Just the other day I traveled with Marisa (another Fellow) and two people from my Apprenticeship to a village called Keur Dioba that was about 20-25km outside of Mboro, the town in which I’m currently living. We went to a children’s school in the afternoon and there was an after-hours program for adults going on. The people in attendance were all women ranging from late twenties to fifties. None of them had ever been to school.
When we walked in, they were working on multiple-digit addition and subtraction, entirely in Wolof. One woman at a time would walk up to the board that had problems previously written on it. She would say the first number out loud, for example, “Ñaari téeméer ak juróom ñetti fukk” (280) then the second number, “Téeméer ak juróom benni fukk “(160), and then do the subtraction. She would slowly, and very carefully, write each number out as she was determining the result. She would do each number one at a time, in front of the entire class. When she got to the end, she would proudly state “Téeméer ak ñaari fukk” (120), and the rest of the class would applaud her answer. Then she would sit down, the teacher would go over the problem, and another women would take her turn.
These are women who know practically no French. They live in a country where they cannot speak the official language. That shocked me to the core. These were not just maids, doing little jobs; these were mothers, heads of the household, who, for whatever reason, had never been through even the most basic schooling.
I asked Babacar, one of my Apprenticeship Supervisors, why they didn’t have any formalized schooling, and he said that it was because school was not mandatory in Senegal. He said that the government is working on putting a new law into place to make going to school obligatoire but there isn’t one yet. The result of this is that these women have really never been, and have never had to go, to school. These women had gone through their childhood and adolescence, their formative years, without a regular, state-standard system of schooling.
I can’t imagine that.
Now, I know there are a lot of things wrong with any school system, no matter where you live, but I can’t imagine what these women’s lives must be like. Obviously, they operate fine in society. They are definitely better than me at operating in Senegalese society. But so many opportunities are closed off to them. So many things that they don’t even know about.
Have you ever thought about what being illiterate would be like? Have you ever tried looking at letters and words, and seen them not as letters and words, but just as random squiggles on a page? They would appear as a nonsensical arrangement of vertical, horizontal, and curved lines that were a complete mystery. You wouldn’t be able to read what I am writing right now.
My two biggest reactions were shock and immense sadness. I was fortunate enough to have had a wonderful education in fantastic schools from Kindergarten all the way to 12th grade. These women were not. It does no good to wish for what could have been, but the thing that strikes me the most is that these women were there at all. When you have never been to school, could you imagine the type of willpower and determination it must take to go to an elementary school and say, alright, let’s start at the very beginning? There is a desire to learn here. There is a desire to fight against the fact that they didn’t go to school. These are women who, for whatever reason, didn’t go to school. But they want to change that. Be they 30, 40, or 50, they are making the effect and the choice to learn. That is incredible, awe-inspiring, and very humbling.
I think that the majority of people think that change in Africa, and especially in women’s issues, has to come externally. There has to be some foreign government or aid group that is pouring money into resolving a problem. But you can never fix or solve anything if there isn’t already somebody on the inside who wants it fixed. I now know, there are people on the inside, there are Senegalese people, who want things to change. They want to fix things. And they are working extremely hard to do it.