Africa Speaks: Education 2

Sky at dawn, camping by Sirba River near Boulkagou, Niger, 1992

Contents: . . . A Charm for an Exam . . . How I Started School . . . First Day of School . . .
My First Day . . . Curriculum Vitae . . . At the FLSH . . . Afterword . . .
Notes on Literacy and Niger's School System . . .home page


A Charm for an Exam

Mahamadou Warou 5/11/92

I was about thirteen years old when I took my first exam in 1973. It was the primary school certificate, an important event for all the pupils and their families. This exam was the first step for further studies in a high school.

A week before the examination my mother sent for a marabout who came and spent three days in my father's hut. At first, I didn't understand why this strange man was called upon. Then one night, my mother took me to him.

I found him sitting on a mat drawing a lot of signs on the floor. I stood speechless in the middle of the hut. He told me to sit down and shut my eyes. He took my left hand and put it on the mysterious signs. Then I opened my eyes and he gave me a talisman and told me to keep it in my pocket on the day of the exam. In a persuasive manner he advised me not to talk to anybody until I got into the classroom. I would pass my exam if I followed his instructions.

I was puzzled because I couldn't see any connection between an exam and a talisman. I thought he was crazy. How could a charm help me in arithmetic, for example? When I came back my mother took the charm and told me to keep it a secret.

On the first of June, the day of the exam, my mother woke me 9 up early. I washed myself quickly, had my breakfast, and put on my new clothes. At about seven o'clock my classmates came to our house but my mother sent them away by telling them that I had already gone for the exam. As our house was not far away from the school, I left at half past seven. Before the inspector began calling up the candidates I hid behind a mango tree to avoid talking to anyone. From time to time I touched the charm to be sure it was in my pocket. When the bell rang I ran and joined the crowd.

As soon as the examiner called my name I rushed into the classroom, following the instructions of the marabout. But deep inside me I didn't believe at all in the power of my charm. However, I put my trust in my mother. If that charm was not powerful, she wouldn't have accepted it from the marabout.

Once in front of the examiners I lost my self control and forgot everything, even the talisman which was in my trousers pocket. The classroom became narrow and I was in a sweat. I had worked hard all year, but I was afraid that everything I had done was doomed to fail.

When the examiner handed out the arithmetic test I panicked. I read the exercises twice but I didn't understand anything. I shook all over. I didn't finish all the exercises, but at that moment I felt confident. I told myself that the charm would do the rest.

After half an hour I gave my copy to the examiner and went out. From the start to the finish I was conscious that I didn't do well but I thought I was sure to pass my exam because of the charm. I even asked my mother to buy a he-goat for a feast.

In August we went for the announcement of the results. The school playground was crowded that day. All the candidates were there, waiting impatiently for the inspector. Our hearts were beating hard and the atmosphere was tense.

An old woman came out with the list of the pupils who had passed the test. Silence fell on the crowd. She began calling up the names and there were cheers and cries of happiness in the crowd. I was restless and I couldn't even swallow my saliva because my throat was dry. I listened carefully but I didn't hear my name.

At last the inspector stood up and told the unfortunate candidates who had failed to study hard and be ready to take the test again next year. It was terrible. I was among them. I wanted to cry but no sound came out. I couldn't walk or hear anything around me. I lost consciousness and collapsed. Some classmates took me home.

I stayed in bed for almost two weeks. I refused to eat anything. I wanted to die of starvation. I didn't want to meet my classmates because I thought they knew something about my charm. I was ashamed of myself.

After three months I forgot everything about the examination, and after that I refused to accept charms from anyone. I concluded that all marabouts and soothsayers were cheaters.

But this was a childish apprehension. As I grow older I have discovered many mysterious things. Charms do work. My mother was right.

Copyright © 1998 Mahamadou Warou

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Rice farm near Tillabery, Niger, 1992

How I Started School

Mrs. Ousmane Zeinou Abdou 3/12/92

Gangara, my village, is a small one in the northeast of the country, about 30K n of Maradi. In 1964, very few children in that village went to school.

When the selections were about to begin, in September, the parents used to take their children to other villages and hide them. When the authorities asked about the child, they said that he was dead, or gone to a far place. Some parents gave bribes of money, cows, or camels in order to "save" their children from school. At that time people thought that school was for white men, and a kind of alienation. They saw it as something which concerned only "kafirs" and those who don't believe in Mohammed as a messenger of God, the Supreme.

The area is deeply involved in Islam. Only the chiefs were obliged to send their children to school. These facts explain why teachers found only four or five pupils in a classroom, or even in a whole school.

Girls were seldom found among these students because their destiny was marriage. At that time, girls got married at a young age. At eleven or twelve years old, they were dragged off and married, even if they were at school.

