Elevating the Amazigh language and its speakers

Article Summary
The program in Morocco has brought Amazigh language-based education to thousands of rural Moroccan children over the last 13 years.

The project, which won one of the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) awards this year, is an education program from elementary schools that is tailored to local culture in Morocco. At this point, 61 schools have been built that are involved in the association’s community project. Its programs aim to develop skills and to reflect the culture of local communities, particularly the Amazigh community. Teachers attended additional training to enable them to provide support for the families of their students as they try to track their children’s progress. The project, started in 2000, has helped around 15,000 students, of whom 500 were elementary students. Additionally, 300 families living near the schools have received financing for small business ventures. The association’s domain of work expanded beyond Morocco into other African nations such as Senegal, Congo-Brazzaville and Mali. Leila Mezian Benjelloun explained that the project has saved thousands of children from the perils of inadequate education and injustice, be they in Morocco or elsewhere in Africa. Al-Hayat met with Benjelloun, the recipient of one of the WISE conference awards. Here's the conversation:

Al-Hayat: What does participating in WISE mean for you?

Benjelloun: The annual international conference for innovation in the field of education organized by the Qatar Foundation is the product of efforts exerted in different international educational organizations that work to improve the quality of education. It is also an occasion to exchange successful experiences and to recognize them. It allows the WISE network to open up to more experiences, educational organizations and those experts and decision makers from different countries who work in these organizations, be they developed, developing or impoverished.

Within this context, the Moroccan Bank Association for International Commerce for Education and Environment attended in 2012 via the director of the project to observe the proceedings of the WISE conference in order to make its decision to participate in this year’s conference. In doing so it has secured its good reputation and the high quality enjoyed by nationally and in African nations that have benefited from it.

Al-Hayat: How did you receive the news that you had won?

Benjelloun: After we were nominated for the prize, gave the necessary information, presentations, recommendations and procedures an international television channel visited some of the schools and interviews the administration, teachers, students, parents as well as those individuals who benefitted from the social development services offered by our association. Then, WISE-certified experts inspected certain of the details of the project. It became evident that the program complied with all the conditions in terms of education innovation, going beyond that to improve education performance in disaffected village regions that are hard to confirm. Thus, we knew we were capable of winning.

We proudly received the news that we had won the prize; it was no surprise to us.  We did not doubt for one moment that we would be deemed the winners this round, serving to increase our confidence in the credibility of the organization and our conviction of the judging committee’s objectivity.

Al-Hayat: How did you all come up with the idea?

Benjelloun: When the Moroccan Bank Association for International Commerce for Education and Environment was created in 1995, it was necessary to give a clear and specific priority to the education and environmental missions that had been laid out by the association itself. It chose to concentrate its interventions in education on pre-school and elementary school to be able to work closely in revamping education rather than working with all stages of education that would necessitate a more general handling of issues. Further, we chose to work in village regions where education is minimal or nonexistent and fragility prevails.

By merely explaining the program, the association reached out to scientific assembly comprising Moroccan and foreign university professors to set the foundations, identify those who would be involved and the work methodology to be followed. This process is what created the program with its teaching methodologies, local partners, financing techniques and partnership agreement for a period of five years with the Ministry of Education in 2000 that was renewed in 2005 and then 2010.

Al-Hayat: The educational services of your program target remote villages and poor and marginalized segments of society. How was your program accepted in these regions?

Benjelloun: Before creating any schools in the network, an educational map study is carried out to learn of the areas that are in greater need of an educational map. Once a place has been identified, the residents are contacted, particularly those who represent the local population, sometimes referred to as the notables, to discuss the most appropriate place to build a school and to include them in its administration after it has been built. [Garnering] acceptance for the schools does not face any problems so long as the official school available is far and there are enough children.

Receiving good basic education in poor rural regions is a challenge for children and their families all over the world. In this context, the presence of pre-schools and elementary schools plays a vital role in guaranteeing that generations of youth will have the opportunity to receive an education that is suited for their lives and communities.

Al-Hayat: What are the biggest challenges you face?

Benjelloun: The biggest challenges we must overcome are the availability of a sufficient number of teachers who meet specific academic, occupational and social specifications who are willing to work in villages. When there are those who meet these criteria, we have a hard time replacing them with equally qualified professors when they are obliged for social reasons to move back to work in official schools outside the network.

Al-Hayat: How do you involve the local community in this educational atmosphere?

Benjelloun: The association is trying to provide parents and guardians of students in each school with the means to improve their quality of life with microloans and a formation that offers them activities to supplement their income and projects to fight illiteracy. It does find certain difficulties in convincing [people of] the efficacy of this aid, particularly concerning being repaid installments from loans or giving preference to women and girls in the program to fight illiteracy and assigning loans for cultural reasons. The reason for all of this may be that the association insists on avoiding it to support dependencies and to give women the opportunity to achieve financial and social independence.

Al-Hayat: It is well-known that your project has taken on supporting elementary education in Morocco, particularly in teaching the Amazigh language to children in villages. How do you evaluate this experience?

Benjelloun: Amazigh is a language spoken in a number of North African and Sahel countries as well as in the Canary Islands for thousands of years. In Morocco there is a high percentage of Amazigh speakers, having become an official language in the Moroccan constitution along with Arabic since July 2011 after having merely been a national language before.

The Moroccan Bank Association for International Commerce for Education and Environment stipulated in 2000 among its basic goals to have the Amazigh language included in school curriculums. Three years later, it was decided to that the Amazigh language would be included in public elementary schools by virtue of a royal decree issued by the Moroccan monarch, King Mohammed VI. This decision was embraced by all components of the political scene in the country. After 13 years of creating the first schools of the network, and after the graduation of eight classes of students, it has been confirmed to the association, the Ministry of National Education and to the parents and guardians of students in the program that teaching Amazigh is a logical, positive and beneficial decision. If politicians believed that teaching three languages to children in elementary school, including their mother tongue, is difficult for them, studies have shown in various organizations that this is incorrect and that learning multiple languages poses problems for adults, but not for children.

Al-Hayat: What has been the distinguishing effect left by the association nationally and internationally, especially in its branches in certain African countries

Benjelloun: When the schools were created, there was no other official form. Thus, parents of students who come to these schools now or who are in secondary or university stages of their education, do not hesitate to attest to the association’s good qualities. Our schools saved them from ignorance and opened the doors of knowledge to them and paved the way for them to move up socially. As we celebrate those alumni who succeeded in obtaining their high school diplomas, they have chosen to form a network alumni association of their own accord.

In addition to recognizing students, many of those who have benefitted from social support have been able to improve their qualities of life and become liberated from their forced ignorance. The organization is proud of the many testimonies it has received from them as recognition and gratitude from them for the positive effect the services of the association has had on their lives and the lives of their children. After the network schools opened in Senegal, Congo-Brazzaville and Mali, it became apparent that these schools acted as an impetus for official neighboring schools. Those who benefitted from them are proud to be part of the network, especially those in Senegal and Congo where it has existed for more than ten years.

Al-Hayat: Are there going to be future programs for

Benjelloun: Of course, there are new schools being built as well as studies being carried out of the needs for several places for educational services and new African school projects. The association’s primary concern is to improve educational services in already existing schools by improving teaching capacities of instructors and the administration, as well as by improving methodologies and occupational focuses. We also strive to equip multi-purpose halls in every school with more technology and digital devices. The association is trying to expand its social services to the population surrounding each school and to help alumni families from the network to provide the bare minimum of basic needs to continue studying in secondary and higher education.

Found in: schools, morocco, moroccan society, minorities, infrastructure, education systems, education

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