Josué and Kinani during a Sunday morning worship service at the Mennonite student hostel.
Every year young people from around the world travel to North America to participate in Mennonite Central Committee’s International Visitor Exchange Program (IVEP). Two young men from Burkina Faso left a couple of weeks ago to spend the year in Calgary and Montreal.
They are members of the Mennonite Church of Burkina Faso and were residents at the Mennonite student hostel in Ouagadougou. We are thrilled for them to have this opportunity and even more so because for a few months we were not sure that they would be able to participate in the program. The Canadian government first refused their request for visas, so they were not able to leave in August as planned. They finally received their visas in October and left on Oct. 28. After an initial orientation in Vancouver, they will go to their placements and begin their activities. Although the delay of their departure was worrisome, it did permit Kinani to take his third-year law exams which had been postponed since July and were finally given Oct. 10-26. We see God’s hand even in those circumstances that seem adverse. If he had not been able to take his exams, he might have been required to repeat all three years!
Nineteen years after the launch of the first seminar in the Systematic Bible Training Program in Cotonou, things are still going strong. I (Nancy) just got back from teaching Homiletics (the Art of Preaching) to around 200 students in the 7th class since the program began in 1994. Every three years the Benin Bible Institute (BBI) enrolls new students for its three-year series of courses. BBI has graduated over 1,000 men and women who work as pastors, preachers, Sunday School teachers, choir members, and youth leaders. The demand for the program doesn’t seem to diminish.
I taught the class first on the weekend in French (Friday night, Saturday and Sunday: 15 hours) and then re-taught it during the week (Monday through Thursday: 20 hours) with translation into Goun, one of the local languages. The final task was to grade the exams, 184 of them; I was happy to leave the 30 exams written in Goun for someone else to grade!
Sometimes the students complain that BBI is too difficult; they suggest the standards are too high and the demands too rigorous. Yet in Benin anyone interested in serious study of Bible and Theology knows BBI is the place to go. This has become even more evident this year as BBI test scores were among the best of 7 theological institutions in West Africa that participated in the exam regime.
Full-body worship is also part of the BBI program!
One of BBI’s programs in which we teach periodically is the Baccalaureate in Theology. The BAC is a diploma accorded at the end of secondary school in many Francophone countries and is the equivalent of a junior college level degree in North America. In order to attain the BAC, students must pass a series of exams which BBI students took in June. The exams, prepared by CITAF which coordinates the accreditation of institutions of theological education in Francophone Africa, covered a range of subjects including theology, philosophy, English, French, and Koine Greek.
Of BBI’s 9 candidates 7 passed, including 2 who passed with distinction. That is a success rate of 77% and compares favorably with the overall success rate which was 40% this year. So BBI has shown that it prepares its students well and that it has quality programs!
Participants at the marriage seminar that is taking place this week.
This week the Mennonite Hostel in Ouagadougou is hosting a seminar on marriage. It started last Saturday and will end next Sunday, in total including 24 hours of teaching and discussion time. Marriage is an important and challenging issue for young people in the church in Burkina Faso. If in the West marriage is a lifestyle choice, here marriage and children are an assumed stage in life to the point of being required of everyone. The issue is not one of whether or not to marry but of when to marry and to whom.
Young people see examples of conflictual marriages and divorce, and they fear that this will happen to them. We hope that this seminar will help them prepare for marriage and give them additional ways to think about the marriage relationship. The instructor has done a lot of teaching and counseling in this context and uses practical examples, encourages questions, and includes participant discussion in his teaching strategy. We’re happy to see this opportunity for exploration and learning for the hostel residents.
This past week Nancy, Jeremiah, and Deborah started the routine of school again at the International School of Ouagadougou. Yes, you read correctly, this year Nancy went back to school too! Tuition at ISO is expensive, so to help pay Jeremiah and Deborah’s fees she is teaching three classes: 8th grade Language Arts, Yearbook, and SAT Prep. Since Jeremiah is in 8th grade this year (Deborah is in 7th), he has his mother as a teacher for Language Arts and yearbook. Should be an interesting year as they explore their new relationship as teacher-student.
Besides their regular classes Jeremiah has joined the ISO softball team and Deborah is taking up flute again (she took flute lessons when we were living in Boston) as part of the band. As is normal in an international school like ISO, there is a lot of turnover in the teaching staff and students. So everyone is making new friends and learning to adjust to new teachers. We’re confident that it’s going to be a good year.
