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Teachers, Students Unsure about Future of Guinea-Bissau Education


The West African nation of Guinea-Bissau has one of the worst school systems in the world, according to the United Nations. Teachers go for months without getting paid, and often go on strike. Phuong Tran reports for VOA from the town of Canchungo, where students are urging the government to keep teachers in the classroom, while teachers complain their demands are ignored.

Ho Chi Minh High School is 70 kilometers outside of the country's capital, Bissau. When mango and cashew season starts in June, most students work in the fields. Student Norberto Paulo Mendes splits his time between selling his family's harvest and school.

"My father and my mother are very poor, so I do not have money to pay the school. So I have to go find job to find the money to pay the school," said Mendes. "I want you to help me because I am very tired. I am very tired."

The school year is often unpredictable.

Teachers frequently go on weeks-long strikes to demand salaries the government could not afford to pay. Five years ago, the education minister declared a school year invalid because teachers had only taught about 10 percent of the required time.

Despite going on strike last year to demand pay owed to him, teacher Marciano Alfredo Cumba says the government still owes him one year of salary. He says he needs to go to the capital for medical treatment, but cannot afford to make the trip.

Student Jean Batista Mendes says it is time teachers get what is owed to them. "If the government does not pay, schools cannot work," he said. "We cannot learn through all the strikes that interrupt our classes. It is hard to be young here. It is complicated to study. I would like to ask the president to pay not only teachers, but all state employees."

Some development analysts say Guinea-Bissau's government budget is misguided, and that more should be spent on education and less on the military.

Officials say periodic military takeovers and coup attempts, a rebellion to the south in the Senegalese Casamance region, and pensions for the large number of combatants who fought for independence from Portugal have swelled this small country's military budget.

But in the 2008 budget, there have been efforts to increase education spending.

Canchungo student Norberto Paulo Mendes says he thinks things will be better. He is willing to risk a career on this hope.

"I would like to be a teacher. I think they will pay the teachers very well. I know. I think," he said.

But one of his school's administrators, 30-year-old Carlito Mendes, says the government also needs to take care of unfinished business.

He says he needs his salary owed from 2007. He has not been paid since last October.