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Baaba Maal Music Festival Highlights Education in Senegal's Fouta Region

Senegalese singer Baaba Maal (2008 file photo)

Senegalese musician Baaba Maal is using an annual music festival to focus on education in the country's remote northern regions.

At Baaba Maal's fourth annual "Festival les Blues du Fleuve," musicians from around West Africa gathered along the Senegal River to play traditional rhythms and modern beats before thousands of spectators. But they were also there to draw attention to issues of education - a topic of increasing relevance to people in northern Senegal.

As one of Africa's most acclaimed musicians and a youth ambassador for the United Nations Development Program, Maal is using the music festival, in his hometown of Podor, to talk about the future of the region's children.

"I think education is one of the most important gifts that we can send to the next generation, in order to pass to the next generation, because I believe that without education the next generation in Africa will not be able to understand what's going on in the whole world and how to go into it and how to exchange ideas, how to use the modern way of communicating to be part of the world. I think education is really, really a key to develop the mind and to develop the spirit and to be free for a lot of things," he said.

Podor is located in Senegal's northern Fouta-Toro region and is home to the Pulaar, Toucouleur and Fulani ethnic groups. Primary school enrollment in this community of about 12,000 people is traditionally lower than the rest of Senegal.

Harouna Sy helps coordinate programs in the region for the community-led development group Tostan. He says education has historically been a low priority, especially among girls.

Sy says Pulaar culture has close ties with Islam, so a French-based education for girls was not a priority as it was in areas where there was more direct contact with European colonizers. He says Tostan programs are helping parents become more aware that educating their daughters is not a handicap - that a woman who is well educated, even if she spends less time working at home, will contribute enormously to Senegal's development.

The local government in the Fouta region is working toward United Nations Millennium Development Goals to ensure universal education for all primary school aged children. Seydina Kane heads the region's Department of Statistics and Planning for Education.

Over the last thirty years, Kane says female registration in schools across the region has grown from just over two-thousand girls to nearly 26,000. While more than 60 percent of the region's children are now in school, Kane says there is clearly much work to be done.

When Baaba Maal first started his festival five years ago he wanted to use music as a platform to discuss socially relevant issues, including education. By using music to encourage girls to get an education, he says everyone will benefit.

"Music is a beautiful thing to do. But at the same time it's a very serious thing in Africa," he said. "Everything that people don't know about their history, about their relationship between communities, families and how to live together has been told through music. And music, at the end of the day, is the reference to know the responsibility of every human being here. When you go all over the world people don't seem to know that women are coming at the front line and that's a good thing, because they have the ability to be together and to focus on all the projects that they have until they have a good result. Especially here in Africa, when women want to be together they all succeed."

Maal says in a society where traditions are very strong, it's not easy for women to leave their families. But he says he is working to change tradition and to make it into something that benefits a generation of educated young women.