The students who live at the Mennonite Student Hostel face a number of challenges. Many come from families with minimal financial resources, most often they’re from agricultural communities in the country-side where there are few educational opportunities. While the students who make it to university have already gone very far in the minds of their families and home communities, the problems they face when they come to Ouagadougou seem enormous. But of course they persevere, facing challenges with courage and determination.
Group work during a seminar at the Hostel
Among the problems the students face is theft. Last Thursday morning they awoke to discover that two of their bicycles had been stolen during the night. One wonders how those who have so few resources can survive the loss of property or money. This is where the community that the Hostel provides becomes their strength. Earlier this year, one of the students was on her way home from a tutoring job when a man pulled up beside her bicycle and spoke briefly to her. Before she realized what was happening, he had reached into the basket on the handle bars, taken her bag, and driven off. The bag contained her telephone and the equivalent of approximately $10.00 USD in cash. When she arrived back to the Hostel and told the others what had happened, they pooled their resources. One person had an extra telephone to lend her, and others gave small amounts of cash. The love and generosity of her fellow students consoled her heart.
There is now a new complication for university students. While traditionally the university closes down for the month of August for vacation, this practice has been suspended over the last few years because of irregularities in the school calendar. For example, this year the tests that are given to choose those graduates who will be employed by state agencies are happening during this month of August. But this past Thursday officials announced that university cafeterias upon which the student population depends will be closed for two months. On July 31 the residents of the university dormitories were informed that they had to vacate their rooms by August 1st. Some who had no other options had to sleep under the stars that first night. This is not a good option as the rainy season is upon us. At least the students in the Hostel have a place to stay even if their daily bread will be scarcer in the next two months!
For the Hostel residents, the community will be their strength once more. Those who are free to travel home will likely leave Ouagadougou for a time. Those left behind will find ways to pool their resources in order to have enough to eat. They will help each other and the congregation will contribute some foodstuffs and look for ways to support them in their efforts.
Please pray for the students, both those at the Hostel and those who find themselves scrambling to find food and lodging. This is a time of increased strain between the authorities and the student population. There are likely political factors mixed with economic considerations that have led to these abrupt changes in policy. Recent demonstrations of those in opposition to the current regime have taken place near the university and may have included students. By closing the university at this time and forcing students to move away, authorities may be attempting to decrease the size of such demonstrations. The student population was already frustrated, and the current situation risks increasing tensions. Pray for wisdom and wise action on the part of both the authorities and the student leaders.
In November of 1959 Edwin and Irene Weaver arrived in southeastern Nigeria, the first Mennonite Board of Missions (MBM, the predecessor agency of Mennonite Mission Network) missionaries assigned to the region. Their arrival was in response to a request for assistance and an invitation to establish a missionary presence from a group of “independent” congregations that desired to take on a Mennonite identity. In fact, when the Weavers arrived Mennonite Church Nigeria had already been established and congregations were in the process of affiliating with it. But the Weavers took action that seems, in many ways, strange for missionaries to take. They stopped the process of adding congregations to the new Mennonite church and, over the next eight years, focused much of their time and energy on resourcing African Independent Churches, those that had decided against affiliating with western denominations. In the following decades MBM as a mission agency also shifted much of its focus in West Africa in the same direction.
Why would missionaries or a mission agency make such a decision? In order to start answering that question, I’ve written an article that identifies missiological issues such as mass movements, the indigenous nature of the church, and ecumenism as being important considerations for the Weavers and others as they fashioned their missionary strategies. The article has now been published in the International Bulletin of Missionary Research (IBMR). It’s likely more than should be include in a blog post, but if you’re inclined to read it, I’m providing links for you to do so.
There are two ways to access the article. You can go to the IBMR website and see it in the July 2013 issue. You will need to sign in, but registration is free. Or, to open a pdf file of the article directly, you can click here Mennonite Mission Theorists and Practitioners in Southeastern Nigeria, used by permission of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research. R. Bruce Yoder, “Mennonite Mission Theorists and Practitioners in Southeastern Nigeria: Changing Contexts and Strategy at the Dawn of the Postcolonial Era, ” International Bulletin of Missionary Research 37, no. 3 (2013): 138-144.