My cousin Rabi had the fortune of having a father who served as a soldier in a nearby town, Maradi. In 1964, Rabi and I were living with our grandmother. When Rabi was seven, my uncle, Rabi's father, wanted her to go to school. As he wasn't contradicted in the family, she was selected.

We used to play together and when she went to school I didn't want to stay at home, alone. I was worried and I began going with her to school, where I waited outside the classroom. The school was about half a kilometer from the village, and after about a week of this our grandmother began to worry about me. She was afraid I might be stolen or hurt.

Finally she asked the headmaster to select me for school. I entered school at the end of October of that year, 1964, and it was the beginning of my primary cycle.

Copyright © 1998 Mrs. Ousmane Zeinou Abdou

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First Day of School

Sani Dan Lamso 1/6/92

When I was seven years old in 1966, my father took me to Mountarou primary school to be registered. Although Montarou was near our village, Kadata, I was very unhappy. I didn't want to leave my family every school day to go to Mountarou.

When my father led me to school the first day, I was very afraid. I saw many children of my age and some older children. The teachers spoke a language I couldn't understand. Later I realized they spoke French.

At eight o'clock all first year children were told to go into the classroom in order and very quietly. We sat on the benches looking anxiously at the teacher. We didn't know what to do. I sometimes hid behind a boy in front of me, who was bigger than me, because I didn't want to be seen by the teacher. I was so frightened that I'd rather be at home to do even the most difficult work.

All the objects in the classroom--blackboard, maps, box of pieces of chalk--were new for me. The classroom we were in was beautiful, better than our rooms at home. The teacher was kind; she didn't hit anybody.

I was wearing an old shirt, old trousers, and old shoes, but they were the best I had at that time. My father saw some well dressed boys and promised to buy me some new clothes. My mother was not happy because she thought that her son had left her for a new education.

The first day I was brought to school, I didn't have any materials such as pen, pencil and so on. Delou, our teacher, told us that going to school was good because we would be rich after our studies.

Copyright © 1998 Sani Dan Lamso

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My First Day

Iyo Ibrahim

In October 1967 I was led to school for the first time. That day I was dressed in my best clothes, after I had a long bath. Then, instead of the ten francs my father usually gave me for breakfast, he gave me twenty-five. I was very happy, because my income had increased, and because I would not have to go to the farm as I used to do.

At school, I was taken to the sixth form classroom where the newcomers were registered. At about ten o'clock we were all gathered in another classroom called "ta-in-bana" which means "for the new pupils."

We spent all the rest of the morning talking in our mother tongue, and the teacher didn't intervene to make us keep quiet. The best part for we was that I met children from other villages and we soon became friends.

The first days of learning were very easy because it was like learning to sing songs. After it started to be more difficult for we were asked to tell when he had learned two or three days before.

Copyright © 1998 Iyo Ibrahim

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Curriculum Vitae

Mahaman Issaka 12/2/91

I was born in 1959 in Gonna, a small village in the district of Mirriah in Zinder department. After six years in primary school, I entered CEG (secondary school) in October 1974. I was very fond of English class.

At the end of the four year secondary school course I was sent to the Teacher's College of Zinder for two years, where I studied literature. In October 1980 I was sent to CEG to teach English.

Now I am a student in the English department of the Faculty of Letters and Human Sciences (FLSH), after being selected by the Ministry of Civil Service.

Studying at the University is really interesting. The style of teaching obliges us to do much research in libraries. For example I read five novels last year: I was most interested in Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe.

After the four year course at the University I expect to be called back by the Ministry of Education of Education. So in four years time I'll be teaching English in the Lycee or the CEG.

Copyright © 1998 Mahaman Issaka

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At the FLSH

Iyo Ibrahim 1/6/92

Dear Cousin,
As it is the beginning of the academic year, I take the opportunity to write to you and tell you the conditions in which we study in the department of English.

The department is composed of four levels: first, second, third, and fourth years. We have Nigerien teachers as well as foreign teachers, and we work in harmony. I am going to tell you about the second year, the one I am in.

There are too many students in this level. There are more than one hundred students in certain lectures. Can you imagine such a large number of students in one class? I don't need to tell you that it is too many. The classroom is always overcrowded, so that you can see students in the doorway or at the windows, taking a lecture.

Students and teachers should complain about this situation, but what can we do? Even the government does nothing. I am really afraid because one can not study efficiently in such crowded conditions. These are not the conditions I expected to meet at the University, but it is the case.

Keep well, keep working hard. Greet everyone for me. I hope we will meet at home during next holidays.

