NARANG, 24 December 2009 (IRIN) - Families and educators in parts of conflict-hit Casamance, southern Senegal, face a number of challenges, one of which is the lack of classrooms for primary school children, experts and residents say.
In Narang, near the border with The Gambia, "hundreds" of children cross the border to go to school, villagers told IRIN. Education officials said the exact number is unknown.
Schools on the Senegalese side, where they exist, are makeshift structures - mostly made of straw, mud or scraps of aluminum - in which students sit on the ground and teachers rarely have a desk or chair.
Across rural West Africa many children lack proper classrooms for various reasons, but in Casamance sporadic violence is at the heart of the problem, according to a government education official.
"Contractors in many cases are afraid to come to the sites [near the Gambian border] to build," Gana Sène, education inspector in the main Casamance city of Ziguinchor, told IRIN.
"There are many government construction plans for this zone that have not been carried out because companies hesitate to go there because of the insecurity. This situation penalizes many villages near the border."
The 27-year-old conflict in Casamance has seen long periods of relative calm peppered with bouts of deadly violence: In a recent spate of attacks supposed rebels killed a school inspector in the department of Oussouye.
Christina de Bruin, head of UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Casamance, told IRIN: "We know that reconstruction and rehabilitation [of schools] in these border zones is a big challenge."
With the aim of reaching universal primary education by 2015 - one of the Millennium Development Goals - Senegal has a programme to use temporary facilities if necessary while building schools as quickly as possible. "This is why a lot of schools [in the region] are still temporary shelters," inspector Sène said.
Sporadic displacement also disrupts schooling in Casamance. Recent unrest and displacement around Diabir and Baraf near Ziguinchor forced families out of their homes. "One of the biggest challenges for those working in education is mitigating the negative impact of displacements on schooling," UNICEF's de Bruin said.
For now children from Diabir and Baraf are attending schools in Ziguinchor.
"The disruption not only caused children to miss out on hours of education but caused trauma," she said. "We must remember the value of education in peacebuilding as well as the psychological support it provides. UNICEF has trained teachers in helping children deal with stress and trauma and this is crucial to their development."
Education officials said retaining teachers in unstable areas is also a problem. "Often teachers will refuse to come back to their posts [in some areas of Casamance], citing insecurity," Sène said.
But UNICEF's de Bruin said it is important to recognize that many Senegalese are teaching in the region despite the difficulties. "I am extremely grateful to those teachers who do go to these zones - for their dedication."
Meanwhile, high attendance rates demonstrate the importance the community gives to education, experts say.
"Despite all the insecurity and displacement, in Ziguinchor Department in 2009 completion rates are among the highest in the country at 87 percent; enrolment rates are higher than the national average," said de Bruin. "Fortunately for the people of Casamance education is extremely important to this community and these results show that."