In Dakar, a school exchange program attempts to break the stigma associated with mental deficiencies by bridging the gap between regular and special needs students.
On a Thursday morning at Xale Buur La, an elementary school in a low-income neighborhood of Dakar, some 50 or so young boys and girls sit cramped on small wooden benches scribbling adjectives on mini chalkboards.
The teacher calls on a tall boy from the back of the class to come up to the board. Babacar Fall breaks out into a huge smile and leaps over his classmates, many of them half his age, and strides to the front of the room.
Babacar, 18, is a student from the Aminata Mbaye Center - one of five schools for intellectually deficient children in Dakar. Twice a week he, along with eight of his classmates and his teacher, spend two hours at Xale Buur La. They come here to learn as part of an exchange program between the two schools - one that helps students with intellectual deficiencies integrate into regular classes.
It began nearly four years ago after the director at the Aminata Mbaye Center, Claude Sarr, saw a need to address an issue few were willing to openly talk about in Senegal.
Sarr says they have no idea how many children there are with mental deficiencies in Dakar and the surrounding area. Most parents keep their children at home and refuse to bring them to the hospitals to be checked. These parents might know there is something wrong with their child, but they are often worried about how they will be treated in public and what effect this will have on their development.
Sarr says that a specialized school like Aminata Mbaye should not even exist. If a child lives in a family where everyone is 'normal' there is no reason to take this child and put them into a school where everyone is not normal. The problem is that the community, teachers and students are not necessarily prepared to receive them.
The practice of ‘mainstreaming’, or mixing special needs students into regular classes, can be controversial. Opponents often argue that special needs students require special care, monopolize the teacher’s time and slow the learning process for the so-called ‘normal’ kids.
When the mainstreaming program first began between Aminata Mbaye and Xale Buur La, there were some initial problems to work out.
Maxim Correa is a teacher at the Aminata Mbaye Center who also gives lessons every second week at Xale Buur La. Correa was not trained specifically to teach intellectually deficient children and explains how he has had to adapt his teaching style and method to suit the needs of all the students.
Correa says that his own students have sporadic whims, which means he needs to know how to negotiate with them and to find more creative ways of getting them to follow a lesson. He may encourage them by promising a field trip or a chance to listen to music - something fun to incite them to learn.
Correa says it requires a lot of patience and perseverance on his part, because he often has to teach the same lesson three times to his students and needs to vary it every time.
The range in age of students from Aminata Mbaye who have been involved in this exchange program is anywhere between 14 to 34 years old. When they come into ‘regular’ classrooms, where the average age can be as young as 10, this can initially be quite frustrating for the older students.
Correa says, in the beginning, his students found it difficult to be with kids so much younger than them, but that now this is less of an issue because they know each other and do not necessarily see the age factor. But Correa says he still needs to make a special effort to include the special needs kids, because the majority are reticent by their very nature.
Ismaila Keita is a teacher trainer and educational consultant who makes regular visits to Xale Buur La to monitor the classes. He has been involved in Dakar’s school system for over 40 years.
Keita says if you do not mix the kids from Aminata Mbaye it just slows their development and makes the division between so-called “regular” and deficient children even greater. It is like when you are sick and you lock yourself in your room without seeing a doctor or getting help. You will never improve. We have to teach kids to come together rather than separating them.
Keita says that in Senegal there are many kids who start school late for all sorts of reasons, so it is not uncommon for older kids to be placed with younger kids in classrooms. Although, in some cases, the older students get very frustrated and end up leaving, this is now happening a lot less. Keita says they are trying to get the kids to understand that school is actually an ongoing learning process and neither age nor intellectual ability should restrict who can be involved.
On the drive back to the Aminata Mbaye Center, Babacar climbs to the back of the bus. He says he has had a good morning. They are wise kids, he says with a smile.