Observers

An inclusive school, which educates blind students alongside their sighted peers, opened near Bamako, the capital of the west African nation of Mali, in October 2017. The founder and principal of the school reached out to the FRANCE 24 Observers team to tell us about the challenges that the pupils face. For although the school offers these children a precious refuge and a chance at success, it is struggling to stay afloat.

Eco-Poinçon is a small private school in Kati, a town located about 15 kilometres northwest of Bamako. The school has 26 students, six of whom are blind. The children, both sighted and not, learn to read, write and count together.

The class is taught by a pair of teachers. The main teacher is herself blind, and is a graduate of the IUFM teaching college (Institut universitaire de formation des maîtres). Her assistant, who is sighted, writes the lesson on the board for the students who can see.

Both blind and sighted students learn together at this school. (Photo by our Observer)

"This is the only place where visually impaired students can go to school for free”

Youssouf Diakité works for the Malian Ministry of Solidarity and Humanitarian Action. Diakité himself has been blind since birth. He attended university at the École nationale d’administration malienne. Now he is an expert in technology that helps blind and visually impaired students. Back in 2014, he organised a series of workshops in Bamako on this theme. Three years later, he managed to secure a bank loan and a plot of land, which was gifted by the city of Kati. He then set about establishing a school to help visually impaired students.

My school is the first inclusive primary school in the country. It is also the only school that blind students can attend for free. Only the sighted students pay tuition, which is 2,000 CFA francs [3 euros] per month.

In Mali, like in other countries in the region, these children are often seen as a burden for their families, who think they will never succeed in life and so often force them to become beggars. In Bamako, lots of blind people beg on the side of the road and come close to being hit by motorcycle taxis..

School founder Youssouf Diakité in front of Eco Poinçon School. (Photo from our Observer).

"We are facing financial difficulties"
 
I had to convince some of these parents to let their visually impaired children be educated. It wasn’t always easy. But when I told them about my own life story: how I succeeded at school, rose to a high position in a ministry and now earn a salary, they were convinced. Unfortunately, some simply handed over their children to me, essentially abandoning them. Now I take care of them even during the school holidays.

Our school is a refuge for them. They can learn but, most importantly, they spend time with sighted children. This is extremely important because it gives them confidence in themselves.

This classroom was built and equipped by Youssouf Diakité, who took out loans to start this school. (Photo sent by our Observer)

However, after just over a year, we are facing extreme financial difficulties because the families of our sighted students are so poor that they can’t pay tuition. We are struggling to pay the teachers and to buy the education materials we need like those that teach students to read and write in braille or the cubarithm, which is a braille teaching aide to teach students to count.
 
160,000 blind people in Mali

Diakité’s school isn’t the only school for visually impaired or blind students. Since 1973, the Malian Union for the Blind (Union malienne des aveugles) has also offered schooling for these children. That’s where Diakité was educated, as were the well-known singing duo Amadou and Mariam.

But this school, which is located in Bamako and has roughly 200 students, is also facing a series of challenges.

The union financially supports its teaching by selling mops and chalk made by blind employees. However, as cheap goods from China have flooded Malian markets, the union has been unable to sell their products, putting the school in financial difficulty.

The teachers at the school have been striking regularly as part of a national movement. Students have therefore already missed 10 school days since the first of January, according to Diakité.

In Mali, there are an estimated 160,000 blind people, according to statistics from the Ministry of Health. The country has 28 eye doctors. Many children go blind from preventable illnesses such as measles, conjunctivitis (especially when it is contracted by a newborn) or eye trauma. In some cases, blindness can be caused by harmful traditional practices.
 
If you want to help Youssouf Diakité continue to run this school, you can contact him by email at diakiteyoussouf2@gmail.com