Big Man on Campus

071515_Sibanor_School_Abdoulie Jallow (14b)
Abdoulie Jallow isn’t like the other sixth graders. He’s twice the height of his classmates, often sits with the teachers at recess and has to work after school to support himself.

Abdoulie is 25 years old – and finally back in school after a 12-year hiatus. He’s one of a handful of adult students at his primary school. A few of the students never attended school as children for various reasons, some attended Arabic school and now want an English education and others dropped out as Abdoulie did.

After Abdoulie finished fifth grade as a child, he dropped out under pressure from his father who demanded that his eldest son quickly learn a trade so he could contribute financially to the family of nine. Abdoulie moved in with relatives in the city and tinkered around in various odd jobs from welding signboards to peddling clothes, but there was no substantial work for the 12-year-old.

Eventually, he moved back to his village and tried to find work there, he says. Some days, he helped his family on the farm or made charcoal, but mostly, he sat around watching his friends finish school and start careers.

“I see all my friends working and I am just sitting here, doing nothing,” he says. “Some of my friends, they don’t even value me because I know nothing, I don’t learn. At times, I feel like I did not have even one friend to go to. I was alone.”

He says he knew the only way to change his story was to go back to school, even though it’d probably be the most difficult thing he’d ever done. His concern about completing the coursework after not being in a classroom setting for so long quickly melted away though, and he became the star student, just as he always was as a kid. Abdoulie found not much else had changed in the 12 years he was gone. His favorite subject is still math and he is once again in Mr. Ensa Jarju’s class – coincidentally the same teacher who taught him in fifth grade as a child.

Another thing that hasn’t changed: Abdoulie’s father is still unsupportive. In hopes of maintaining a relationship with his father, albeit a fractured one, he moved out of his family’s compound to avoid the disputes about his education. Abdoulie is still in touch with his family but he now lives nearby with a friend. He keeps up with his odd jobs after school in order to support himself. He also recently learned to sew and is a novice tailor on the weekends.

071515_Sibanor_School_Abdoulie Jallow (9b)The 25-year-old sixth-grader, who is roughly 6 feet tall, towers over most of the teachers let alone his classmates. He says the students initially teased him, which was one of his biggest worries when deciding to go back to school.

“Once I told them my story, they all feel for me,” Abdoulie says of his classmates. “Now, they all like me.”

He says he dreams of becoming a doctor, but can already foresee some challenges about making it a reality. His village high school doesn’t currently offer the specialty science courses he would need to start in a medical degree program at Gambia University, and he doesn’t think he could afford to move to another village where he wouldn’t have friends to rely on.

He says he’s trying not to worry about all that for now though; he plans to take everything one step at a time. The next step? Seventh grade.

“I have a long way to go still,” he says. “Six more years.”

Hopefully, by the time he finishes middle school, an opportunity will be available for him to take the science courses he needs at his local high school. Or, he says, he will think about pursuing a different career path.

“The most important thing now is just to finish school,” Aboudlie says. “I love being in school because I know that will help me in the future.”