Skiving, playing hooky, bunking off, playing wag — whatever you call it, we’ve all done it.
According to figures recently released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, truancy figures for both disadvantaged and advantaged children in the United Kingdom are above average compared to other developed nations. They also report that a fifth of British teenagers drop out of school at 16.
Figures are not available for most developing countries, and of course the access to education varies dramatically from country to country, which makes truancy difficult to track.
But my work abroad for Christian Aid makes me believe that were it possible to make comparisons — the U.K.’s place in the league would plunge even further. In many developing countries, the appetite for learning is profound. It is the surest route out of poverty.
Take some of the students I met in Mali. They had fled their homes, leaving families behind, simply to take their exams.
When fighting started in northern Mali following the March 2012 coup, rebel groups quickly took control of three of the largest cities in the north — Kidal, Gao and Timbuktu. Residents witnessed violent attacks, public floggings and armed men everywhere. Although mainly Muslim themselves, locals were not accustomed to the strict rules of Sharia law that were introduced by the extremists. Group meetings, cigarettes, television or football were all banned, and if a woman was seen out of the house alone, she could be beaten up and taken to prison.
Schools in these areas struggled to cope; teachers were afraid to turn up, school buildings were destroyed and soon many began to close. Students who were due to take exams had nowhere to go. The Malian education minister announced that schools in the southern regions should accept any student coming from the north. Many students left their homes and their families behind to travel south to continue their education.
Alhousseiny Dicko is one of these students. He left his family in Timbuktu and fled south.
“I started to look for ways to get to Sévaré — it was not an easy process. We jumped on board a truck full of people already. On the way we broke down. We spent more than seven days on the road,” said Alhousseiny. “Some people think that we came as a refugee or displaced person, that’s not the sole reason. We came first and foremost to study.”
Alhousseiny is one of several students that came to the École Technique Saint Joseph in Sévaré. These young people left everything behind in order to continue their education, but conditions for them here were not ideal. They were reliant on distant relatives or NGOs to provide them with support. Lack of food was a serious issue, as it is so difficult to concentrate on an empty stomach. The trauma of what they had witnessed in their home towns — as well as leaving their parents to come to a strange town where they didn’t even speak the local dialect — was psychologically very difficult.
“Jihadists killed and mutilated in Timbuktu. Someone was killed in broad daylight in front of everyone,” Alhousseiny said. “They shot him in the head. Someone went to the power station and was stealing wires. They caught him and cut off his hand. He was stealing because of lack of food — he was just trying to survive like everyone else.”
Although the schools had opened their doors to them, it was difficult to settle in, especially halfway through the school year. Some children felt isolated and stigmatized. Even though they were now in the south, the conflict continued to affect them.
“Sometimes I still get scared to meet or see a military man. I live life day-by-day and take each day as it comes. When I talk with my friends at home and they ask if everything is ok, I keep telling them it’s ok even if it’s not”, Alhousseiny said.
Mahamane Traore is also from the north. He traveled over 800 km from Diré to Bamako searching for somewhere to live. When he was unsuccessful, he moved on to a refugee camp in Sévaré.
“I would love to go back home, I don’t feel that the rebellion will ever finish. We see that every ten years there’s a rebellion in Mali. The groups keep preparing themselves; they always find reasons to start something, therefore we can’t stop rebellion. It will never end,” he said.
When asked why they had put their lives at risk in order to continue their educations, Mahamane simply answered, ”Education is very important because you can’t get any job without being educated now. You can’t be a president or minister if you’re not educated.”
One of the organizations that supports internally displaced people who have fled the fighting in northern Mali is Christian Aid partner GRAT. They offer financial as well as practical help to those who have escaped sometimes with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Many IDPs have been taken in by distant relatives or strangers who have opened up their homes to them because they have nowhere else to go. The majority have no means of earning a living, no land to cultivate or goods to sell. They are dependent on the kindness of others.
Mahamane and Alhousseiny are just an example of the many young Malians who have put education first. They understand the importance of getting an education and despite the problems stacked against them; they continue to strive to better their situation by staying in school.
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