Sara’s story makes me angry about education failings in poorest countries

Chernor Bah is the Youth Engagement Coordinator at A World at School and Chair of the Youth Advocacy Group. Here he gives a very personal view on a global education and learning crisis.

Chernor and Sara, in white, in Addis Ababa. Picture: Education For All

I just came back from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, where I was privileged to moderate the global launch of the flagship education report, the Education For All Global Monitoring Report.

As part of the events, I got to interact with teachers and students from around the world. One of them was Sara, a 23-year-old student. Bright, passionate and articulate, she wanted to tell me her story – so I could convey it to you.

Born in rural Ethiopia, the eldest of eight children to parents who had never been to school, Sara knew her chances of getting the quality education she dreamed of would only be realised if she left her small village.

She hopped on public transport when she was 16 to move to the capital Addis. There, Sara met a man who helped her create a false identity (claiming that she was 18) to travel to Syria with a promise that she could move to the United States from there to pursue her studies.

During her three years in Syria, she learned Arabic. But she realised soon enough that all she could ever be there was the domestic servant she had unwittingly become.

She decided to demand that she be returned to her country. There, for the past few years, she has gone back to school to try to get that elusive dream of education. She ended her story by asking me: “Why is it so hard for us in poor countries? Why do I have to go through so much?”

That question haunted me. And I think it encapsulated the troubling – no, shocking – findings of the report we were in Addis to launch.

There is a global education and learning crisis and it is felt most by the poorest and the most disadvantaged – by people like Sara. You could say we have an inequality crisis.

Across each of the five parameters set by Education For All in 2000, the poorest countries, the poorest people, are faring very badly. About half of children in the world have access to pre-primary school but only about 17% of those in poor countries do.

Fifty-seven million children remain out of school and about half of them are in conflict-affected countries. In sub-Saharan Africa only about 23% of poor rural girls complete primary school. Let’s pause for a second to consider this fact.

By current trends, we will get all the richest boys into school by 2021 but we will not achieve that feat for the poorest girls until 2086. Another 72 years before girls like Sara can expect to enjoy their basic rights to education.

The other numbers don’t inspire much solace either. The percentage of out-of-school adolescents in sub-Saharan Africa has not changed since 2000. One in four adolescents in low-income countries are unable to read a single sentence.


Chernor, right, and Sara, second left, in Ethiopia

I could go on and on with more eye-catching numbers from the report but you get the picture. And it’s not pretty.

But here’s what is worse. Education funding has actually fallen by about 6% in the past two years. In fact, only about a third of education aid goes to the poorest countries that need it the most. Donor countries are giving their education funds to countries that are only faring relatively well, thus leaving out the most disadvantaged even further in the cold.

If I sound downtrodden and infuriated by these numbers it’s because I am. On the eve of the expiry of the Millennium Development Goals and the Education for All targets, these facts are a significant indictment on world leaders and, yes, every one of us reading this.

Because we can all do something about it. We can all make our governments pay more attention to education. We can all write a letter to our newspaper editor letting them know that the status quo is unacceptable and demand more.

We can all read the report and urge our leaders to implement its compelling recommendations. You can sign up with us at A World At School (click on the Get Updates button at the top of this page) and join our campaign to get every child in school and learning.

I know it’s sometimes easy to forget these numbers. To believe that there’s nothing you can do in such dire circumstances.

I urge you to think of Sara again. In her village, there were very few teachers – hardly any of them with a university-level qualification. Girls like her are rarely sent to school and, even if they are, they will probably not complete the first few years before being married.

Against these odds, at the age of 23, she is back in school, sitting in grade 11. Because she refuses to give up. She refuses to accept that being born a girl, in a poor rural community, is a life sentence of illiteracy. She demands more.

We owe it to her and girls like her to demand more – and end this grave education inequality.

What do you think about the points Chernor makes? You can have your say on the A World at School Facebook page