During my first several months at site, I’ve been spending some of my time in the schools in my community – mostly in the English classrooms of the 7-12 grades.

These experiences have provided me with an invaluable firsthand look at the education system in Mali.  I’m not impressed.  From what I have seen the schools are severely in need of resources, the classrooms are overcrowded, and the teaching methods are much different, and I think less effective, than those used in my schooling.

From the outset, Malian students struggle because they enter school speaking only local languages (Bambara, Dogon, Bomu, etc.), rather than the language that they need to know to be educated (French).  According to USAID, adult literacy in French in Mali is 29 percent; only 23 percent of boys and 10 percent of girls can read a simple sentence in French by the end of grade four; and only about half of the teachers in Mali receive coaching in the teaching of reading.  Because French is the language in which the government operates, the language in which business is conducted, and the language that enables Malians to communicate with peoples in other parts of the world, it is alarming that so few Malians are literate in the language.

Most Malians can also not write in their local languages.  Adult literacy centers in Mali not only have to try to teach Malians how to read and write but also how to hold a pen.

To best illustrate what I see as the educational situation for most of the young children in my town, I’ll describe the story of a fictional student, Kadja:

Let’s say Kadja is a 13 year-old girl living in rural Mali.  Her mother is illiterate in both the local language, Bambara, and in French.  Her father finished 6th grade, and although he is illiterate in Bambara and French, he does speak basic French.  In Kadja’s home, she, her parents, and her 7 brothers and sisters speak Bambara and her only exposure to French is during school.

We have to acknowledge that because Kadja is a girl she is very lucky to be in school in the first place.  Also, as a student in the 8th grade, she has passed the national exam after 6th grade that enables her to enter the 7th grade.  For reference, about 80 percent of the students in my cercle that took this national exam, passed.

Kadja walks to school, after helping with the morning chores at home, and enters a classroom of 70 students, 20 girls and 50 boys.  The classroom is basic – a chalkboard, desks and open windows to provide light and fresh air.  In hand, she carries a simple 100-page notebook and a pen that she will use for all of her classes during the day.  The teacher makes it to class today (although sometimes he doesn’t) and starts the lesson by writing a text on the board.  This is necessary because Kadja and the other students don’t have books.  Usually there is only one textbook for each teacher, or about one book per 70 students.

Once the material is written on the board and Kadja has written it in her notebook, about half of the class time has elapsed and not a minute of teaching has occurred.  The teacher starts the instruction by reading the material on the board and having one or two students do the same.  New vocabulary words are written on the board, but little information is provided to explain what those words mean in Bambara.  If there is time, a question or two about the text is asked of the class and the whole room erupts with students snapping their fingers.  Because Kadja is too shy, she doesn’t raise her hand to answer the questions.  When she leaves the classroom she has not spoken a word, nor has she understood much of what was written on the board or repeated by her fellow classmates.

Kadja heads home for lunch and is told that she can’t go back to school this afternoon because she is needed around the house to help with chores – cooking, sweeping the concession, washing dishes and taking care of her younger siblings.  After these chores are finished, the sun is falling and she is tired.  Because she doesn’t have electricity, she looks at her notes from class using a flashlight, but still does not really understand what she has written.  Unlike a child in the United States, she doesn’t have access to the Internet to look up additional materials and, because her parents are illiterate, they are unable to help her study.

Even if they could help her, they know that her fate will not be determined by how much she studies, but rather by Allah.  Her parents also believe that sending her to school this long has likely been a waste, because she will soon be married and her ability to cook and clean well will be far more valuable to her husband than her ability to speak French.

Kadja, like many students in Mali, doesn’t pass the exam necessary to enter high school (within the school systems in my cercle a mere six percent passed the exam last year).  Because her French is basic, she will likely not be able to get a well-paying job; she will attend speeches given by the elected officials in her area and not understand what they are saying because they are speaking in French; and she will probably have very little interaction with people outside the Malian society, unless they are aid workers.

This is a bleak picture, but one that is the reality for many young people in my village and all over Mali.  Kadja may later have the opportunity to open a street food stand, make crafts or shea butter, or start a garden to sell products in the market.  Likely though, she will get married, have anywhere from five to 10 children, and will depend on her husband to make money and take care of the needs of the family.

Many NGOs and international aid organizations recognize the need for educational development in Mali.  Peace Corps Mali volunteers are working regionally with educational leadership and parent-teacher associations to build sustainable leadership locally.  A fellow volunteer in my stage is working with BuildOn, an organization that builds schools in Mali and links Malian students to urban youth in the United States to build relationships and foster cultural exchange.  Several volunteers in my stage are working with the USAID program, PHARE, which harnesses the widely-available national radio to broadcast interactive French language lessons in classrooms across the country.

Although I have always appreciated the value of education, my time in Mali has solidified a strong belief that education is a fundamental pillar of development.  My experience in Malian classrooms has also enabled me to fully grasp how lucky I am to have completed my educational career in the United States.  We have much to work on to increase equality in education throughout the United States and to push for higher standards.  With that said, I think we should give ourselves a pat on the back for a job pretty-well done.

My hope is that within the two years I am here, and into the coming years, education will rise to the top of the agenda in Mali and through its development the country will use its collective educational capital as a ladder out of poverty.