During my Easter holiday break from Abuja, I decided to pop next door to Benin. Abuja is in the center of Nigeria and I missed seeing the ocean. Benin has ocean a plenty, perhaps too much for its own good. The beautiful coastline was once an important point of no return for its people during the days of slavery. But that as you know, is another story, which we have heard many times. Same story, different place.
Cotonou is the economic capital of Benin and I had arrived there by bus from Lagos. It had taken me two days to recover from the 13 hour ride from Abuja to Lagos, plus the crossing at the maze-like Nigeria-Benin border and then the relatively short drive to Cotonou. I had spent two days in a daze, in my hotel room in Cotonou glued to the bed and staring at the ocean. After two days of no movement, I was ready to explore.
My first destination was Ouidah, the center of Voodoo in Benin. While driving from Cotonou to Ouidah along the Route des Peches, the very scenic coastal road, I saw a few Voodoo temples and lots more ocean. Just before we reached the official “point of no return”, just outside Ouidah, my eye caught a faded pink and white building that looked like a school. The building had the unmistaken look, a long, one storey block with the rooms next to each other. It was on the other side of the road from the ocean. I decided to pop in and visit. Luckily, the director of the school happened to be there, even though it was Easter. His name was Celestin. He was giving extra lessons, trying to catch up missed lessons and prepare kids for their final exam in June. In about 20 minutes, without me asking, he gave me the lowdown on the main issues the school was experiencing. I suppose he was happy to have an audience.
Benin gained independence from France in 1960. After independence, Benin had an affair with communism, which lasted for about 30 years and ended in 1990. During that time, education suffered and it was only, recently in 1990, that the government adopted a strategy to improve education. The education system is based on the French system and the country operates a 6-4-3-3-4 system: 6 years in primary school, 4 years in junior high school, 3 years in senior high school, 3 years for a bachelor’s and finally 4 years for a master’s degree.
There were around 6 classrooms, but only 3 were being used as they did not have the full complement of teachers. The 3 vacant classrooms were falling apart, evident from the hole in the roof and the dusty desks piled one on top of the other. According to the Celestin, the enrollment had fallen as there were not enough teachers. The kids would come to school everyday to find a teacher-less classroom, till they got fed up and then stayed home. Their unused books left behind and piled up on shelves in what looked like a storage cupboard. The kids that continue coming to school are grouped into the three classes, and I imagine that some are in classes that are not age appropriate. It is painful for those kids plus there is an even higher than usual teacher to pupil ratio.
At the end of primary school, kids take an exam (CM2, Primary School Certificate) to go into secondary school. However, there is no secondary school nearby, so kids who succeed, tend to move to another village or drop out. The path they take depends on whether their parents can afford to fund the move or not.
The school is located outside of Cotonou near to Ouidah in a fishing community with a lagoon nearby. A substantial number of the kids take a boat from Pahou, a village which is on the other side of the lagoon. Most kids seem to come from the village called Agouin. The village is divided by a lagoon. I learnt that when there was no boat to cross the lagoon, kids were not able to come to school. While I was visiting, I met the caretaker Mr. Eduard, who was about 50 years old and had attended the school himself. He told me that this was the first primary school in the area. I can’t say that I saw others, but alas, I will take his word.
I met the kids who were doing their extra lessons and I taught their class for a bit; once a teacher always a teacher. There was that one little boy who was bright and always put his hand up, perhaps he will become the president of Benin, one day. I liked the feel of the school and the dynamism of Celestin. I felt his dedication and genuine enthusiasm. He wanted the best for his pupils. I asked him to arrange a meeting with the Parent Teachers Association. I cannot remember how I knew such a thing existed, but he arranged the meeting anyway. It was organized for the next day, my last day in Benin. Somehow, it felt natural and I did not think that I was being crazy doing this on my Easter holiday by the beach. Maybe I had visited, one too many voodoo temples!
The meeting started at 9 am with the head of the PTA, who happened to be the village chief, Celestin, the two PTA treasurers, the accountant, one teacher, Eduard, the caretaker and some other parents. There were 11 of us. They gave me the history of the school. It was founded in 1963 by a catholic priest, Assion Pognon, whose name the school still bears. We also discussed what they would like to see happen to the school. They needed a boat, 3 teachers, the classrooms repaired, toilets, a source of water, a fence around the school, a canteen, a clinic for the kids and perhaps some kind of lodging for the teachers who come from faraway. These were all reasonable requests, I thought. I promised to get them some help, but on condition that the villagers and parents also made some kind of contribution. I just thought it would be important for them to invest and take ownership of the school. The PTA head said he would call a village meeting and relay everything we talked about and also ask the villagers how much they were willing to contribute. This meeting was planned for Monday, April 24.
The future of Benin is in the hands of its children. Most parents want their kids to have a better education than they did. These kids have great potential and deserve an enjoyable learning experience to prepare them to move Benin forward. This is the beginning of something good, I hope.