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Eight years ago, St Mary’s Catholic High School, Chesterfield, built a small primary school in one of the poorest countries in the world. Last November, Sr Susan Richert, Chaplain at St Mary’s, visited the school and writes about her experiences.

“I landed in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, with the hope of being able to visit our school – Ecole Sainte Marie in Titao, which is in the north of the country near Mali.

After eventually clearing passport control and having been finger printed, I walked through customs and was met in the intense heat by Fr Terry Madden, the priest who started the project, the Director of Education and the headmistress of the school.  After a good night’s sleep, we headed up to Titao.  Three hours good going on a tarmac road, followed by a further hour on a dirt track to the school.  I saw the poverty of Burkina Faso and began to understand why it is one of the poorest countries in the world.  Vast tracts of land, small population, no industry, just people (usually women) with hoes, sickles, some goats, a few cows.  One of the greatest needs in Burkina Faso is for technical expertise.  Oh, there were a couple of rabbits in the back of the truck – to breed with those already in the compound in Titao.

“On arrival at the school, we were welcomed by the children who lived too far away to go home for the siesta period.  They were delighted to see us and it was humbling to be so welcomed.  I was to stay with the community of Sisters who also, like my own Congregation, have a particular devotion to the Presentation of Our Lady.

Sr Susan chats with pupils

Sr Susan chats with pupils

“The next few days were full of meeting children, being entertained, going to Mass, being presented to the local Catholic community, engaging with the school staff, the parent-teacher committee, clergy, community leaders, parents, the regional commissionaire, mothers of future children, grandmothers.  My greatest fear was the language – Burkina Faso is French speaking.  However, this provided much laughter and didn’t really get in the way.

“Our school now has 251 children.  Most are in the first two classes.  Then, we gradually lose the children, until in Class 6, there were only 23.  This is due to the need for the children to work to help earn an income and because the families are not able to afford to continue to send them to school.  There is much we can do to continue to provide a safe environment and good equipment.  What stays with me is the realisation that these children and their families have no one else but us.  If we do not maintain this school, the chances of the children being educated would be very small.  There is no other charity that they can turn to.  I was particularly upset by the fact that in the months of June/July, because the government had not given them sufficient food and they had no money left, the children had to go hungry.  I swore to myself that this would not happen again.  The school pays two women the equivalent of 8 euros a month to cook the children some lunch.  Each child pays 23 euros a year for their uniform and to help with copy books, chalk etc.  Due to the dust and lack of resources, the children need a new uniform each year.  At the moment the Government has taken on paying all the teachers’ salaries but this may not last.

“One child whose home I visited, walks for an hour to school each day and back again.  I asked the parents why they sent their child to St Marie’s – the response was that the results are good.  Indeed, in 2012, the school got the best results in the country and has received several awards for its excellence.  The other important statement made by the parent was that there is something different about the children who go to St Marie’s.  I believe the spirit and ethos of St Mary’s High School is alive and well in Ecole Sainte Marie.  We need to ensure it continues.  We need to keep sponsoring children and perhaps even give parents some money so that their children can stay on in school as long as possible.

“Since returning, we have collected almost £800 in sponsorship of children.  Please contact me at srsusan@stmaryschesterfield.org.uk if you would like to sponsor a child.”