In September 1960, at the beginning of the school year, a 19 year old newly qualified teacher arrived in the village of Biba, towards the north of Burkina Faso (then Upper Volta).
His task - to open the first school there, for which he had a 3 room building - also to be his home - and a lorry-full of combined desks and chairs. Before then, the only way to get an education was to travel every week, on foot or by bicycle, to the small town of Toma, some 9 kilometres away, and stay with friends or relatives. Unsurprisingly, few children went; most stayed at home and played their part in the local economy, minding sheep and goats and helping out in the fields at busy times such as planting and harvest. So the teacher's first task was to persuade local families to send their children to the school. Quite a challenge, given that he was a Mooré- speaking Mossi - so different ethnicity, different language from the local Samo (ethnicity and language). It took some time, but he enlisted the help of local community leaders, and was ultimately successful. He integrated well into the local society, marrying a local girl. This first teacher only stayed a year, but the fruits of his labour, and of those who followed him, are abundantly clear. He laid firm foundations - 50 years on, the alumni include plenty of people educated to university level, with enough skill, energy and commitment to organise a 'cinquantennaire' for the school. Just a few of the huge number of local people for whom doors have been opened by education. I was privileged to attend this event. Why? Because among the leading lights of the organising committee were the Secrétaire Permanente of the Association where I work and her brother. When the members of the organising committee were at school, 2 classes were taught in each of the 3 classrooms, making up the 6 classes of the primary education system. Today, there is a second, larger, primary school, and a secondary school, and the promise (this is election year) of a fully-fledged lycée which would enable students to study locally up to Baccalaureate level.
The whole event was quite an organisational feat. We travelled from Bobo in a specially chartered bus, which had started its life as a USA school bus (a Blue Bird, made in Georgia, for those of you who are bus-specialists). Laden with Bobo-dwelling Biba-ites, and sacks of rice and other presents, we travelled a couple of hours up a good tarmac road to Dédougou, stopping only, on the outskirts of Bobo, for fuel, bananas and other roadside snacks, then another couple of hours on a 'red' (ie unsurfaced) road of varying quality to Toma, where we made a brief stop for the driver to do a spot of shopping before winding the last few kilometres to Biba. There was a great atmosphere on the bus - mainly adults with just a couple of kids, as most had left their kids in school in Bobo. Lots of joking and joshing, and adjusting of the overladen luggage racks.
In Biba we stayed in the family village house, fascinating in its own right. People here don't really live in their houses - though they often sleep in them. They live in the courtyard outside, which is where they cook, eat, and chat.
So a small house can be home to quite a large number. Hard, with the great influx, to be sure quite how many in this case, but it makes for flexibility. The village was wonderfully peaceful after the hubbub of Bobo - a few animal noises and only the odd bit of amplified music, quiet lanes between vegetable gardens, lined with distinctive granaries. We washed in an open-roofed but entirely discreet enclosure, supplied with a large bucket of hot water, and a great view of granaries, sky and at night stars (under which we slept for a while).
For the ceremony, special cloth had been ordered, and special t-shirts. The cloth was made up by individual tailors in any number of designs and patterns, which gave great interest and variety. The 'hostesses', who escorted the dignitaries around, wore a fetching mix of traditional Samo pagnes and sashes with specially printed t-shirts.
The ceremony consisted of a series of speeches by visiting dignitaries, and some singing and dancing and performance by schoolchildren and musicians - with the costumes a real feast for the eyes. And lots of applause of course!
And surrounding it all, lots and lots of formal and informal eating (rice, a kind of bean/lentil from the Baobab tree, pieces of sheep, to (a paste made from maize or millet) and various sauces, pieces of chicken and guinea fowl...
That afternoon, there was community dancing - colourful, but very dusty,so we did not stay long. Between the various formal events there was time to explore the village, and see people making dolo (millet beer), working metal, and carrying on village life. The next day, there was a 'community meal' at which all the Biba returnees ate together, before embarking on their various journeys home to their various locations.
After 2 nights in Biba we headed back to Bobo in the bus, this time laden with sacks of beans, chickens, and a goat on the roof. And arrived safely back, tired but with loads of pictures and memories... Arriving back in the flat, the noise of the street and the town was striking - I can see why the Bobolais enjoy their trips back to the village. And my word, how enormously education can change individual lives.
To see more pics of this outing, follow these links: