Children's rights: A community learning experience in Senegal

Children's rights: A community learning experience in Senegal
(Visit to Thiès, Senegal, 18 November 1994)

Four o'clock. The expected day and time has arrived: by foot or by bus, chanting and singing, children and adults from a nearby rural village begin to stream into this village. Learners - children and adolescents - from the other village want to share what they have learnt in school around children's rights, through a special act they have prepared with the help of their facilitator. Children and adults are present, many of them students of either the adult or the adolescents programme, parents, the facilitators, and the members of the Village Management Committees of both villages. This is part of the non-formal basic education programme in national languages initiated in 1988 and implemented in Thiès by TOSTAN, a Senegalese NGO, with UNICEF and CIDA support.

The village comprises of barely a dozen homes. The houses are small and built with mud and straw, clustered together and separated from another cluster by wooden fences made out of branches. A few scattered trees and dusty narrow streets complete the scenario.

Most adults present are women. Many of them are mothers of the students, many are students or ex-students themselves of the adult education programme. Today, Friday, many men are at the mosque.

The entertainment has been organised in the open air, at the entrance of the village, next to a big baobab tree. A huge canvas hung between the tree and a fence provides a tent to protect against the sun. Children and adults sit on the floor, on mats or on small wooden seats. According to my count, over 200 people are gathered here. Facing them is a big map, a blackboard, a flipchart and a table.

Several signs with written texts in Wolof are to be seen all over the village: on the tree, on the wooden fences, on the houses. They are part of an effort to create a "literate environment", surrounding villagers with written texts. Streets have been baptised with such names as STREET OF KNOWLEDGE and STREET OF PEACE. The Boutique (a small village shop where mainly matches, oil, salt, are sold) -which, together with the school, is the only "modern" cement house in the village - displays on its facade a sign in Wolof that reads:


The facilitator is the master of ceremonies. He has made the drawings to illustrate children's rights, prepared his students, and promoted and organised this encounter. Everything is conducted in Wolof, one of Senegal's six national languages.

A series of songs introduce the act. The “alphabet song” seems to be one of the most popular ones: they tell me that the words remain the same, but each village puts it to its own melody, some of them with chorals. Most of the songs have been written by the students with the help of their facilitators. Thus, through music and rhythm, they welcome the visitors, praise the facilitator and acknowledge the organisations in charge of the education programme. A special song has been created on children's rights.

The facilitator announces the official start of the programme and explains it al length to the audience. Then he begins to unfold the flipchart.

Children of the world

The first picture is an introduction to the flipchart and presents children of different races and countries, wearing different costumes. The facilitator asks the students to describe what they see in the picture, and then asks them to point out differences. Children raise their hands and snap their fingers. They all want to speak. They give all sorts of answers: the hair, the shoes, the skin colour, the height, the clothes, the eyes. He then asks about their similarities and the children again answer: they are all people, they all have joys and problems, they all have to eat food. One small girl shyly states:

- "All the children have rights."

Everyone claps. Now the facilitator asks for a volunteer to come to the front, identify and choose a sheet of paper on which a text is written corresponding to the subject of the drawing, in this case, "All the children of the world have rights". A girl comes to the front: she studies the sheets displayed on the table, picks the right sheet, and then "reads" it aloud while turning around several times so that the phrase is visible to the entire audience. While "read" is here a verb between inverted commas - these young learners have started school only two months ago - since it is rather visually recognising words and phrases, this is actually the very first step to real reading, to reading with meaning and with fun!

Adults are expectant, laugh and applaud, seem both proud and annoyed. Perplexed and uneasy at the beginning, they begin to feel increasingly at ease as the act unfolds.

The whole presentation on children's rights will follow this pattern: introduction of the picture; questions to children on what they see illustrated; discussion of the specific right suggested by the picture; interpretation of the right by the children through a short, often provocative, dramatisation or poem they have created; discussion of the play or poem; and identification and reading aloud of small texts written on sheets of paper and which correspond to the drawings.

The right to good nutrition

The picture shows millet, chicken, tomatoes, fish, papaya, monkey bread (a fruit from the baobab tree), and eggs. After an introductory discussion on the right to good nutrition, a child reads a poem about a selfish father who wants all the good morsels of food saved for himself, and is not concerned about his children's nutrition. A man in the audience, who has been listening to the story with evident anxiety, raises his hand and says, genuinely annoyed:

- "But I hide when I do it. How do you know?"

Everyone laughs. The facilitator then asks the children how they would answer the selfish father. Further discussion follows among the men. Volunteers come to the front and pick up sheets with colourful drawings of food and short phrases written in Wolof:

children and chicken
children and papaya
children and millet
children and good nutrition

The right to health

The illustration shows a mother immunising her young child. Following the questions and answers on children's right to health, a skit is staged with a husband and wife discussing the immunisation issue. The wife - a young volunteer who has borrowed a baby from a real mother in the audience - asks her husband for money in order vaccinate the child. He refuses and argues that he does not have the money. She blames him for spending the money in playing the lottery and buying himself tea. Finally, he agrees and she takes the baby to the vaccination post. Laughter and applause follow from the audience as the boy (playing the husband) dances off into the crowd. A lively discussion among the parents ensues in reaction to the husband's attitude. A girl volunteers to identify, pick up and read aloud the message "Children and health".

The right to a clean environment

The picture shows a woman with a broom, cleaning up her yard, and several garbage baskets aligned by the fence of the house. After discussion, the children present a skit in which they have been working on a village clean up and are discussing further actions to assure success. Then an older man comes along and throws down paper from the food he has been eating. When the children try to explain to him that he should not dirty the environment they are working to clean up, he becomes angry and says that children do not have the right to tell adults what to do. Discussion follows this skit among the children and the adults.

