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New System Gives Rural Children of Burkino Faso Chance to Learn

The West African nation of Burkina Faso is one of the world's poorest countries. It ranks near the bottom of just about every development indicator, and education is no exception. Less than four out of every 10 Burkinabe children even attend first grade. Nonetheless, primary school attendance is slowly growing -- thanks, development experts say, to a fledgling effort to build small "satellite" classrooms in rural villages. The schools do much more than teach reading, writing and arithmetic.

The secondhand desks are nicked with age, and the floor is dirty concrete. But the three-room schoolhouse is the pride of this tiny village of thatched huts, where chickens peck the dust for food and the local Lobi people eke out a meager living from fields of sorghum and millet.

On a recent, steamy afternoon here, 27 first graders take turns reading sentences from a blackboard. Not in French, the official language of Burkina Faso, but in Lobiri, one of the country's 60 local dialects.

Teacher Difoute Innocent Hien says the class has learned their alphabet, and how to read some sentences. He reads off what he's written in Lobiri on the blackboard. "I know that school is good," reads one sentence. "I know how to write the letters in an alphabet."

School may be good, but the United Nation's Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimates that less than 60 percent of all children in sub-Saharan Africa are enrolled in primary school. These figures are by far the lowest in the developing world.

The statistics are even bleaker in Burkina Faso. Just over three out of 10 girls, and four out of 10 boys are enrolled in primary school. Still, their numbers are slowly growing, up 2.5 percent from four years ago. Joan French, UNICEF country director for Burkina Faso, says the decade-long effort to build satellite schools, like the one in Bakono village, is a big reason for the improvement.

"It's extremely important because it takes education closer to populations that would not be able to go to school," said Ms. French. "The traditional schools, the official schools have been too few and too far for many children, who cannot walk that distance to school...10 kilometers, more than 10 kilometers away. And it's particularly important for girls, because families are less willing to make girls go far from home than in the case of boys."

Unlike traditional schools, satellite schools only run from first to third grade. They're located in villages like Bakono, where the nearest town with a full-service primary school is five kilometers away. In other villages, children have to walk even further.

Behind bare-bones classrooms like the one in Bakono, where the only writing materials appear to be a battered black board and a piece of chalk, lies a rich philosophy. Besides reading, writing and arithmetic, these satellite schools aim to preserve local customs and get the entire village involved in the children's education.

Village elders teach children about local traditions. Women coach them in popular songs and dances. First grade is taught entirely in the local Lobiri dialect. Children learn French in the second year. By the time they finish the third and last grade at the satellite school, the thinking goes, they'll be old enough to walk the five kilometers to Gaoua, the nearest town, and continue their studies.

Kielte Noufe, 46, is president of the parent's association at Bakono school. Mr. Noufe never went to school, and he cannot read or write. But all six of his children are now enrolled in school, including a 22-year-old who is taking adult literacy classes here.

Mr. Noufe says the school has changed the village. To send a child to school, he says, is like making a blind man see. A child who knows how to read and write won't get lost, he says. He'll be able to read the signs.

First grader Charlotte Hien says she likes school.

Charlotte says she wants to be a teacher when she grows up. And her parents also want her to be literate to raise the family out of poverty.

Development experts say a greater percentage of girls are enrolled in Burkina's satellite schools than at traditional schools around the country, thanks partly to prodding from local administrators, and to efforts to get women and other villagers involved in the children's' education. At Bakono, for instance, the boy-girl breakdown in classes is nearly 50-50, teachers say.

That's far higher than elsewhere in rural Africa, where 70 percent of girls don't finish sixth grade. Families believe sending girls to school is wasteful, since they will marry and leave their families. Even at Bakono, several girls dropped out of primary school this year when they got engaged.

Money is another problem. This lush region is one of the poorest in Burkina Faso. Many villagers emigrated to nearby Ivory Coast for work. When civil war broke out there, they were forced to return home. Now, although there are no school fees, and textbooks are free, some parents say they depend on their children's labor to make ends meet.

But Madeleine Ousse, 40, is not one of them. Four of her children are studying at Bakono's school. Her other two have gone on to secondary school.

Ms. Ousse says a lot of people believe it's a bad idea to send all their children to school. They believe a few should stay behind and help out at home. But Ms. Ousse believes it's necessary to send all her children to school. Getting an education, she says, will help them succeed in life.