The best thing about school is that it provides something to strive for, says 12-year-old Rasmata in Burkina Faso, and ventures a cautious smile. “Life here is so hard.”
An old man sits under a shelter thatched with straw in the village of Zorgho. He is Rasmata’s grandfather, and has been unable to work for several years. Nor did he go to school – his father, a medicine man, forbade it.
He now spends most of the day sitting in a mound of old sacks, cloth and boxes, dressed in rags and surrounded by cases containing various herbs and plants, twigs and bark.
She went initially to Speed School for a year before starting at the ordinary state school. She is now in fifth grade, and very much the best pupil in her class of 116 children. Her average grade is 9.3 out of a maximum of 10.
Rasmata’s father died several years ago, and the history of her mother is unknown. The little girl was entrusted to her grandfather, who had not planned to send her to school.
When she was nine, however, she got a new opportunity to do what the old man missed out on – acquire an education.
“I like going to school, it’s so important for me,” says Rasmata. “It gives me knowledge and the chance to get a job where I can earn money and help my grandfather.”
Celestine Ouedraogo is responsible for the Speed School project which the young girl was able to attend. It had two classes last year in Zorgho, which lies a couple of hours by car from Ouagadougou, capital of this west African country.
Life in the dry and hot landscape surrounding the village presents major challenges – with shortages of food, water and a varied diet as the biggest. Education comes next.
A number of children are never able to start school, even if their parents want them to. Their poverty is so great that they cannot afford it. Even free school meals are not enough to ensure that everyone attends.
“They’d have planted and reaped on the farm, looked after the goats, sheep and cattle and fed the pigs. And the girls would probably have taken care of babies, washed and tidied up, brushed the courtyard and cooked.”
She is pleased that Rasmata got a fresh chance. Without Speed School, her future would have meant staying at home until somebody in the family decided to marry her off.
“Nobody can do that while she’s at school,” affirms Ouedraogo. “Without education, too, she’d have been more vulnerable to poverty, child labour and all the suffering you can imagine.
“Despite the many challenges these children face, they learn to read and write. They learn things which are important for them later in life. Most make very good use of this opportunity.”
Rasmata goes home in the afternoon break from 12.00 to 15.00. The school day itself lasts until 17.00. Her evening work involves cooking for herself and her grandfather, before she tidies, cleans and washes up.
Every day, when they have anything to eat, their diet is the same: maize porridge with a spicy sauce, palm oil, a little fruit and perhaps a bit of meat or fish.
“Being poor is not having food or money,” Rasmata explains quietly. “Being poor is having to beg. Being poor is to suffer. We sometimes get a bit extra from our neighbours when we have nothing. They are kind to us.”
She does her homework every evening, devoting a lot of time to it. Her favourite subject is history, because she can then understand how grandfather lived when he was growing up.
“I so want to show that I can do,” she says earnestly. “I so want to be better than the others, and to show granddad and my neighbours what I can achieve.
“When I was seriously ill one day and wasn’t able to go to school, my neighbours helped me because granddad couldn’t afford to send me to the doctor.
“That’s why I work so hard. I don’t want to be poor. I want to learn and get a job so that I can help granddad.”
The Kavli Trust is supporting the Speed Schools 1 and 2 run by Norway’s Strømme Foundation in Burkina Faso. Completing a programme lasting from nine months to two years gives their pupils a chance to start again at regular schools.