By Br. Fabio Mussi, PIME
Fatimatou is five years old. She lives in Kousseri with her family of nine. In addition to her parents and grandmother, Fatimatou has three sisters and two brothers. With the exception of Aminatà, her three-year-old little sister, her other four siblings are all of school age: two in second grade and two in fourth grade at the local Catholic School. The last few months Fatimatou has been pestering her Mom because she wants to go to school herself. For a while, one could convince her to wait by saying that she was too little; but now she has no doubt that she is a big girl and, thus, of school age.
It is easy to understand her insistence. Her siblings have visibly benefitted from attending school, and they are very enthusiastic about it. As she accompanied her Mom to the ceremony for the closing of the school year, her eagerness grew – especially as she witnessed the giving out of awards to outstanding students among the 700 enrolled. Her sister Bellani was runner-up out of the 75 of those in fourth grade. For Fatimatou the award given to her sister was the most compelling reason to legitimize her demand to attend the mission School. Deep down her parents are quite happy about Fatimatou’s demand, yet they have already to pay the tuition for four of their six children and Fatimatou would make five. This won’t be easy. Dad Abubakar is paid a decent wage as bricklayer and his wife Aissia contributes with her income as a part-time peddler. However, a common illness or an unforeseen expenditure could throw the fragile family budget out of whack. These are hard times for all, especially in this area at the northern most part of Cameroun.
The City of Kousseri
Kousseri has over 126,000 inhabitants and is the main city of the district of Logone Chari with a population of about 420,000 spread over about 9,000 square miles. The city of Kousseri is on the western side of the Logone River which separates Cameroun from Chad whose capital of N’Djamena sits only a couple of miles across the river. Kousseri is home to several ethnicities such as Cotoko, Arabes-Choas, Toupouri, etc. in addition to numerous citizens from neighboring Chad who are drawn there by its peaceful settings and many opportunities for commerce.
Since there is only one bridge between Cameroun and Chad, all cattle raised by countries such as Sudan and Ethiopia have to go through it on its way to the more lucrative market of Nigeria. Some 8,000 heads of cattle a week cross that bridge.
Even in this part of Cameroun, families have many children: seven or eight on average. Families like the one of Fatimatou cannot afford to send them all to school even though tuition is reduced considerably and parents get also good deals on notebooks, pencils and pens. If a man has several wives that number can be as high as 20. This situation has a negative effect both on the family budget and on class size. It is not unheard of for classrooms to have 120 students. The local Catholic Diocese has schools in Kousseri, Blangoua and Blaram with an enrolment of about 1,200 students from pre-school to 5th grade.
In recent years, the Catholic Grade School of Kousseri built two additional classrooms and dug a well for potable water. That initial effort proved quickly insufficient; and the need for more classrooms is all too evident. This is a top priority since 84.9 % of women are illiterate and only 30% of pupils graduate from grade school. The Kousseri Catholic School with its 700 pupils is completely committed to the effort of building more classrooms in order to reduce by 50% its classroom size from the present 120 to 60 pupils as it is recommended by the State Department of Education. Class size reduction will be reached when six new classrooms are built. This goal cannot be reached in a short time, but will be done at the pace at which funds are made available.
Someone might think that there are also public schools in the area. On paper this might look like a reasonable solution. But if one keeps in mind that the objective of any school is the one of giving kids a solid basic education, the educational level achieved in the Catholic school is much, much better than that in public schools. This is where the public education system of Cameroun shows its limits. This is due to the absence of a daily follow up of the students, lack of adequate counseling and of discipline. Test results at the end of the school year prove this point: 35% passing the 5th grade in public schools versus 95% passing in the Catholic schools. It is not hard to understand, then, why parents try their very best and make many sacrifices in order to invest their meager family funds where they are certain that their children will learn the basics and learn both national languages (French and English).
Financial Help Toward the Construction of Additional Classrooms
Although both the Kousseri’s Catholic school system and the local population are eager to improve the scholastic infrastructure, they are unable to finance this ambitious project without outside help. The administration of the local municipality acknowledges both the validity of the Catholic school system and the need for more classrooms; however, they refuse to subsidize “private” scholastic infrastructures.
Drawn by the high educational level of our teachers, the enrollment keeps going up in spite of these adverse financial conditions. Thanks to wise budget management, school administrators can set aside about $10,000 a year towards the building of new classrooms. This might not look like a lot, but it shows clearly the will to place sound education as a top priority for our Diocese and mission.
Cameroun is ranked 144th on the Global Human Development Index and about half of its population is below poverty level, surviving on an income of about a dollar a day. Yet the whole country, like little Fatimatou, is filled with hope for the future. In spite of all its limits and difficulties, this country wants to move forward counting on its youth which makes up half of the population.
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