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Niger School Crisis Forcing Some Children to Go Begging to Obtain Education - 2004-09-17

It's back to school in most of West Africa, but in one of the region's poorest and most Islamic countries, Niger, the secular public school system is in a state of paralysis, so more and more children are going to Islamic schools instead. Many impoverished children are forced to go begging to pay for their education.

In blazing dry heat, despite choking fumes and deafening traffic, a young schoolboy, Maaroufi, crosses Maradi's main dirt road over and over, tugging at the flowing robes of strangers, asking for money.

Maaroufi tells one of these strangers he was brought to Maradi by an imam from his village several hundred kilometers away to join what is known as an "ambulatory" Islamic school. He begs for food, blackboards and chalk.

His school is under a tree in the dust on the side of the road. When they aren't begging, the children sing verses of the Koran and learn to write in traditional Arabic. If money from begging dries up or if problems develop with local authorities, the imam will take his pupils with him and move to another city.

Maaroufi, who is not sure how old he is, was beaten once while begging. But he says he's happier in Maradi than in his village, because he says here he's getting some money and knowledge.

Human rights activists, like Saidou Arji, from a Niamey-based mostly Western funded organization, disagree.

"When they travel, really they are not learning the Koran, they are running away, they go to work, to ask people to give them money, they are begging. This is not good," he said.

At another street side Islamic school in Maradi, an older student teaches a young girl how to vocalize letters in the Koran. Here, several hundred students pay the equivalent of about five cents a week to attend classes.

Koranic schools have Thursdays, Fridays and Islamic holidays off, but every other day is a school day, or in the case of the young beggars, a working day.

The imam of this school, Malam Yahaya Salifou, says it's an obligation for children who come from other villages to beg.

He says they can't survive without eating. But he says the government should help.

Another imam, who charges his students about $13 a year in tuition fees, Tanzimil Madanis, says in Maradi alone there are about 90,000 students going to more than 350 Islamic schools.

He has created an association trying to get government help to establish a better working school system through the existing religious schools. Unless they get help, he says, imams won't be able to teach anything other than religious classes.

Parent Yahouza Sadissou, a devout Muslim like most of the population in Maradi, says he's thankful for the religious schools, because he says, without them, there would hardly be any education at all.

"There are a lot of problems with public schools because you know in our country there is the problem of teachers and the government," he explained. "The teachers go to strike, the students go too. So many problems. In the nine months of the year, perhaps three or four months are correct. The other months there is no school. So it is no good for the children to learn knowledge. Even if the child goes to public schools it's better to send him to Islamic schools to do the two."

The public school year is due to begin in October, but teachers are already warning they will be on strike. They say they won't release test results from last year, until their demands for better working conditions, pay and benefits are met.

The public school system has been in a nearly perpetual state of crisis since the early 1990s when the government, under pressure from world lending agencies, slashed education budgets, replacing many career teachers with underpaid contractual workers, most of them unemployed former university students. This has worsened Niger's ranking on the list of the world's most undereducated and illiterate populations.

Private schools, like this one advertising on a local radio station, are also trying to fill the void. But with tuition costs of up to $200 for high school students, their fees are prohibitive for most families. Most children can't even pay the few dollars needed for the better Islamic schools, so many beg under the orders of their traveling imam.

Human rights activist Ali Sekou says these children often become drug addicted delinquents who get little benefit from their religious education.

His group, Democracy 2000, is trying to distribute school materials to make their education more interesting and more complete, he says. He estimates more than 150,000 students are in so-called "ambulatory" Islamic schools throughout Niger.

Government officials refused to be recorded for this report but said they are working with international aid agencies to improve the public school system and to keep children from leaving their villages for schooling.

In the meantime, for thousands of children like Maaroufi, the education they're getting is mostly self-taught urban survival.