For Malian children displaced by crisis, early learning centres provide a chance to learn – and to heal.
SIRIBALA, Mali, 8 July 2013 – The conflict in northern Mali may have changed the lives of Fatoumata and Djeneba Touré forever – for the better.
The two girls, ages 5 and 3, are among 527,000 people who have been displaced by the crisis in northern Mali, according to the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). They have lost businesses, harvests and even their homes. Many are living in refugee camps in neighbouring countries, primarily Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger. But the majority are from families like the Tourés – enduring cramped conditions while living with relatives or in rented accommodation in central and southern Mali. Most of the people displaced are women and children.
Life was straightforward in their hometown of Niafunké, near Timbuktu. “We lived in a house with a sheep, a goat and a horse – a white horse,” says Fatoumata.
In April 2012, the family was forced to flee when fighting broke out between the army and separatist rebels. Their house faced a military camp. “Men with guns jumped over the wall [into our yard], and they made a noise, ‘boom, boom’,” says Fatoumata.
A year later, despite their parents’ financial hardships brought on by displacement, Fatoumata and Djeneba are enjoying life as they rarely did before. Every morning, they put on pink tunics and set off for an early learning centre here in the Ségou region of south-central Mali.
The centre was funded by UNICEF and built by partner NGO Plan Mali. Set up under a straw roof in the playground of Siribala community pre-school, it is one of 18 such centres in Mali and acommodates 60 pupils.
Integration with the host community is a primary objective, so two-thirds of the pupils are displaced children, while the rest are local, including six with physical or mental disabilities. Attendance is free, and everyone receives a mid-morning bowl of porridge – a real benefit in a country where kindergarten is a costly luxury generally reserved for children of urban professional families.
The school’s director, Kadiatou Sylla, says it’s clear that hosting the early learning centre has been the right move. “These children are really traumatized,” she says. “Often, if you make a noise near the displaced children, they don’t like it. They run away.”
One teacher notes that she has seen displaced children run and hide when they see a plane in the sky.
Educational games provided by UNICEF are a big attraction for the pupils. There is singing and clapping, and the current focus is on learning the names of animals. To ensure that the children’s full range of needs is addressed, the centre’s three teachers – all local mothers – have been trained to identify signs of trauma and to address these issues through playing games.
Accountant Aliou Sidibé, the grandfather of Fatoumata and Djeneba, hosts the girls at his home in Siribala, and he welcomes the early learning centre.
“It is quite something for these girls from Niafunké,” he says. “Not only are they experiencing education at an early age, which they would not have been able to do in the north, but they are meeting local children, and their trauma is being addressed.”
He notices how his granddaughters have suffered. “I have seen them have nightmares and jump out of bed at night. Their mother also has been affected and is not best-placed to support them, because she has become overprotective,” he says.
UNICEF Education Officer Souleymane Traoré has helped set up 10 early learning centres, and he sees them as an enormous success. “We had worked on an estimate of 50 children per centre, but in some of them up to 75 children are attending,” he says. “Not only do they receive a meal, which acts as an incentive for parents to send them there, but we have provided the teachers with training in spotting the signs of malnutrition, so we are closing a gap there.”
He believes that for girls like Djeneba and Fatoumata, attending an early learning centre can be a life-changer.
“In the northern Malian context, where early marriage remains a reality for girls, this chance for them to be awakened to education is an extraordinary opportunity,” Mr. Traoré says. “It could well impact positively on their parents’ decisions for them in the coming years.”
Story by Alex Duval Smith