The facilitator asks:
- "What will happen in the future if everyone continues to pollute the environment?"

The children respond in unison:
- "Our whole country will be a garbage pile!".

The adults are delighted with this outburst.

The right to education
The drawings illustrate four types of learning ("houses of learning"): a woman teaching her child to cook (life learning), a blacksmith teaching a young apprentice (traditional job learning), a boy with a wooden slate on his knees (religious learning), and a boy and a girl with modern clothing and books under their arms (learning brought in from the outside, the French school system). The facilitator asks questions on each type of learning: what for? what methods? what differences?. A child comes forward and reads a poem on the importance of learning in national languages.

The right not to work too much

In this drawing, a girl is busy with many domestic chores. An eight-year-old girl comes to the front and reads a poem that speaks of a girl who does all the work in the house and has no time to play. She ends the poem with:

"At night, when I finally lie down to sleep,
I think and think and think about life.
My heart is full and I begin to cry
Because I do not know
When all this suffering will end."

Adults - and, particularly, mothers - seem uncomfortable and distressed.

[A parenthesis on children's responsibilities]

At this point, a sheet on RESPONSIBILITIES is inserted in the flipchart, apparently to counterbalance the many rights of children and the increasing anxiety of parents. There are no pictures on this paper, only written text. The facilitator asks the children to name their responsibilities and duties. Some of the answers are:

to be polite
to be respectful
to love oneself
to love one's country
to be obedient
to help out
to promote peace

The right to play

The illustration shows several children at play: a boy and a girl playing together; a girl on a swing; another girl dancing. The facilitator asks volunteers to show the audience certain traditional Senegalese games. Five girls come to the front and show two such games, combining song and rhythm.

The right to free expression

The drawing shows children talking to each other in a circle. A boy recites a poem that ends with "all children have good ideas, so let us speak up". Adults laugh nervously.

The right not to be exploited
The illustration shows a Marabout - traditional teacher in the (religious Koranic school) - with a child chained next to him, and another child begging near a bus full of people. The issue appears to be very sensitive. A man, visibly upset, asks for an explanation. The facilitator explains that there are different types of Marabouts, and that this one belongs to the type that do not really educate children under their care, but instead exploit them and live off them, forcing children to beg and to bring them money, or else they get punished and chained. Then, he tells his own story while he lived in a with a Marabout: he begged for alms, but only in his own neighbourhood and at that time begging was considered a formative experience, learning to be humble and to see how hard it is to be poor. Everyone is really attentive to his explanation. Many mothers nod their heads in agreement.

The right not to be punished

The drawing shows a father beating his son. Children comment that no one has the right to beat anyone (literally, in Wolof, "no one has the right to take the personality away from another"). Parents remain quiet.

One of the visitors intervenes and challenges the children with the question:
- "But how do you teach children if you do not punish them?."

A small, skinny girl immediately responds:
- "You take him or her to the back of the house or into a room, and there you talk to them and advise them."

There is sustained laughter. Many seem surprised at the young girl's quick, sharp and wise response.

In concluding the act we, the visitors, are introduced. The Presidents of both Village Management Committees address the audience. They congratulate and applaud the facilitator. A girl spontaneously reminds everyone to also congratulate and applaud the facilitator's trainer.

In his brief address, one of the Presidents of the Committee says to the children:
- "If I were you, and had learnt what you have learnt in two months, I would be shouting and praising your teacher more than you do".

A father in the audience thanks children because "they have brought a lot of knowledge to the adults".

A mother says: "It is the first time that three neighbouring communities have met together. And this is thanks to the education of both the children and the adults."

A young boy, full of enthusiasm, jumps into the centre of the stage and starts to dance. Someone grabs a huge plastic bowl and uses it as a drum.

And the big party begins. Girls and boys, children and adults: all are in the mood to dance. The same spot, different choreography. Brief, intense, frantic, individual dancing performances that commit the whole body, the mind, the entire person. While one dances, the others clap hands, and others - mainly women - play on improvised drums (plastic, metal, wood) that multiply very quickly. An educational act turns into a village celebration. The critical issue of children's rights has brought children and adults closer, and two villages in contact for the first time.

We have witnessed a memorable occasion in the lives of these children and adults, and of these villages. Nothing here has been conventional. Education and rights, school and life, students and parents, parents and teachers, teachers and students, reading-writing and singing-dancing, flipcharts, poems and plays: they all seemingly interact and go together naturally. Conventional categories and classifications - formal/ non-formal/ informal education, school/out-of-school, or the distinction between children/ adolescents/ adults, or between children's education/ adult education, or even the term "community participation"- do not help to capture and explain what this is all about.

There is definitely an innovative approach to literacy; not necessarily a new method but a renewed understanding and a fresh insight on the meaning and joy involved in teaching and learning to read and write. Literacy as something that involves both children and adults, as a creative undertaking on the part of both teachers and learners, as an intelligent act, as a communication challenge. Literacy not per se but to know about one's rights, to reflect upon and to discuss them. Literacy as a social and cultural capital to share with others, with other children, with other adults, with other villages. Children and adults learning together, becoming literate and aware together, in a genuine family and community learning process.

No conventional terms or prefabricated educational jargon can describe what the villagers and ourselves, the visitors, experienced in those two hours in Thiès. This is why I have preferred to describe it, and to describe it as I saw it, to share it with you.

Related posts in this blog
Rosa María Torres, Children's right to basic education
Rosa María Torres, Open Letter to School Children

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