Fri, Aug 24, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Poverty hampers education

What good is free education, some in Senegal wonder, when poverty means children are forced into work?


It's a hot, sunny day on Goree Island, a short boat ride from Senegal's bustling capital, Dakar. In the cooling shade of an overhanging tree in the grounds of Mariama Ba school, Aminata Deme talked about a short film on slavery she and her classmates have just recorded. In it, the 14-year-old plays a girl who abuses her family's maid.

"I was one of the people mistreating the maid, which was bad. It was a very meaningful film and very interesting to make," Aminata said.

It's not uncommon in the more wealthy homes in Senegal's cities to have someone to help around the house. But the age of those performing the chores, the hours they work and the wages they receive have been called into question by the 19 pupils from Mariama Ba who shot the film, called My Maid, Not a Slave, as part of an anti-slavery project organized by the UK branch of the children's rights charity Plan International.

Over the past few months, the pupils at the girls' school, one of the most prestigious in Senegal, have been learning about the history of slavery, the impact the trade has had on west Africa and how new forms of the practice have been allowed to seep into society.

Organized by Plan UK and National Museums Liverpool to mark the bicentenary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade this year, the project, Make the Link, Break the Chain, involved schoolchildren from 13 schools based along the so-called slave triangle.

Pupils from Senegal, Sierra Leone, Brazil, Haiti and the UK created Web pages, produced written work and shared information online and by e-mail.

The youngsters then used video, music and art to interpret their findings. All their work will be showcased at the International Slavery Museum, which opens in Liverpool this week.

Senegal factbox

* Gained independent from France in1960.

* One of the poorest countries in the world because it has limited natural resources and is predominantly rural.

* UNICEF figures show 22 percent of the population live on less than US$1 a day.

* The government earmarks 40 percent of its budget to education.

* Around 65 percent of children attend primary school.

* Just 21 percent continue on to secondary school and 9 percent pass the exam that allows them to complete their education.

Source: The Guardian

Goree is a fitting location for a project on slavery. Between 1776 and 1848 hundreds of thousands of slaves were shipped to the Americas from a transit house on the edge of the island. Walking around the house now, its bright red walls seem too cheerful for the horror of what went on there. Visitors are shown the shackles the slaves wore and the cramped rooms in which they lived.

It is a brutal reminder of the past, but as the work of Mariama Ba's pupils shows, a new form of slavery still exists in Senegal.

In a dusty village about 70km north of Dakar, 17-year-old Salimata Kandge talks about the two years she spent working as a maid in the capital. From the age of 13, she cooked and cleaned for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for CFA15,000 a month -- about US$30 -- barely a dollar a day. She was verbally abused by her employers, ignored by people she met in the street and longed to go home.

"The bosses tell you that you are here for work and you have to work, and when you go out, there are other people who treat you like you are nothing," she said.

Absa Nguing, now 20, said when she was younger, she went to Dakar with her sisters and her mother, who needed to find work to feed the family. She never went to school and, at the age of 12, she too became a domestic maid.

"It was difficult when I became a maid, but I was obliged to do it," she said. "I worked with a woman who was blind. I went to the market one day and when I came back, the woman took the fish I bought and hit me with it. She was not happy with what I'd bought, but I didn't know because I was very young."

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