Special guest blog from International journalist Femi Oke!
It’s a few hours before the official opening of UNGEI’s 10th anniversary conference in Dakar, Senegal. As mistress of ceremonies I feel I should be holed up finishing off my preparation. Instead I’m joining a field trip visiting the Mariama Ba Girl’s High School on nearby Goree Island. My head is telling me “eeek you don’t have time for this” while my heart is saying “what’s the point of talking about girls’ education if you don’t go and meet girls at school”. Fortunately my heart is obviously a whole lot smarter than my head!
As conference members chat animatedly next to me on the boat ride to the island, I’m surreptiously scribbling away, getting some last minute inspiration for later in the day. When I finally look up, what I see is striking. Goree Island is sandy, lapped by ocean and surrounded by lush vegetation. Headmistress Catherine Sarr walks our group through the grounds talking about the school. There are 213 students who live on site and, having no boys around, she says helps the girls concentrate on their studies. Students get into the school by passing an entrance exam. The caliber of the teaching and students is so high that in the last two years there’s been a 100% pass rate. I spend a lot of time working in Africa meeting children who have little or no access to school. It was refreshing to see how good high school education can be.
At this point the visit is going very well and then we head off to the staff room. The headmistress introduces us to the Physics and Chemistry teacher, the History and Geography teacher and the English teacher. They’re all men. One of our group members asks “how many male teachers are there?” It turns out there are 20 male teachers and 7 female members of staff. This fact unleashes a flurry of questions about the disparity in the numbers and the irony of having so many male teachers at a girls’ school.
Mr. Diba, who teaches history and geography, started to laugh at all our questions, his eyes twinkled as he teased “are you a bunch of feminists?!” That was the perfect cue for UNGEI’s Ms. Adelaide Soseh-Gaye, representing the African Network Campaign on Education for All, to do a little teaching of her own. Adelaide gave the history teacher a passionate lesson about gender parity. I’m sure if we’d been students the headmistress would have told us all to be quiet and get back to work! Adelaide was magnificent and Mr. Diba was bemused. After all it’s typical in West Africa for there to be far more male teachers than female ones. Fewer girls get through school, so there are fewer female teachers. Mr. Diba was concerned that if gender parity existed he would eventually lose his job. I chatted to him after the group had moved on. He wasn’t convinced by Adelaide’s argument, but I could tell from his smile he did enjoy her lecture.
While I was busy getting names and details of the teachers, my group had moved on. Trying to track them down I came across 14-year-old students Absa, Hadja and Kaffa on their way to class. They were curious about me and why I was visiting, and I was keen to get some quality time with them. Meeting these bright, engaging teenagers reminded me why I wanted to come to Senegal with UNGEI. When I see students relishing being in school, I know they’ll have a future full of potential.
Absa, Hadja and Kaffa directed me back to the main group just in time for the visit finale…singing. I must admit I have heard a lot of schoolgirls singing in my time, especially as I went to a girls’ school myself. It was cute, but the most memorable moment came during the question and answer session that followed. When asked who wanted to go to University everybody thrust their hands in the air. They told us they were going to be military doctors, university professors, ambassadors, engineers, psychiatrists and yes, even a teacher.
A few hours later, I wrapped up the opening ceremony for UNGEI’s 10th anniversary conference. I told the audience about the students who so confidently knew they were going on to higher education. I will never forget seeing over 100 girls waving their hands in the air. I wish you had seen it too. It was a beautiful sight.