Empty school benches in Mali
Nationwide, over 1 million Malian children are still out of school. In the gold-rich but poverty-stricken region of Kayes, the situation is aggravated further as education takes a backseat to the promise of wealth. To tackle the issue, UNICEF Mali and partners are setting up learning spaces for out-of-school children and distributing school kits to alleviate the financial burden of parents. But the issue is complex and requires much more support.
Deep in Mali’s Kayes region, more than two days’ drive from the capital, most parents are farmers and informal gold miners whose primary concern is getting by in a region where prices for everything have been driven up by the presence of gold.
Sadio Diarra doesn’t know her exact age. But she does know she went to school for only one year. Her story isn’t unusual. The school principal in Kossaya estimates that for every forty children that start off in first grade, only ten ever make it all the way to sixth grade.
Only thirty meters separate the first grade classroom in Kossaya from the sixth grade classroom. But three children out of four never make it all the way down the hallway.
Nowadays, Sadio’s days are spent far from her former classroom. She gets up at daybreak to sweep the round hut she lives in with her family. Sometimes, she says, her little sister helps her.
Another of Sadio’s main tasks it to fetch water — a task often reserved for women and children. Sadio is lucky to have a water pump in her village: still only 50% of Malians have access to clean water.
At the village water pump, the sun begins to heat up as Sadio waits her turn to fill her bucket. Temperatures can soar up to 45 degrees in Kayes region.
Sadio is the main cook of the family. With a total of fourteen children in the household of her extended family, making meals isn’t a simple task. Sadio pours corn into a tall mortar.
Pounding corn is a physically demanding task, like much of the work Sadio has to perform. She admits she gets tired from all the work and wishes she could sleep more.
With such a large extended family, washing clothes can sometimes take the better part of the day. Sadio washes a piece of her little brother’s clothing in the courtyard outside her family’s hut.
Other women and girls are out in the same courtyard, performing similar tasks. With the help of an older girl, a group of girls aged two to three are teaching themselves how to cook using tiny bowls.
Sadio started working in the makeshift gold fields three years ago. Her mom showed her how to pan gold. When it’s mining season, she heads out to the fields with other children her age and her calabash on her head.
It takes about an hour to walk there. “It’s hard work,” she says. “The load is heavy.”
On the days that she doesn’t go to the gold field, Sadio runs a small stall to sell gas to villagers who own motorbikes. The gas is stored in simple glass bottles.
Sadio’s father Alamouta never went to school himself and cannot read, though he’s learned a few words of French from his friends.
“I know that education is important,” he says. “But education is very expensive. If we have to buy pens, notebooks, plus paying contributions for the teachers salaries, it’s too expensive.”
Alamouta’s traditional clothes show his status as a hunter. At daybreak, he hunts antelopes, rabbits and porcupines; later on in the day, he farms millet, sorghum and peanuts.
Sadio’s school days were so short lived that she hardly remembers them today. While she goes about her work day, she wears an amulet at all times for protection. But the exact meaning of the gift from her father, she says, is a secret she cannot reveal.