OUAGADOUGOU, 12 May 2010 (IRIN) - “Bee-ba-ta a un bébé!” Seated on plastic mats, their sandals and book bags on the ground nearby, children follow text with chalk-dusted fingers as they practice reading.
Months ago these children spent most of their time begging in the streets of the Burkina Faso capital Ouagadougou. With help from university student volunteers and support from the NGO Terre des hommes (Tdh), the children - part of Burkina’s Malian Tuareg community - now spend their days in the classroom.
“When we see these children begging we are tempted to give them money,” Nacambo Kassoum, one of the volunteers, told IRIN. “But money - that’s gone in a day. We wanted to give them help that would last.”
Volunteer Traoré Abdoul Karim said: “Children who grow up in the streets without an education often become delinquents. In helping them clearly we are also helping society.”
Initiated in early 2009, the students’ original plan was to teach the children to read, holding lessons with them two afternoons a week, said Mamadou Touré, coordinator of the students’ National Association for Childhood Aid and Protection (ANAPE). They spoke with the children’s parents about allowing the time away from begging, even if it would mean less money for the family.
“With the results we started to see [and on the advice of local teachers] we decided it would be better for the children to register them in school,” Touré said. The students helped 32 children enter classes for the 2009-10 academic year, with financial backing from Tdh.
Birth certificate waiver
That required a willingness by school authorities to temporarily waive the requirement of birth certificates for school registration, Touré and school officials explained. ANAPE members have since talked to officials about establishing identity papers for the children.
Ousmane Ouédraogo, director of Dag-noen A state primary school in Ouagadougou, said he and his colleagues were impressed by the university students’ initiative.
“It was great to see these students thinking about this sector of the population who are, after all, rather disadvantaged," he told IRIN. “As educators we are always distressed to see school-age children not in school… This is why we decided, even though the children didn’t have their birth certificates, to register them.”
The Tuareg - a nomadic pastoralist people in western and northern Africa - have historically been marginalized in society or affected by conflict. Many of the families involved in the programme are among the thousands of Malian Tuareg who fled to Burkina during fighting in northern Mali in past years.
Ouédraogo said that after a timid beginning - “when some of the children sat in class all day without opening their mouths” - the new students are increasingly at ease and open.
Best way to fight poverty
The school director said: “This is the way to fight poverty - educate the children.”
The children’s parents agree, saying they would much rather have their children in school than out begging. Aboubakar, 8, said his three brothers are now going to school but he is not. "I don't have the time." His family cannot afford to take all of the children away from begging at once.
Six-year-old Ami, who started school in 2009, said she wants to get an education so she can take care of her entire family. Her classmate, six-year-old Aisha, said she envisions continuing on to university. "But after that, I'm not sure yet."
“It is for lack of means the children were not in school,” said Ag Agalas Issa, head of the Malian Tuareg association in Ouagadougou, translating for some parents speaking Tamasheq.
One of the parents who did not give his name told IRIN: “We know that when by begging a child receives money today, tomorrow and the next day, he is less inclined to think of educating himself or working to earn a living.”
They are pastoralists but most lost their livestock to drought, parent Ag Oumar Gaïma said. “That is the only work we know. It is all we had so many of us are forced to beg. Begging is not something we are used to doing or would choose to do.” Some do a bit of farming, but it is not the work they are accustomed to, he said.
ANAPE - which receives training as well as financial backing from Tdh - hopes to set up income-generating activities for the families. Currently the groups provide 10kg of millet per month for each child who attends school. Parents and ANAPE members said they are creating a community healthcare fund, to which the volunteers and able families will contribute each month.
The university students conduct weekly school and home visits to monitor the children’s progress and provide tutoring.
ANAPE’s Touré said the association and the Tuareg community are looking to reach more children in Ouagadougou and are studying the possibility of setting up a similar programme in Djibo, about 200km north, after a request by members of the large Malian Tuareg population there.