Alessana Hamadou dropped out of school this year at 13 when he was promised a cow, in this rural part of Burkina Faso where owning his own cow outweighs completing his education.
His hometown of Yucouta is in the northern Sahel region near the border with Niger and Mali, where schools struggle to keep classrooms filled as many parents pull children out early, notably girls.
AdvertisementThe scrubby, hot region -- one of the least developed in one of the world's poorest nations -- is inhabited mostly by Peuls, or Fula, and Tuaregs, nomadic tribes known for cattle herding.
Boys like Alessana are encouraged to help with the herds and girls are married off young -- a scenario not unlike many parts of rural Africa.
"My father gave me a cow when I left school, he also bought a bicycle for me," said the youngster proudly.
"He told me that he would give me a steer every year if I kept to cattle herding and helped cultivate his land."
Ibrahim Kaba, the head of the school in Yacouta, close to Dori, the Sahel's main town, said teachers, non-governmental organisations and authorities have been fighting this trend in the last few years.
"When we ask the parents they say that it's the child who no longer wants to come but if we probe a little, we find out that it is with the parents' consent that a child leaves school," he said.
"They leave to do the housework or for early marriages, especially the girls," he explained.
Most local women marry between the ages of 12 and 15. "From that age we lose them because their husbands refuse to let the girls attend school," Kaba said.
"We sometimes have classes with only five students for 'Year Five' (10 to 11 year-olds) when they were with 20 or 30 in 'Year Two' (7 to 8-year-olds)," the headmaster said.
Schools also tend to be seen as Christian institutions in a mainly Muslim region with a strong Islamic identity, fueling fears they could drive children away from their faith.
Stories circulate that even students who finished school could not find work, prompting parents to pull them out to learn skills early on.
To better Burkina's overall literacy rate of 29 percent, according to the UN development index, the government introduced a "Ten-Year Basic Education Development Plan" to boost school attendance to 70 percent by 2015.
This requires special measures in areas like the Sahel, where only 19.3 percent of children now finish primary school as compared to 68.8 percent in the country's center where the capital Ouagadougou is located.
"To 'recruit' children for 'Year One' (6 to 7-year-olds) we go to the local authorities to find the civil registry," said Kaba.
"When we come to a village we call a meeting where we read out all the names of the children of school-going age. We ask the parents to take them to school and tell them its an order from the local authorities," he added, saying the method had "lots" of success.
Some villages have set up school brigades, manned by students themselves, to check on absenteeism.
"When a child is absent, the students are supposed to report to the teacher who will report their parents to the local authorities. The parents are then ordered to take the child back to school," said Saidou Barry, the regional director for elementary schooling.
The international aid group Oxfam has focussed efforts on girls, who as elsewhere in rural Africa tend to have lower literacy and school attendance rates than boys.
For the last two years it has sent Oxfam-employed "model girls" who finished secondary school door-to-door to explain to parents that an education not only got them their jobs but did not prevent them from getting married.
This local initiative is starting to pay off, according to school officials who said the number of children who enrolled at the start of the school year doubled, while early school leaving dropped from 20 to 10 percent.
Regional education inspector Bokoum Sikiki is considering other initiatives, to address both religious and occupational concerns.
"We could reserve Thursdays for children to learn to recite the Koran," the Islamic holy book, he said.
And "school now starts at 7:30 am, the time when the cattle are watered. We could change the hours and have school run from 9 am to 4 pm," he suggested.
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