BUBA REGION, Guinea-Bissau, 11 April 2011 – The Nhala Primary School classroom in Buba is filled with extraordinary excitement when students hear that they are about to receive textbooks. This textbook distribution, part of a major UNICEF programme supported by the Government of Japan, is the first one since 2004 in this fragile West African country stricken by political instability and poverty.
“We will be able to finally see the words in print,” exclaimed Suleimane Camará, 11, anticipating receipt of his fourth-grade textbooks. “We will be able to actually take home our homework and become smart!”
Almost 1.1 million books are being distributed via UNICEF amongst public primary schools in Guinea-Bissau, through a $9 million project grant from the Government of Japan.
The project aims to improve educational access by providing textbooks, classroom construction and literacy training. It is also working to reduce infant and child mortality through health centre construction, prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV, and water, sanitation and hygiene activities.
Significance of support from Japan
Ranking 164 out of 169 nations in the 2010 Human Development Index, Guinea-Bissau is still recovering from the 1998-99 armed conflict that resulted in a decade of political instability, insecurity, weak law enforcement, economic stagnation and withdrawal of many international donors.
Lately, waves of strikes by teachers and health workers due to non-payment of salaries have resulted in school days lost for children and non-availability of health services. In this context, the recent support from Japan, in collaboration with UNICEF, has been especially important.
A ceremony marking the launch of textbook distribution in mid-March started with a moment of silence for earthquake and tsunami victims in Japan. Minister of National Education, Culture, Science, Youth and Sports Artur da Silva highlighted the significance of Japan’s support in development of Guinea-Bissau’s education sector.
“It is important to take good care and make the best use of these books,” he stated. “They have been realized through the sacrifice and efforts of [the Japanese] people to ensure that they reach the children of Guinea-Bissau.”
‘I can study better’
At Sanconha Primary School in Tombali Region, student Aminata Sane, 13, is thrilled to be studying in the classroom block recently reconstructed with Japan’s support.
“Before, our classroom used to have holes, so it was difficult to concentrate. But now with the new classroom, I can study better,” said Aminata.
“When I heard about the terrible disasters in Japan, I was very sad,” she added. “I will be praying for God to support them, too.”
Not only children are benefitting from the project; it is reaching their caregivers, as well. N’Sumdeua Pigue, 37, is completing the three-month literacy training course supported by Japan in Oio Region. The mother of four children is also taking care of three nephews by herself. Her husband has been unemployed for over six years.
“My small income from selling cold water has to feed nine people, so I have to work every day in the market from 7:30 in the morning until night,” said Ms. Pigue.
Asked why she took the literacy course, she replied tearfully: “I am a mother-orphan and never had an opportunity to attend school. I was ashamed of not being able to read or write.” But now that Ms. Pigue has completed the training, she can read the destination of the toka-toka (mini-bus) without having to ask the driver each time.
“Look, I can even write a letter now,” she said, proudly showing a visitor some freshly written letters.
Long road ahead
Meanwhile, to ensure quality in Guinea-Bissau’s schools, 77 national education inspectors have received motorbikes from UNICEF.
“Before, we could only visit accessible schools, when we happened to get rides with someone or with an irregular toka-toka,” said inspector Julho Inhen Yara, in Quinara Region. “Now with the motorbikes, we will be able to visit all the schools and do our job.”
However, a long road remains ahead. Now that access to education is being tackled, it is increasingly important to ensure that children learn well while they are in school. This will require comprehensive efforts with a child-friendly approach – including teacher training, school-council capacity development and curriculum reform.
“Education makes the future of our country,” said another inspector, Mario Fernandes, of Tombali Region. “With education, children will be able to make choices in the future. Instead of giving in to join the armed forces out of desperation, they will be able to make their own plans and their own living. Education is the key to our future economy and peace.”
Venício de Carvalho, Francisco Muniro Conté, Virginia Monteiro and Patirica Rosa contributed to this story.