going everyday, one of which is taken by the president of parents. He thought the parents hadn’t kept their engagement and he didn’t know what to do to get the project going again. It wasn’t unexpected, and so I’m not too disappointed. Rather, I feel a bit powerless, but again I know I needed to feel that. Going through this experience of trying to create an impactful, sustainable project, has been incredibly valuable for me. For firstly, it gave me a reality check by calling me out on my naivety. Secondly, it made me realize that solutions always exist in theory, but putting them into practice requires an effort some aren’t willing or able to make. And lastly, that the ones who want and need change the most, aren’t in power of making that change alone.