Our Biro Hub
The village of Biro is outlined by a sprawling tributary to the Black Volta River which envelopes it at every turn. In the dry season, the jagged terrain sets a test for your bike’s suspension but is easily passable. In the rainy season, the water that floods the riverbed cuts access to the village almost entirely. Travel by car or minibus (known as trotro) is not possible and it takes a team to carry a motorbike across. Most villagers have no option but to wade through it.
For a community that is already a victim of its isolation, when the rain comes it effectively becomes an island. Villagers struggle to transport goods to sell in the nearby town of Babile and travelling tradesmen are discouraged from making the journey in; Vincent, an ATE-supported goat trader is forced to carry his bleating goods over the stream in a basket balanced above his head. Rain or shine, Biro’s challenges are compound, complex and testing to those who live there. For generations, few have experienced anything but the toil of subsistence farming and the pendular fate of the season’s yield.
One elder uses a proverb to describe life in Biro: “when you are being bitten by ants”, he says, “you move away from the source to get rid of them. It does not make sense to stay at the source and try to get rid of them there.” When Covid-19 hit and schools closed, Biro’s youth did just that. Maxwell, assistant headteacher at Biro Junior High School, points out that while many left home to work in the south, the overall impact is complex: “for some pupils,” he says, “the pandemic was actually a good thing. It gave them time to work to raise money for [senior high] school. Others, however, feel they no longer need school and have spent money on other things. They have not returned.” When two former students roar by on a new motorbike, he laughs, “yes, some have even bought bikes. They now have more valuable possessions than their parents.” Whether saving money for further education or spending it all on status symbols, it’s clear that young people in Biro fight to forge a connection with the world outside.
This makes teachers at Biro JHS, none of whom are local, especially important role models in the community. But while students look up to them, their relationship with the job is strained even at the best of times; it’s a struggle for the education authority to find staff to replace them, so teachers remain in position for much longer than usual. “When will the guest house be ready?”, they joke from time to time. Weathered by a Catch-22, their determination for their pupils’ future is all the more extraordinary.
The school stands bright and proud on a barren plane at the top of the village and is a beacon of hope for the community. We’ve run our school feeding programme at Biro JHS since 2018 and it’s had an exceptional impact. School attendance increased from just 12 enrolled students to 105 at its highest point. Days spent farming or climbing trees for fruit came to an end and children could switch on, think, and discover their academic interests. The pandemic set this back but slowly, the school is filling up again and the students’ pride in education is shining through. When a storm destroyed the kitchen roof under which our cooks make lunch, the pupils took it upon themselves to rebuild it themselves. Teacher Maxwell tells us that, “the children who spent the most time rebuilding are those without parents, those who have the very least.”
With our Hub model approach, we’re determined to ensure Biro never feels castaway and in search of support again. In 2021, we piloted our first Senior High School sponsorship for girls at Biro JHS. We were delighted to sponsor eight girls on the scheme which covers the fees (approximately £900 per student) required for three years at school. It’s been an invaluable leg-up for the girls who are now developing the skills to fulfil their aspirations, but it’s not without its own challenges. Bertha, a schoolgirl on the scheme, became pregnant during the pandemic and recently gave birth. With her education on pause, the child’s father absent, and her mother working down south, we’re supporting her and her family with food and a comfortable mattress to sleep on. While Bertha will by no means be the last teenage pregnancy in Biro, our regular presence on the ground will ensure that no child feels alone when it happens.
In the run-up to the 2020 election, Biro was finally linked to the electricity grid and received investment for a medical clinic. But still, without any mobile phone signal for miles or a birthing facility at the clinic, Biro’s connection with the outside world is far from secure. That’s why, with the delivery of our programmes, we’re focused on building bridges across the community so that its people are no longer islanders, but active members of a prosperous and connected region.