When Ryan Misler decided to start the Baobab Senegal Education Initiative Inc (BSEI) in 2019, he already had many years of experience with aid organizations behind him. He had worked as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco from 1997 to 1999 and as a Fullbright Research Fellow in 2011. Additionally, he had over 10 years of teaching experience at the primary, secondary, and university levels.
The idea for BSEI came to Ryan while he was on holiday in Senegal in March 2019 with his good friend and current BSEI board member Elie Deu. While visiting Lac Rose (the Pink Lake) he met a young girl, Saly who would become the catalyst for starting BSEI and focusing on girls and women’s education.
The story goes that after giving Saly 1000 CFA the girl’s mother approached Ryan to ask if the money was just for her daughter or for all the dozens of children there: while the equivalent of only $2 it was a significant amount to the women who work the lake carrying 50-60 pound buckets of salt harvested from the Lake for the equivalent of $8 a day.
Saly at lac Rose that day
Upon being swarmed by the other children Ryan realized he could not give every child 1000 CFA. Ryan felt he should have known better than to give such a significant amount of money to a little girl. Ryan’s embarrassment, however, led him to ask himself how he could actually do something for all the kids at the lake that day: the seed for BSEI had been planted. Saly’s parents are both on the BSEI board in Senegal.
It’s a mid-June Wednesday afternoon when we hop on a call with Ryan and his wife Jessica Haines. They’re in their home in Maine, USA, and look happy and excited to talk about the project, even if it’s barely 9 am there. We talk about the education system in Senegal, the work they’re doing, and their upcoming projects.
- You decided to start BSEI after your trip to Senegal in 2019 and after meeting Saly. What did you see was missing there?
Ryan Misler: There was a huge gap in access to education between girls and boys. The ultimate goal of BSEI is to close that gap, for both girls that are still in school and also for women, as there’s a large gap in literacy between men and women too.
- Why is that?
RM: In Senegal education is compulsory, but there are many fees that families need to pay for their kids to attend elementary or middle school, like supplies, clothes, etc. For most of us here in the US those fees are minimal (anywhere from $100 to $200 a year), but for a family with lesser means in Senegal, that’s a large expense.
If a family that may lack the means to send all of their children to school and has both boys and girls, often they make the difficult decision of keeping the girls at home and keeping the boy(s) in school. There is a strong push from the government to close this gap, but it’s a slow process. In the meantime, many girls are falling through the cracks of this system and aren’t finishing school. This is not the only reason for the gap but it is an important one.
- And how is BSEI tackling this?
RM: With our sponsorship program, we’re currently sponsoring 19 girls in 3 different towns. We work with single-parent households, low-income families, etc. We pay all the fees for their daughter to attend school and buy them two new outfits at the beginning of each school year. One of the things that attracts young girls to drop out of school and start working is the idea that they can start making some money to buy stuff like new clothes.
Originally, buying clothes for the girls wasn't necessarily part of our plan but it became very clear that this could hold a big appeal. This was the case of Mane Saar, the first girl we ever sponsored. Mane had dropped out of elementary school to start working as a live-in domestic for a family in Dakar. She eventually came back home and she’s now in the equivalent of 7th grade here in the US.
The things we're focusing on right now are bringing back the kids who have dropped out of school and keeping them in school. Another problem for many girls after graduating middle school is attending high school. In the case of Mane Saar for example, when she graduates, the nearest high school is very far away. Parents don’t always feel comfortable allowing their daughters to make a long trek to and from school twice a day.
- These are the main things that prevent girls from attending school?
RM: Girls start school at a higher rate than boys in Senegal, but they finish elementary school at a lower rate. At some point, they start to drop out and this becomes more pronounced in the other levels. Our goal is to find out what are the mechanisms preventing the girls from continuing their education. Financial reasons are a common issue but not the only one. Sometimes the distance from their homes also influences the decision. And many other things we're trying to figure out.
- You also have a very exciting project for this summer. Can you tell us more about it?
RM: Yes, this summer we’re bringing five girls to Long Island, New York to participate in a summer camp. They’re coming from the middle school in the Lac Rose region. They will act as student cultural ambassadors while attending the camp.The main goal is to improve their English while having a cultural immersion, but also to allow them to travel and encourage them with their education.
It’s still a pilot program that will hopefully lead to something bigger. It’s self-funded at the moment, through private donations and sponsorships.
- Apart from your aid in educating young girls, you’re also working with some women’s literacy programs. How do these work?
RM: We’re currently working with buildOn, another organisation that builds primary schools in regions of Senegal that lack them. In addition to that buildOn supports literacy programs for women. BSEI will go into a buildOn community that would like to extend its adult women’s literacy program. With the essential elements for the literacy program in place, BSEI can fund a second program for a fraction of the cost of the initial program. The literacy program for women is a two-year program, and seasonal. These rural communities rely largely on agriculture, so the program runs from January to June so they can be involved in harvesting and planting the rest of the year.
Jessica Haines: Last time I was there, I talked to some of the women from the village of Thiendene that are participating in the literacy program. It was truly inspiring. They told me that after taking the literacy classes they felt they could now contribute to the household budget, they could do math and understand basic finances, and they could take the bus to town and read the bus schedule. They felt a sense of autonomy and empowerment.
We tend to think of the educational experience from youth to a certain age and then extending based on just personal interest. But there is growth that can happen later on in life. And then, ideally, experiencing the benefits themselves, they will encourage and support their daughters to continue their education.
RM: This support from the women is fundamental to what we do because in the end, all change needs to be generated by the community. Too often aid agencies will go in and tell the community what it needs, and that’s usually not sustainable. If the community is not involved in the process and in addressing their needs, the chances of creating something sustainable are pretty low.
- You’re also working on a birth certificate program. What does this mean and how does it work?
RM: Kids need to be registered and have civil status to attend school beyond the elementary level. The most obvious way is at birth, through birth certificates. Being born in rural areas, sometimes their parents don’t understand the importance of this, however. Our project manager, Mama Diop came up with the proposal to provide civil status, with a focus on girls. This project currently lacks funding but has the potential to have an especially significant impact.
We would facilitate bringing officials to the village and register anyone who hasn’t been registered. We would combine that with an educational aspect for the parents with an emphasis on highlighting why the civil status is so important. In the case of girls, not only for educational purposes but also because it gives them access to health services provided by the state that are crucial for women’s health.
- How can we help with all of this, on an individual level?
RM: People can certainly donate through our website but we also encourage them to check out what buildOn is doing and to support them as well. I tell people that I never understood this phrase of every dollar counts until now, all donations are very appreciated. It’s also about spreading the word about what we’re doing and about the needs of these girls in countries where there’s an educational gap. We focus on Senegal but there are lots of places.
I will also always encourage people to go to Senegal and experience its beauty, and its people. It’s a country that defies in so many ways, so many of the negative tropes and images that are portrayed in western media.
J: On the fashion end, it’s a country where women feel so comfortable with being female and feminine, often sewing their own clothing to show their individual bodies in a way that shows it off and makes them proud. You feel like you bloom there as a female by just being exposed to this feminine and sensual energy.
You can check BSEI’s website here and see all the work they’re doing to help women and girls in Senegal.