What a girl must do to go to school

Alima just finished 8th grade. She’s a spirited 13-year-old who speaks right up, but she’s small for her age. It was only after I asked in our second conversation that she told me she walks to school from her village six miles away.

That’s 12 miles a day to and fro, every day. But Alima has a scholarship and is happy to be in school. I could tell she’s bright, which her vice principal confirmed.

13-year-old Alima, left, student at Bumpeh Academy with Arlene Golembiewski, SFSL

Girls must grow up early when they decide to go to secondary school in Bumpeh Chiefdom, Sierra Leone.

They have huge hurdles to pass for the basic education westerners take for granted.

It starts with getting to a school.

Alima is not alone in walking a long way to school. It’s common for village girls to walk 4, 5, 6, even 7 miles each way to Rotifunk schools every day. Leaving when dawn is just breaking, kids begin their long trek, often on an empty stomach. Their return trip is under the hot tropical sun.

Bumpeh Chiefdom is made up of 200 small villages of 200 to 400 people, sprinkled throughout the chiefdom. Most are too small to support a primary school, let alone a junior high or high school. Girls must go to Rotifunk, the chiefdom seat, to attend one of four secondary schools of different types and faiths. A new junior high recently opened in a larger village. It’s struggling with funding and getting teachers who have training beyond high school themselves.

Only a couple rickety, well-used mini-vans travel the dirt back roads as public transportation, and only a few times a week, usually for market days. They’re not out in the early dawn hours to reach school for 8 o’clock assembly.

Kids like Alima can’t afford to pay for daily transportation anyway. They walk every day. Many miles.

Village girls have to leave home to board with a family in Rotifunk or a nearby village.

Alima lives with her aunt in Mokebi village. She’s typical of girls who must leave their parents and home at an early age to go to school. If they’re fortunate like Alima, they board with a family member who can offer housing and some level of family life. If better off, the relative may even pay the child’s school fees.

Split families are common in Sierra Leone. Husbands and wives work in different places. Alima’s parents are older and couldn’t pay for any more schooling, so they sent her to her aunt. Single parents and poor families often can no longer afford to feed teenage children, and send them to relatives. Family members are left to take in orphans.

When asked who girls live with, the answer so often is, my aunt. Rotifunk is a local trading center with a large weekly market, smaller daily markets and other places to sell, like school lunch stands. Market trading and cooking and selling food are the domain of women. They’re often single heads of households, their men gone or looking for jobs in larger towns and cities. Little money finds its way back home. But women keep taking in children and find ways to stretch their tiny incomes.

Isatu B. was recently orphaned. “I no longer have any strong relative who will help me go through schooling,” she said. Relatives strapped for money and with children of their own may offer girls little more than a place to sleep. Teens away from home for the first time can get little supervision. At 15 and 16 years of age, many are making their own way.

Girls work for a living while going to school.

After a day at school and walking 12 miles, Alima helps her farmer aunt planting and weeding the cassava, yams and okra they grow. This is their livelihood and pays for their food and her school uniform.

Girls take on many physical chores after school. They’re cooking on wood fires, doing laundry by hand, carrying water and fetching firewood. They work on family farms, and may be selling its produce or other goods in the local market after school.

If girls can’t rely on a guardian for money, they have to earn the money for their daily food and school expenses (school fees, uniform and school supplies).

Their family or guardian may advance them $10 to sell things in the market. They buy elsewhere and resell in Rotifunk at a higher price. Or they make fried doughnuts or cakes to sell, or bring produce from the family farm. It’s painstaking work, clearing cents on the dollar.

Girls spend their school vacations working to clear enough profit to buy a $15 school uniform they’ll wear for the year.

When these girls leave home and work to earn money for school, it’s not unlike young adults in the US going to college. But these girls may start at the age of 12. They’ll work their way through six years of school before they can think about vocational training or college – which costs even more.

When a girl receives a scholarship and a school uniform, it frees her to focus on her studies. Isatu K. lives with her grandmother and said she no longer has the fear of being asked out of class to go home for school fees. It gives her a sense of security.

Schools depend on school fees for operating costs. During the school year, students who can’t pay the term’s fees have to leave and try to come up with the money. It’s humiliating and children feel rejected at this young age. With no money, they may have to drop out of school and repeat the grade next year.

A scholarship and a paid school uniform don’t just give a girl the chance to progress through school. They give her the self-esteem to be a success.

She’ll work less. And get back her childhood.

Staying in school, she has a future.

For $17, you can keep a girl like Alima in school for the whole year with a scholarship. $35 pays for a scholarship and a school uniform.

Open up her world. Click here: I want to send a girl to school.


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