Daniel and Sumeyla

Our son Daniel grew up in Tera, Niger. His best friend there was Soumeyla, our houselady's son. They lived just two doors down from us. Daniel and Soumeyla are the same age (19 in 2008) and have similar personalities and tastes. Both are quiet and love the outdoors. Both love sports. They speak Songhai with each other and Soumeyla knows quite a bit of English both from studying it in school and also from hearing us use it. But the differences in culture and religion (Soumeyla is a Muslim) and especially in education form a huge gulf between them.

At age four

We just learned that Soumeyla passed his exams to enter high school. No, I did not say that wrong. At 19, he will be entering high school. This is the result of the school system in Niger which is partly inherited from the French. Let
With friends at age five. Soumeyla is on the right.
me explain. At the end of primary school (the equivalent of 6th grade in the US), all the students take exams. A certain percentage of the students who make the top grades will go on to junior high school (which in Niger is called college). Most students do not pass the exam. But they have the option of taking 6th grade over and retaking the exam the following year. If they fail to pass, they may take 6th grade over a third time. If after three tries, they fail to pass the exam, they are out of the education system and cannot go on with their education. They must find some kind of trade or go back to farming or go into the army or police force. There are few other options. I don't know the exact percentages, but most people who start elementary school never go on to junior high school (college).

Eating fish sandwiches. The fish were caught in the Tera lake.
Soumeyla is on the left. (2003?)

If, however, the student finally passes his primary exams and moves on to college, s/he has another four years to prove himself or herself. He or she may be as old as 14 or 15 when they enter college. At the end of four years of college, there is another exam. As was the case for primary school, there is another exam to determine if a student can pass on to high school. Again, most students don't pass the exam. And again, if they do not pass, they may retake the exam two more times after redoing the final year of college.
Daniel and Suzanne with Genda and Soumeyla (on right)--2004.

Now I don't know how many times Soumeyla took the primary exams, but I do know that he failed to pass the college exams twice even though he was one of the top students in his class. At the beginning of last school year, his mother pleaded with us to find a job for him or some way for him to continue his education. After some thought, we remembered that a Christian friend of ours ran a private college in Tera. Would he be willing to bring Soumeyla into his school to redo the last year of college and try one last time to pass the exam? He would, and we paid for Soumeyla's tuition (75,000 francs, which translates to about $187.50). Our friend, the director of the school, thought he could easily pass the exam given his grades in last class. Well, Soumeyla finally made it. He now has the chance to get to university. But first, he has to get through the three years of high school (called lycee in French). At the end of lycee he has another exam to take, and, you guessed it, he has three tries to pass that exam. So, if he gets to university, he could be as old as 24 before he starts. That is the system here.
Renting bicycles to ride around Tera. Soumeyla is on Daniel's
right. Jeremy Slager is on the far right in the picture. 2006.

When Daniel first started school, Nancy home-schooled him. At that time, Soumeyla's mom asked us if we couldn't home school Soumeyla along with Daniel. Should we have done so? Did we make a mistake in not doing so? That is a big, unanswerable question. How do you know what is right? Could we (or should we) have supported Soumeyla throughout his schooling? Would it have benefitted Soumeyla to do that or would it have made it harder for him to adapt back to his home country's educational system? Would he have had a better education? Probably, but would it have been the best thing for him? It's easy to look back and second guess. It's not so easy to decide on the spot. There are many factors and variables.
Soumeyla and Daniel in 2007 just before Daniel left Niger.
In any case, we're very happy that Soumeyla has made it to lycee and has a chance to move on with his education. He will get at least three more years of schooling, and that should help him find a better job and better working conditions.


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Hannatu said...

Man! I miss both of those guys!!!

Anonymous said...

John, what a great article. You truly do have a great knack for writing! Definitely a gift! I now understand the process of the school system (and I never quite got it before) and just how convoluted it really is. I'm happy for Soumeyla though and continue to keep him in prayer. I still miss them all very much. Oh the fish picture was taken in 2004-2005 time 'cause I was there when it was taken.
Mike Murphy