Mali is often described as one of Africa's leading intellectual and cultural beacons, especially its beautiful capital city, Bamako. Despite free public education for all provided in principle by the government, many Malians are not getting the access to learning they need, due to the cost of school uniforms, books and often an enrollment fee of 3,000 CFA Francs (about EUR 4.60). Literacy rates for adults stand at below 50 percent.

Mali is often described as one of Africa's leading intellectual and cultural beacons, especially its beautiful capital city, Bamako. Despite free public education for all provided in principle by the government, many Malians are not getting the access to learning they need, due to the cost of school uniforms, books and often an enrollment fee of 3,000 CFA francs (about EUR 4.60). Literacy rates for adults stand at below 50 percent.

To tackle the issue of education in West Africa, the Legatum Foundation invested in "Speed Schools", an innovative programme developed and carried out at the grass-roots level by the Norway-based Stramme Foundation. As a result, over the last three years, more than 34,000 children have been enrolled in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, with 1,210 new Speed Schools opening in that time. The point of a Speed School is to give an accelerated, intensive nine-month education to 8-12 year olds, who have usually never been to school at all or who have had to drop out due to family responsibilities or lack of money. They are so successful that often children who have been through a Speed School can enter primary school at the third or fourth grade.

Mali is a landlocked country in Western Africa. It is just over 1,240,000 square kilometres in size, with a population of 14.5 million. Mali consists of eight regions and its borders on the north reach deep into the middle of the Sahara. The country's economic structure centers around agriculture and fishing. Some of Mali's prominent natural resources include gold, uranium, livestock, and salt. About half the population live below the poverty line.

French-born photographer William Daniels has made many trips to Mali and surrounding countries. "I love working in West Africa," he says. "Mali is special to me. I love the light in the rainy season and the colour of the earth and I love the way you can be driving along a deserted road in the middle of the bush and then suddenly you see one woman walking in the middle of the road, carrying some corn or something, and then, from out of nowhere, there's a crowd, people appearing from everywhere. It's so atmospheric."

Daniels is particularly passionate about education as a vital tool that can actually raise families out of poverty and change people's view on many subjects. He was lucky enough to be in the southern region of Mali – he drove 400 km from Bamako – on the very first day of the new term.

"It was like the first day of their new lives. They were so serious in their new environment, and perhaps a little scared. It was a very important day for them. The Speed Schools are like a footbridge that link people who have fallen out of the system straight back into it. I've seen many of them in action across many small villages in southern Mali, and they are extremely effective.They get real results and they are not expensive. Seeing the enthusiasm with which the children and teachers greeted their first day made me feel incredibly optimistic. Speed Schools are a great investment for Mali."

One aspect of the initiative was particularly encouraging for Daniels, and that was the obvious equality in the classrooms between girls and boys. Girls tend to fall out of the education system to assist with household duties while boys are needed to work in the fields. Speed Schools help by providing some small microfinance for parents which then releases the child to enter the Speed School training programme.

"This is a very personal opinion, but I don't like to keep seeing young girls turned into baby machines. I meet 20-year-olds who have three children, and they have often lost the light behind their eyes. School is where you learn that you are someone in the world; where you learn to think for yourself. I saw many girls in Speed Schools, like Bintou, who were described by their teachers as the most promising pupil in the class, when I asked whose home I should visit."

Above: Concentration and personal instruction from the dedicated Speed School teachers makes all the difference

Walking through the fields in Fogoba, Daniels also encountered children who weren't able to attend the Speed Schools. He met brothers Diakaridia and Lamin NaTdara who are not able to go to school because it is necessary for them to help theirfamily by working.They spent the afternoon guarding their cows. Their father told them that perhaps they will be able to attend a madrassa, an Islamic school, in the future. In Zonbougou, Daniels photographed a group of people standing at the window of the Speed School, perhaps hoping to pick up a little knowledge just by being close by, but certainly very curious.

"I even saw parents in the classroom at one school in Sugula. This one was my favourite school. It was a tiny, dark room - very difficult to photograph in - very traditional, made with red mud. The concentration in the room was incredible, and at the same time, the teacher was so very good at making them interested, making them concentrate. A few parents were even in the room with their children, participating fully in the lessons. They were so proud to have a school in their village, and even prouder to have their son as a pupil there."

While the reasons behind the lack of education provision for Malian children are multifaceted and complex, the success of the Speed School initiative here is due to the mobilisation of local communities, teaching parents about the long-term economic value of education, and encouraging parents to allow their children to attend Speed Schools. The long term goal is to embed a new tradition in rural West Africa that prioritises education.

People from the villages called the Speed School 'sambala nio' which means "small millet". Millet is a very common African cereal and the 'small millet' is a type that s sowed after the normal millet but is harvested earlier. This is an excellent analogy for the Speed School Programme"

William Daniels, Photographer

Above: Knowledge is liberty; children arrive at school for a day of learning


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