A dearth of resources and infrastructure means children in remote villages in Benin’s Collines Department receive schooling in the open air, or in crude straw huts. Our Observer is trying to bring the situation to the attention of authorities by taking images of these roofless schools, some of which make do without any desks, and sharing them on social media.
In Benin, 90 percent of children of school age attend primary school. But conditions often leave a lot to be desired. Our Observer Arsène Donouvi, project leader for the NGO Regard Fraternel, which campaigns for schooling for all children, visited several schools in isolated villages in the Collines Department in the south of the country.
In Kpingni, a village of a little over 4,000 inhabitants, he filmed a class taking place under a tree. In these pictures can be seen some 30 children huddled together at small school desks and a few others sitting on the ground.
A second video, taken in the village of Davissogo, also shows pupils in a classroom that has been thrown together using pieces of timber.
“Schools often end up with classes of 50 children, with all age levels mixed in together”
Donouvi says these pictures testify to the state of a large number of primary schools in rural parts of Benin.
In October, we visited three schools in three different villages in Collines. This situation is, in fact, practically the same in all of Benin’s departments, even in Littoral, where the capital Cotonou is located, and which is supposed to be the country’s window to the world.
But it is particularly stark in rural areas, where infrastructure and qualified teachers are in short supply. It is difficult to find teachers prepared to make the move to work there. So, schools often end up with classes of 50 children, with all age levels mixed in together.
When there are no qualified teachers available, the villages call on “local community teachers”. These are recruited by parents’ associations in collaboration with school principals. Most of them have no teaching diplomas. They are also paid directly by the parents, which poses problems in some villages where nobody can afford to pay them.
“In Collines, many children do not finish primary schooling”
As can be seen in the footage we filmed, not all children are able to sit down comfortably when taking classes. And when they do sit, they do not always have a desk to write at. Neither are there enough copybooks and pens.
Right now, we are focusing on the situation in the Collines Department because there are a number of challenges to meet. Many children here do not finish their primary schooling [Editor’s Note: According to UNESCO figures, in Benin, the primary schooling completion rate is 78 percent]. It is a real problem, particularly in this department, where many children work in stone crushing from a very young age.
Collines also has the country’s highest rate of teenage pregnancy. We are trying to keep girls in the education system to give them a structured environment and help them avoid getting pregnant too young.
The government and local authorities are forever trying to reassure us, saying that work will be done to help these pupils. But we don’t see anything happening. We hope that these pictures will spur them to do something.
“The government's objective: to build and renovate 7,000 classrooms and hire 10,000 teachers”
France 24 contacted the Beninese Minister for Nursery and Primary Teaching, Karimou Salimane, to show him the footage. He admits that the “situation is the reality in Benin, which is not how it should be”. He added:
These schools were established in 1971 [in Kpingni] and 2015 [in Davissogo]. They are among 7,000 schools in the country, a number of which need to be renovated. For President Patrice Talon’s term (2016-2021) we have pinpointed 1,500 existing classrooms to be overhauled, and the construction and outfitting of 6,000 others. We don’t expect to solve all problems in five years but we are trying to move in the right direction.
We have also identified a shortage of 12,000 teachers at nursery and primary school level. We aim to hire 10,000 teachers during this presidential term. Since April 2016, 3,600 have already been hired.
In addition to this, we have streamlined some school complexes, where teachers have under-attended classes, with fewer than 20 pupils per class in some cases. By merging a number of these classes, we have been able to free up more than 3,000 teachers to be redeployed in some rural schools.
But at the same time, it is true that these reforms have resulted in classes that were already crowded having more than 50 pupils. So, at this point we have to carry out field studies to identify priority schools and assign new teachers, while keeping within our budget [Editor’s Note: Around 107 billion CFA francs, or €163 million]. Some teachers have balked at these changes, because they have no ties to their newly assigned areas. But, to our knowledge, these are isolated cases.
Regard Fraternel says it offers additional pay to some teachers in rural areas. It also tries to convince them to stay, even if working conditions are very difficult. There are regular calls for donations on the charity’s Facebook page, but the NGO is mainly funded by an Italian foundation. Regard Fraternel also organises collections of equipment in towns and cities.