When Streetlights Serve As Schools For Children

Some insights are only gained at night. Yes, you read that correctly. In Sikasso, Mali, West Africa, my eyes were opened one night to the existence of what I refer to as the “streetlight students” of Sikasso.

Interestingly, most foreign country expats are told to limit travel at night for personal safety. But it is my observation that the advisement never really stops most people after the first year or so, especially among the “eating out” and the “going to the bar” crew. Generally, there are greater risks at night. However, the Peace Corps gathered some interesting statistics on assault; how accurate they are, I don’t really know. They found that from midnight on is when  the majority of assaults occur, not the early evening hours.

We eat out often, too. Not in any fancy expat restaurant establishment like one finds in Bamako, or on the Niger river tourist run in Segou and Mopti. There is nothing of the like in Sikasso. A few grungy, over priced hotel restaurants with little variety is the best we have.
So our meals are at the simple, economical local places serving local food, which consist of various rice dishes with two tablespoons of a “kind” of meat. Meat which could be a actual morsel of pure meat, but more likely bone, gristle, or a lump of fat.  It certainly cuts down on our living expenses at one dollar a plate for a noon rice dish, and evening meal deals running about two to four dollars.

Unlike most foreign workers in Mali, we do not have any house staff to do the market, run errands, or to do the cooking for us. So, after a long day in the village, my wife and I certainly have neither the energy or time for cooking and preparing meals from scratch. The small cubical stores in Sikasso certainly do not offer much in the “Instant Meal” department.

Sikasso, though the second largest city in Mali by population,  is so far off the tourist and foreign worker loop that both its restaurant and store variety is exceptionally dismal.  All the stores have the same basic offerings that cater to the poor local inhabitants, not Europeans or westerners, who are almost non-existent here.   I was told one store in Sikasso sells cheese. I have been working here since January 2011 and I have never ever once seen cheese in that store, or in any store for that matter.

With such a dismal variety, we simply don’t share the same shopping thrills that many expats enjoy, when finding some newly discovered European delights in some Bamako or Segou store. I know one expat that brings back coolers full of supplies from Bamako to Sikasso. That just does not work for us, having no vehicle of our own. A one way return trip from Bamako could be anything between five and a half hours, to my all time personal record of ten and a half hours.  Even if we could get a load of food supplies home from Bamako, with power outages, and no generator, it would certainly spoil at some point. Using public bus transport between cities, and small Chinese motorcycles for our local and bush work has it’s challenges.
Besides the fact that we never just “Take a trip” to Bamako anyway, because we enjoy where we are better.

So we just keep it simple. It takes much less energy to live in Africa if you can do without Western things. But we are happy with our simple choices, and enjoy cheap local cuisine for 80% of our meals.  So, any time we are in Sikasso at noon, and several nights a week, you will find us at some local watering hole. This is what takes us out at night- seeking some sustenance.

The city takes on a different feel and life after dark.  These foraging trips take us to most corners of the town. When we were renting a small place in Sanabougou Two, our place was 1.6 kilometers off the pavement, down a dirt street.  There was a vacant lot on our dirt street, near the paved road lined with street lights.  This building lot had a cement wall built up around the property, and a small storage room in the front corner by the gate. The room was very tiny, measuring maybe eight by eight feet.  We would drive by the place every day. There was a family living in the little room, and we are certain they did not own the lot.  They were growing a garden inside the protective walls of the bricked courtyard.  They had no electricity, and no running water, so I am not certain where the water came from for the garden.  Probably from a small shallow dirty creek about five hundred meters away, that ran through this part of town.

This family had four kids, most of them very young, and you would see them playing on the street in front of their gate half dressed, as their mother washed clothes in a pan, or was peeling things to make a meal. We waved every time we drove by to huge smiles every time. The kids shouting “Toubabou”.  However, this lady also had one school age kid. How do we know?

Well, at night, the family did not  hang out at their powerless cube of a home, rather assembled at the street corner on the paved road under the streetlight. They had a plastic mat that was rolled up and leaned against the wall of the building permanently, it was spread out in the evenings where we would see the father and a kid or two snoozing, the lady knitting,  and a few of the younger kids playing too. But one older child was always doing something else under the streetlight.

As poor as this family is, the older child is in school. We know this because almost every night he is there on the corner under the streetlight with his Mum, smaller brothers and sisters, some times his dad, but always with his books, doing his school work via the glow of the streetlight. What other choice do they have? They obviously could not afford lamps, kerosene, battery power or candles. I have never once seen a light in their place at night; it’s a dark hole at night.

It was my wife who first brought this lamp post study hall to my attention. And I have to say, that the image I saw of this school kid  really is forever etched into my mind.

Once having my eyes opened to the educational challenges for the poor, on our nightly foraging runs, I made it a point to see if there were other children in this town trying to paddle the same educational boat.  Sure enough, there they were, everywhere. Over the next few weeks I saw hundreds more young boys and girls, all over the town, doing the very same thing; seeking out enough light to read and write.   A few kids here, a few more there, at one time we saw over a dozen studying under one street light. They had hauled benches up there to sit and work on. Obviously this was a regular study hall parking place for them. Often I would see young boys or girls carrying a bench on their head, followed behind by several other kids clutching their books… heading to the road side lamppost…..WOW….

Poverty makes it hard to pay school fees so that kids can go to school. Poverty makes is hard to buy kerosene, candles, or batteries (Let alone a power meter) so that kids can do their school work in the evenings.  What about the ones not living near a street light? How are they ever going to succeed?

So much for reading yourself to sleep with no light.

So much for reading your kids a bedtime story when you have no light.

No matter, around here most women can’t read to their kids anyway, because they were never sent to school. Oh well, at least this helps to keep the children’s parental expectations realistic.

Sometimes life just sucks.  What do they do about the common power outages? What happens on a rainy night, when it’s too wet to sit out under the streetlight? Good thing we have nine months of drought each year, I suppose.

Certainly for the streetlight students of Sikasso….it is hard to succeed at school under these conditions.

My hat comes off, and my heart goes out to the School of Streetlight kids in Sikasso.

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