I (Nancy) have been meeting with the students who live in the Student Hostel one by one in order to get to know them. I have learned a great deal not only about their individual lives, but also about the challenges that face ordinary Burkinabe children who wish to pursue their education. Here are some of the situations that our students have lived through:
- Several students left home when they reached the equivalent of Grade 6 (sixieme in the French system) because there was no middle school or high school in their home town. They move to a larger center where they live with a relative – sometimes just an older sibling. Some of our students have been living among students without adult supervision from the time they were 13 or 14!
- Several students have had to figure out how to pay for their studies even before they get to university. In fact, even public education costs money. So if the student’s parents cannot afford to send him/her to school then he/she has to make enough money to cover the cost of studies. Many students have worked alongside their studies or in the summer time and put themselves through high school.
- One student had to attend night school so that he could work during the day. The problem is that night school does not give the student the same number of hours and so in exam years (see below) the night school students are at a clear disadvantage. This student found a family connection who was willing to cover his costs for the two exam years. Although he had not had the equivalent preparation as the other students in his class, he passed the exams when he was able to study full-time.
- Once the students arrive at university, financial costs are not the greatest challenge they face. If they have good results from their BAC exam which they take at the end of high school, they only need to pay the equivalent of $30.00 to register. As well, the state provides a small assistance for those students. However, there is no possibility of getting student loans, so the students still need either family support or else financial opportunities in order to cover their living expenses.
- The greater challenge for many students is the sheer number of classmates. Some first year programs have over 2,000 students. Rather than dividing them into smaller groups, these 2,000 plus students sit in the same conference hall to take core classes with one professor. Those students who are at the back may not be able to see what is written on the blackboard, but that is not an acceptable excuse for not passing an exam!
- The professors often make the first year extremely challenging in order to reduce the numbers in the upper years. One student told me in first year there were over 1800 students, but only 500 (less than one-third!) passed into second year!
- Along with huge classes, the students must also put up with very irregular schedules. One program puts out the course schedule week by week rather than semester by semester. From one week to the next your classes may be offered on different days or at different times. This means that it is very difficult to have any other commitments (such as regular work hours.) Classes can start as early as 7:00 AM or go as late as 9:00 PM and there are frequently classes or even exams on Saturday mornings.
- Many times the professors engage in other activities to augment their salaries. When there is a conflict between teaching at the public university and other activities, it is often the university that is deprived. Therefore, in certain classes it is difficult to get all the required hours in or to cover the required content before the exam period. This also affects the students’ ability to be successful in their program.
- Several years ago, there were a series of strikes by students who were dissatisfied with a number of things on campus. As a result, many programs no longer follow the usual academic calendar. Some students graduate from high school in July and wait an entire year (June of the following year) to begin their studies. What is particular difficult about this is that the students are not contacted and given a date for the beginning of their program. It is their responsibility to keep track by visiting the campus regularly or by asking another student who is on campus to check for them. One student came to Ouagadougou (from her home 400 KM away) for a wedding and then stayed because the program began a few days later!
- Many of the students do not have computers. It is possible, however, for a professor to make reading material available only electronically. One student finally had access to the material needed to prepare for an exam three days before the exam. While he was not able to read all of it, he got enough information to pass.
In spite of these many challenges, our students are succeeding in their studies. They face a great deal of odds with courage and faith. I am very proud of them.
The organization of the elementary and high school system in Burkina Faso:
Primary school (not counting kindergarten) is six years. At the end of primary school, the students write an exam. Those who pass are allowed to go on to the next stage. They are awarded a Certificate: abbreviated as CEPE.
The next stage is called “college” and lasts for four years: 6, 5, 4, 3. At the end of the level called “third” they write another exam. Those who pass receive the BPC or Brevet and are allowed to go on to the next level. ) It is not unusual for a student to take this exam several times. Many students drop out at this point if they are not successful.
The final three years are taken at “lycee”: 2nd, 1st and terminal. At this point, the student is oriented into a particular area: arts (history, geography, languages), sciences and maths, or business (secretarial or accounting. The student who continues on to university will be streamed into programs that correspond to the courses he/she took at lycee.
At the end of the third year, the students write a series of exams (including a four-hour philosophy exam!) as well as taking oral exams in certain classes. The students who pass are awarded a Baccalaureate and may go on to university. It is not unusual for a student to take this exam several times.