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Striving for girls’ education in the birthplace of Voodoo

September 28, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
Around the world, 59 million children are out of school and 250 million are not learning the basics. The WNET series "Time for School" travels to Benin, where nearly half of girls have had no formal schooling and often marry very young.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: This past weekend, the U.N. met to take stock of the millennium promise of guaranteeing a basic education for all children by 2015.

In a message Saturday, Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon noted that, around the world, 59 million children are not in school, and 250 million children are not learning the basics.

Over the past 12 years, PBS has been chronicling the education of six children in separate countries for WNET’s documentary “Time for School.”

Tonight, we travel to the tiny African country of Benin, where, in 2003, one in four children were out of school, most of them girls.

NARRATOR: Nine-year old Nanavi Todenou lives in Koutagba, a remote village in the tiny West African country of Benin, where voodoo was born.

Nanavi and her village are participating in a nationwide campaign to educate the girls of Benin. The voodoo priest calls for celebration because he has just agreed to allow one girl from each family to attend school, instead of being initiated into the faith.

BALAKOU, Voodoo Priest (through interpreter): I want Nanavi to go to school. But all the girls can never go to school. There will always be those who’ll go to the convent. No one can force me to release all of them for school.

NARRATOR: Nearly half of the girls in Benin have had no formal education and often marry very young.

REGINA GUEDOU, Education Coordinator (through interpreter): Now that your daughters are going to school, aren’t you happy? You’re not going to overwhelm your daughters with all the household chores, are you?

NARRATOR: Regina Guedou has a key role in Benin’s girls education initiative, traveling from village to village on a state-supported mission to persuade parents of the value of letting girls go to school.

REGINA GUEDOU (through interpreter): If there are too many illiterate people, the country can’t develop. We need these children of tomorrow, so that the country can change. But this will be a long fight.

MAKDUE KOFFI ADAPKO, Nanavi’s Teacher (through interpreter): The changes that girls education will bring to the village are huge. The girls who attend school learn about hygiene. For instance, she won’t let her baby go without vaccination against diseases. She can help her mother count the money they made at the market.

NARRATOR: The oldest of four children, Nanavi is the biggest help on the family’s modest farm. But for her mother, an education was worth the sacrifice.

KEKE AKODA:, Nanavi’s Mother (through interpreter): I hope that she will become something great, like a doctor. If I had gone to school, I would have had a better life.

NARRATOR: In 2005, Nanavi suffered a tragic loss.

NANAVI TODENOU (through interpreter): When my father died, I felt like dying too. He used to play with me. If I didn’t come back from school and it was getting dark, my father would pick me up in the village.

NARRATOR: Before passing, Nanavi’s father made one last wish.

NANAVI TODENOU (through interpreter): My father told me to go to school and not to rest.

This is my middle school. This is the sixth grade. And this is my classroom.

CLASS: Good morning, teacher.

NARRATOR: With the help of Regina and the girls initiative, Nanavi made it to middle school, one of the select 11 percent of Benin’s girls who even make it this far.

PATRICE ASSOGBA, Nanavi’s Teacher: OK, now, class, look at it. Is it correct?

CLASS: Yes!

PATRICE ASSOGBA: Is it correct?

CLASS: Yes!

PATRICE ASSOGBA: Now you clap for Nanavi, please.

I believe that Nanavi can make it. As we say, with a valiant heart, nothing is impossible.

NANAVI TODENOU (through interpreter): I actually love being in middle school. I want to be a doctor, so I can give people shots. I want to go to school until I become something great.

My little boy’s name is Adaou Fortune (ph). He was born on May 28, 2015. He’s 2 months old.

NARRATOR: In 2010, Nanavi left her village to go to boarding school in the city, where Regina and her mother believed she would receive a better education. But the demands of her new school overwhelmed her and she wasn’t able to keep up with other students.

She moved to the capital, Cotonou, to attend yet another school and lived with her aunt and uncle. But they physically abused her, she says, so she ran away before completing the seventh grade.

She now lives in the city of Bohicon, the third largest trade center in Benin, and had her son with Alphonse, an older married man already the father of four, who makes a living building auto parts out of rubber.

NANAVI TODENOU (through interpreter): I have to stay with him because we already have a son together. And I love him, too. I would’ve preferred to stay in school. School helped me a lot. For example, if you don’t go to school, you can’t read, you can’t speak French, and you wouldn’t be able to study photography.

NARRATOR: No longer in school, Nanavi is apprenticing at a local photography studio, in the hope of being able to eventually support her family.

NANAVI TODENOU (through interpreter): Hi. I’m training to be a photographer. Mind if I take your picture?

RODRIGUE NOGI, Nanavi’s Photography Mentor (through interpreter): As soon as she started, she was very dedicated to the work. She’s diligent. She gave it her all. She definitely has all the right qualities to become a good reporter.

ALPHONSE ADAOU, Nanavi’s Partner (through interpreter): It’s clear that she really enjoys this work. I have to help her. She has to finish her apprenticeship. And it will help support us.

NANAVI TODENOU (through interpreter): It pains me that I couldn’t stay in school, and that’s why my son will do what I wasn’t able to. He will study. He will go further than I was able to go.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can watch additional videos of the “Time for School” documentary project on WNET’s website.

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