Yours sincerely,
Iyo Ibrahim

Copyright © 1998 Iyo Ibrahim

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Seko seller, Plateau quarter, Niamey, Niger, 1992

Afterword: Letter from Douramane

Douramane Issifi Soumaila January 1995

Dear Dr. Patricia,
A year ago I wrote to you from Ile Ife where I had gone to continue my studies. I came back satisfied from Nigeria's most beautiful campus, being now a B.A. graduate. [Third year degree: he got his Duel (second year degree) in 1992.]

I registered for the fourth year classes here in Niamey, but we are afraid this year will become a new "annee blanche."

Annee blanche indeed, because the country's situation has gone from bad to worse. Salaries and scholarships have not been paid for about six months. Students' and workers' units are weekly on strike. No medicine in the hospitals, etc. The new prime minister--the fourth in a year--has not yet met together with his government, nor with the new members of the dissolved parliament.

Anyway, when we came back, I intended to be among the students who are yearly sent to the U.S. by the American Cultural Center to participate in the ICC program for three months [ICC sends students to work as camp counselors in the U.S.]. I wanted to go to the U.S. in order to improve my oral language in preparation of my thesis. I sat for the Michigan [English] Test as required and succeeded.

Unfortunately, the committee told me I can not make the trip because of my age. The program only covers the cost of the plane tickets of students under 25 years of age. But they told me that I can either pay half of the ticket, or I can go on my own personal funds and be paid as an American citizen participant.

After that, I began doing part time jobs in order to be ready for this year's departure, however, up to now, I have not been paid a penny. So I stopped doing jobs without pay.

Please help me get more information on institutions that can aid students in my situation.
--Douramane Issifi Soumaila.

Copyright © 1998 Douramane Issifi Soumaila

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A Note on Literacy and Niger's School System

Editor's note: Nigerien schools are patterned after the French system.

Primary school (ecole primaire) lasts for six years. When someone finishes primary school he or she gets a CFEPD (certificate de fin d'etudes du premier degre).

CEG (College d'Enseignement General) roughly equals junior high but it is four years long, instead of three (grades 7-10). The classes, going from lower level to upper level, are 6eme, 5eme, 4eme, 3eme (sixieme, cinquieme, quatrieme, troisieme). I think when Issifi Boureima says "Fourth form" (above) he means 4eme, or ninth grade.

There is a national exam at the end of 3eme, the BEPC (brevet d'etudes du premier cycle), "brevet" for short.

The age of CEG students varies because of strikes and repeating classes. It is roughly between 12 and 18.

Lycee is high school. It is three years: 2nde, 1ere, and Te (seconde, premiere, and terminale). Those who pass the "bac" (national exam, similar to French system) may go directly to University.

After CEG, primary school teacher trainees go directly to ecole normal (teacher's college). They should already have a BEPC.

If they do a two-year program they become probationary primary teachers ["institituteur adjoint stagiare."] If they do a three-year program, then they can go on to the Faculte de Pedagogie (at the University of Niamey) and become CEG teachers.

So after three years they have two options: go on to the Fac de Ped to become a CEG teacher, or complete one more year to become an "instituteur stagiaire."

Regarding university degrees: the letter S replaces the letter L in degrees from the science faculties. If you have one year you have DUEL I (or DUES I). After two years you have DUEL II (DUES II) But people just say DUEL or DUES.

After three years you have a license es letters or license es sciences ("license" for short). After three years you have a maitrise es letters (or sciences), but this "masters" is not the equivalent of an American master's degree; it is more like a BA or a BS.

Published literacy statistics are misleading. According to Pascal deCampos, PhD candidate at Boston University now in Niger collecting data, 20% literacy in Niger is a maximum. Literacy is determined two different ways.

Everyone who is in school, or who has gone to school for even a few years, is considered literate, no test given. That is where most of the statistics come from.

People who go through the government literacy centers are given a passage to read, but the test is faulty. No time limit, no comprehension questions. And the number of people who go through the literacy centers is very small, compared to the number of people who have at least a few years in the formal school system and are thus "literate."

Thus "literacy" depend a lot on the definition of the word. By US standards, literacy in Niger is between 5% and 10%.
[Thanks to Susan Rosenfeld for the above information.]

Iyo Ibrahim's description of the second year classes ("FLSH," above] is accurate. My "Stylistics" class (creative writing) had seventy students (sometimes more, for exams), crowded into a long narrow room that might have held fifty.

Noise level was very high; beyond the first few rows, I'm sure no one could hear my voice. Most students were highly motivated, and wrote well in spite of the bad conditions.

First year classes were even more crowded: more than 150 English majors; nearly half of them had declared an English major without knowing any English at all. I occasionally helped the first year teachers administer exams and grade papers, and was overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of students.

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